A secondary school in Hampshire is to become the first state school in England to allocate all children to lessons by ability rather than age.
From September, pupils at Bridgemary School, in Gosport, will be taught in mixed-age classes in a radical initiative aimed at stretching the most able and helping pupils who have fallen behind.
The experiment abandons the decades-old convention of teaching in age groups and is being closely watched by the local authority, the Office for Standards in Education and other schools.
Under the plan, which signals that streaming by ability is back in favour with head teachers, bright 12-year-olds will be encouraged to begin GCSE or even A-level courses with older pupils.
Conversely, 14- or 15-year-olds with literacy or numeracy problems will share classes with pupils who have just transferred from primary school. Cheryl Heron, the head teacher, said the radical departure was necessary to raise standards because most pupils at the school fail to gain five good GCSEs.
“This is a challenging school in a deprived area,” she said. “We need to do something about raising standards and to do that, we need to try something different. About a quarter of children are getting five A* to C GCSEs but that is not good enough. We need to offer these children individual curriculums in smaller groups.
“We have children here who are capable of doing A-level work but we also have pupils who still struggle with the basics. Their ability is not necessarily age-related.
“Some are bored because they are not being challenged in classes with their own age group, while others are turning off school because their lessons are too difficult for them. The normal way of doing things is not getting the most out of children.”
Pupils who are currently in year groups will be allocated to one of five levels, depending on their ability in each subject. All pupils will take accredited academic or vocational qualifications, whatever their level. Ability is assessed by results in national tests taken at age 11, teacher judgments and children’s performance in tests which the school carries out when they join.
Termly assessments of the classes, which will have 20 pupils each rather than the current average of 28, will be carried out to gauge whether children should be moved up or down in various subjects.
Mrs Heron said the school, which has 1,100 pupils, had tested the plan when it transformed traditional tutor groups into mixed age “learning groups”.
“We found there were no problems with having older and younger children together. In fact, we were surprised about how well they bonded and learnt together,” said the head, who was described by Ofsted as an “excellent leader who was driving the school forward”.
The school’s plan takes streaming to a new level and is part of the resurgence in support for differentiating by ability, once condemned as anti-comprehensive.
Many schools had moved to mixed-ability classes because it was claimed they would help less able pupils by removing the stigma of being in the lowest set and encourage them to aim for the standards achieved by more able classmates.
As schools at the bottom of the league tables have struggled to raise standards, however, a number have returned to streaming in some or all classes. It is estimated that 60 per cent of secondaries now employ some form of streaming.
Dr Faysal Mikdadi, the chair of governors at Bridgemary and an Ofsted inspector, said: “A lot of people will say we are moving away from the comprehensive ideal. I don’t think that is true and anyway I could not care less about an ideal; I care about whether these children are achieving their potential.”
Dr Mikdadi said that the school would ensure that older children would not feel “odd” being taught with younger pupils. “It is part of our job to make sure we work against any stigma of ‘being with the babies’. We have found that if you tell the 14-year-old that they are helping the 11-year-old to learn it works very well.”
John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: “This takes the notion of personalised learning a stage further than any other school I know of.”
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said that mixed-age classes had been used at small primary schools and for GCSE classes at some secondary schools, but “we are not aware of any secondary school doing it on this scale, across the whole school”.