Early references to Vertical Tutoring and prosocial benefits

Mixed age classrooms of one sort or another have been around from the beginning of mass education, especially when communities were served by lone teachers in one room schools and sometimes when schools (mainly primary) have done so out of pedagogical choice (Little, 2006). The earliest references I have found to Vertical Tutoring (VT) and Vertical Tutor Groups (VTGs) are from 1975. Blackburn refers to it as if it is an established system that a teacher may well encounter, implying that it was neither new nor unusual then (Blackburn, 1975). With regard to prosocial behaviour, he describes the ease and effectiveness with which older students can help younger ones (Blackburn, 1975). Further evidence that VT had a substantial track record by 1975 comes from Haigh, who says that the pastoral systems in schools tend to 'crystallize into two main groups’, horizontal and vertical, and says that most comprehensive schools in Coventry are vertical (Haigh, 1975, p. 115). Haigh goes on to claim that VT is more effective at developing 'ideals of service' and 'co-operation between children of different age groups' (Haigh, 1975, pp. 115-116). However, Haigh also admits that ‘there is as far as I know no clearly researched demonstration that one sort of school organization is educationally or socially more effective than another, and such are the other variables involved in the differences between school and school, that proper investigation of the matter would be difficult if not impossible.' (Haigh, 1975, p. 118). This not only confirms the long history of VT, but also points out a difficulty for educational researchers which has not been resolved, that of evaluating the effectiveness of one system against another when all other things can never be equal.

In his contribution to a 1980 book on pastoral care, Michael Marland lists the advantages and disadvantages of both VT and what he calls single-age tutoring, but which I shall refer to elsewhere as Horizontal Tutoring (HT). Several of the advantages relate to doing activities and the promotion of prosocial behaviour, but so do some of the disadvantages. The ones which refer to behaviour, wellbeing and activity are:

Advantages of Vertical Tutor Groups (VTGs) to activities and prosocial behaviour

    Disadvantages of VTGs to activities and prosocial behaviour

      (Marland, 1980, pp. 55-56)

      From this list it seems that although pupils in single-age tutor groups have a greater choice of age-peers with which to make friends, there are more opportunities for active helping in vertical ones. Behaviour management is also easier because there is less concentration at one level of maturity or type of behavioural issue. Of course this ‘dilution’ of problems is not the same as more prosocial behaviour but it is possible that the result is that the classroom climate feels more prosocial, and this itself may exert an influence on group norms. Related to this point is the fourth advantage about the difficulty a pupil might have in establishing themself (Haigh, 1975), which I interpret as referring to the greater uncertainty about who will be friends with who, group membership and social status. This resonates with my own experience as a pupil and a tutor and I believe that it is one of the obstacles to more peer-to-peer prosocial behaviour. Meanwhile the difficulty of planning activities that will appeal to and be beneficial for a wide variety of ages and capabilities is a problem that one online post also referred (schoolhistory, 2010).

      Interestingly, in a much later book, the authors make no mention of VT at all (Marland and Rogers, 2004). However, they do talk in some depth about the potential for pupils to develop personally and socially through working together in the tutor group and also the need for the tutor to manage this carefully in order for it to succeed (Marland and Rogers, 2004). They recommend that the tutor plans these activities as they would anything in their subject class (Marland and Rogers, 2004) and go on to give several examples of student-led activities which have a tutor-group-as-community focus and/or encourage reflection, including, students planning a celebration or reviewing how well they had worked together on a group event (Marland and Rogers, 2004). One of the activities they thought most beneficial was the induction of newcomers, because as well as the obvious benefit to the inductee, it gave the inductors a chance to reflect on their own school experience (Marland and Rogers, 2004). Of course, although Marland and Rogers do not mention this, the induction of new members and the departure of old ones is something that happens rarely and infrequently in most horizontal tutor groups, where the majority of pupils start and leave all together in Year 7 and Year 11 or Year 13. However, in vertical ones it happens every September when several new Year 7s will join. If these are such regular and fertile opportunities for the practise of prosocial behaviour then the activities with which VT schools approach this are worth looking at

      Some of the literature the English school ‘house’ systems also sheds light on the roots and prosocial potential (and limitations) of Vertical Tutoring. The house system is a vertical division of all pupils into a number (in my experience usually around 4-6) of mixed age ‘houses’. This is common in both horizontally and vertically tutored secondary schools, but it has particular significance in the latter. In most secondary schools, which organise their pastoral system horizontally around year groups, houses exist purely for the purposes of intra-school sport and a reward system (Wardle, 1976) - just think of Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff who competed for house points in the
      Harry Potter series of books and films. However, in VT schools the mixed-year houses are a natural extension of the mixed-age tutor groups and they often form the basis for organising pastoral care, with ‘Heads of House’ replacing ‘Heads of Year’ who oversee the tutors and tutor groups in their house.

      The house system has its roots in English public schools and was first used well over a hundred years ago (Wardle, 1976). Wardle
      takes an extremely negative view of this, claiming that public schools created the house system as a means of turning boys’ existing propensity for tribal loyalty towards the schools’ own ends, channeling it into things over which the school had some control, like rugby, rather than rebellion (Wardle, 1976). He goes on to claim that they succeeded in this but that it was by indulging the boys’ antisocial values rather than nurturing something more positive.

      Wardle is scathing of competitive sport in ‘modern’ (1970s) schools in general (Wardle, 1976) and if one believes that human values and behaviour are even partly the product of culture then it can be argued that dividing pupils into groups and encouraging them to compete promotes the same culture and values that give rise to racist attacks, football hooliganism and war (Hogg and Vaughan, 2008; Tajfel and Billig, 1974). An alternative view from the fields of social and evolutionary psychology is that the need to belong to a group and the tendencies to cooperate with one’s own group and to compete against other groups (when there is something to compete for) is to a large, but individually varying extent, wired into human ‘nature’ and that what culture does is shape how those groups form and the norms that govern their cooperation and competition (Cartwright, 2008; Pinker, 2002; Ridley, 2004).

      The nature versus nurture debate is far from over and it is not within the scope of this thesis to settle it but based on my nature, nurture or (I think) a bit of both, I am inclined towards the latter perspective. Therefore what interests me is which activities in VTGs are best able to channel individual and group behavioural tendencies in a more prosocial direction, and I discuss this further in this chapter (see 2.6).