“This is the first time we’ve talked to each other,” says Sophie. “It’s because we are doing an activity. In the other sessions no one said anything, though a couple of the younger students have stopped to say hello to me in the corridor.”


Sophie is a prefect and she is one of several sixth formers taking part in a vertical tutorial at King’s College Madrid on a Friday morning.  Consisting of around 24 students randomly picked from Year 7 to Year 13, the group is making paper cranes as they discuss World Peace Day and pay tribute to the Japanese girl Sadako Sasaki who suffered the effects of the US atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and made 1,000 symbolic origami cranes before her death.


The teacher is taking a back seat. The students, all from the same house but not the same year group, are in control and after just over a month of half-hour sessions once a week, they have taken the massive step of opening up to one another and interacting, having to some extent swept the conventional hierarchies aside.


Vertical tutoring has been around for about 20 years and has gradually been adopted by a number of UK and international schools to help maintain a supportive, family feel in big schools where students might otherwise find they are hemmed into their year group and rarely venture out of their comfort zones into the micro world beyond.


Now a buzzword in educational circles, the idea is to regularly bring together different age groups for a short period of time in an effort to break down age barriers and stimulate a more natural and integrated school environment in the form of a miniature self-supporting society.


Each school experimenting with vertical tutoring approaches it in a bespoke manner. At King’s College Madrid, the students are grouped according to their house, but within each house there are 10 groups with no criteria other than the group includes students from each year.


During their half hour session, they can discuss upcoming events, ways the school might improve, current affairs and topics that are up for analysis and debate. Everyone’s opinion counts even the voice of the youngest group members.


“They were shy to start with,” says Head of Creative Arts at King’s College Madrid, Sarah Garrison. “That’s normal as they have totally different priorities, but that all seems to melt away. They all listen to each other and there’s no animosity.”


According to Ian Robinson, Subject Coordinator at King’s College Madrid, “The younger ones are not scared to say more than the older ones do. At first, the older ones seemed to think they were superior, but they’re learning. It should help mix things up.”


Emerging from their vertical tutoring session, two Year 7 students, one girl and one boy, expressed different degrees of enthusiasm for the initiative. “It’s really cool because we get to know people from other year groups,” the girl said while the boy conceded that it helped him stop being so shy.


Innovative, and even revolutionary, the scheme will take some time to show results, according to King’s College Madrid Deputy Head Paul Crouch who has been its principle advocate. “Before the summer when we had a trial week and the students were all in their vertical tutor groups for the first time, they were all saying, ‘What’s going on? This is crazy!’” he recalls, adding that it could take until Christmas before the majority of students come round to the idea.


“The number one thing is that they feel awkward,” Paul explains. “And that’s because they’re not in their comfort zones. But that’s one of the reasons we’ve done it. Why should they go through school in a comfort zone when we’re actually preparing them for life beyond school when they will have to interact with new people of different ages? This is about developing those interpersonal skills, building confidence and working on how to facilitate discussion, making sure there’s respect for other people’s opinions. But we won’t necessarily see the benefits of it for a couple of years when the kids have got used to these habits.”


It is also a chance to exercise leadership skills, irrespective of age. Alvaro, for example, who played the role of Danny in the school’s recent production of Grease is not yet a prefect, but explains that he had to take over and do the talking because in his vertical tutor group, the younger ones were keeping their cards close to their chest.


However, if prefects do choose to lead, this is a golden opportunity. “Initially some of them didn’t want to do the vertical tutoring groups, but now they are starting to realise that it’s good training for them. What a great thing to talk about in an interview later down the line – if it was difficult and how those difficulties were overcome.”


With students from all over the world at King’s, vertical learning is also conducive to bringing out individual identities in an age range that is often intent on homogeneity.


“When Diwali [the Hindi Festival of Light] starts, there’s a chance for students from a Hindu background to talk it,” says Paul. “My kids are from Vietnam, Australia and Thailand and I’d like them to be able to talk about their backgrounds. It’s a way of diluting the dominant culture and allowing students to be a window onto global culture. Every moment in the school is a learning opportunity.”


Out in Panama, meanwhile, King’s College is still small enough for a kind of vertical tutoring to work through the house system alone. As Head of Administration Alison Donnelly says, “We have our Crown, Lion, Knight and Shield House days in sport and art. This way all the students in the Houses get to know each other across the school and gain a greater sense of belonging.”


By Heather Galloway

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