On the national junior tennis circuit, three types of matches would
provoke intense nerves: playing someone with a lower rating than you,
playing someone you train with in your regular squad, and – more
crucially – playing someone younger than you. Agassi-style aggressive
baseline play, practised again and again in gruelling coaching
sessions, would be replaced by tentative "hacking" – just hitting down
the middle of the court with no pace, fearful of missing.
If you were twelve, losing to a nine-year old was a cardinal sin. Your
reputation on the tour would temporarily be in tatters: a no-show at
the end-of-tournament BBQ would be a certainty. For some, the pressure
was too much: 5-2 down in the first set against a player three years
younger meant sunglasses had to be worn – even in the middle of winter –
to hide the tears that inevitably ensued.
Age-consciousness begins in youth, nurturing the unwholesome attitude towards age in our adulthood. Life has become a race against time, where we believe we have to progress – whether it be intellectually, financially or socially – each year and achieve major life goals by a particular age: promotion by 28, marriage by 30, kids by 35. When we fail to meet this timeframe – a template based on the lives of our parents and grandparents – and our peers do, we become unhappy. Yet, for many young people today, it is extremely difficult to achieve this life model. The market is swamped with graduates looking for the best jobs, the price of properties is so inflated, and finding a partner is more difficult since our time to socialise shrinks as we work longer hours. This obsession with achievement by age in unfavourable circumstances may explain the doubling in the number of twentysomethings who suffer from non-clinical depression over a generation.
It is with children that we allow age-obsession to first develop. Children do not develop intellectually, physically or emotionally at the same rate, yet the way we teach and organise them indicates we think otherwise. Their transition from nursery to primary school to secondary school to college is nearly always according to their age. Even when they are taught in sets, the nearest we get to actually allowing children to learn at their own pace, they are expected to take the same exams at the same age as their peers who are further ahead in their learning.
Parents commonly mention their child struggling to understand what is taught to them as a reason why they don’t enjoy school, get upset and feel low. Letting children study the curriculum and take the increasing number of exams they have to take at an age which is more suitable for them personally may reduce children’s anxiety, helping to halt the startling rise in behavioural and emotional problems, with one in ten children now having a mental health problem. Studies have shown that children’s self-esteem and attitude towards school increases when they are taught in mixed-age classes. It may also drive up standards, reversing the fortunes of the two in five children who leave primary school without the basic reading, writing and mathematical skills and half of all youngsters who do not get five good GCSE’s.
In sports days, 11-year old Linford Christie will run against his peers rather than the faster kids in year 10. Outside school, most clubs will divide coaching sessions into age rather than ability groups: under-10, under-12 and under-14 rather than beginner, intermediate and advanced. Age has become the determinant of how good a child should be. So they become unhappy if they’re not reaching the level they feel they’re expected to reach by a certain age, and get upset if they are at the same level or behind those who are younger. Just like the grown-ups, they are in a stressful rat race, and feel terrible if they are not keeping up.
Looking at ways to increase and normalise mixed-aged classes should be the way forward for schools and clubs. Children won’t get so anxious about being able to comprehend or do something, or keeping up with their peers, when they’re not ready to do so. With mixed-age classes, the stigma associated with being at the same level as children who are younger will reduce. They’ll be happier in the knowledge they have more time to master a challenge, and less embarrassed about being with the younger ones. For the more talented, it will stimulate them if they’re with the older crowd, happier because they won’t be so bored.
Teaching children in mixed-age classes also has other benefits. Children in these classes are better behaved. This probably stems from a natural desire among children to impress those who are older, and be responsible for those who are younger. With more mixed-aged classes, the classroom rather than the gang may become a more attractive choice to the often-fatherless youngster seeking the attention of elders.
Rolling out mixed-age sessions could make children happier, less worried about having to achieve things by a certain age. Mixing the ages would emphasise that it is perfectly acceptable for people to develop at different speeds, achieving things when capable, so it’s not embarrassing to be at the same level as someone younger. Such a message may well encourage the next generation of adults not to have such an unhealthy fixation on their age too.