Divide & concur?
While the government continues to make the claim that setting is best for children, research is inconclusive. Crispin Andrews finds out where ASCL members stand on the issue of setting versus mixed-ability classes.
Writing in the Sunday Times several months ago, Minnette Marrin claimed that mixed-ability teaching has been largely responsible for the collapse of English education, and maintained that schools should be required to group students into sets according to ability, whether they liked it or not.
It was the latest log thrown on the still burning debate of whether students should be taught in mixed-ability groups or divided according to ability.
Some argue that mixed-ability groups force teachers to focus learning around the lowest common denominator and in doing so hold back the more able pupils.
On the other side are those such as Jo Boaler, associate professor of mathematics education at Stanford University in California, who believes that setting by ability is harmful. Putting young children from poorer backgrounds in lower sets, she argues, consigns them to a psychological prison which breaks their ambition and inhibits progress.
Taken as a whole, research findings are equally ambiguous. In 2001 a study carried out at London University's Institute of Education concludes that high achievers in maths at the end of key stage 2 make better progress in key stage 3 sets whilst lower achievers do better in mixed-ability classes.
In science at key stage 4 the trend reverses and in English no significant differences are found.
More recent academic research from several leading UK universities, published in October 2005, discoved that gifted pupils make more progress when taught separately, but also that those in low-ability groups can become demotivated.
The findings of a 2001-04 investigation undertaken by the General Teaching Council are also far from clear cut. Whilst increasing the extent of setting is not going to provide an effective solution to the problem of underachievement, researchers conclude, mixed-ability teaching alone isn't providing an appropriate learning environment in which all pupils can reach their full potential.
In the midst of all these ideological and academic vagaries, the government's viewpoint at least is clear. As far back as 1997 the very first New Labour education white paper Excellence in Schools encourages schools to set unless they can demonstrate better than expected results through a different approach.
Last year's white paper proved that government policy is not likely to change, and more recently
Conservative leader David Cameron supported grouping by ability.
Setting for a third
According to last year's national DfES figures, 35 per cent of key stage 4 lessons are set by ability, 36 per cent in KS3, but only 10 per cent in KS2.
Figures vary significantly between subjects, with setting in 80 per cent of all maths lessons and 60 per cent of science lessons.
If the opinion of commentators and academics away from the education chalk face remains polarised, it appears that the views and practices of ASCL members are more in tune with the government on this issue.
Although generally in favour of ability grouping, Nigel Hoggarth considers reliable, detailed data on pupil performance essential if a school is to set effectively.
At Mayfield School in Portsmouth where he is deputy head, new year 7 students are put into sets on the basis of information collected from its family of primary schools during the post-SAT summer term.
To gather this data, national strategy transition units are used, alongside predictive MIDYIS tests. This, he argues, enables Mayfield teachers to more effectively design suitable targets for the students in their groups.
"With a smaller range of abilities to cater for, teachers can focus more closely on exactly where students are and where they need to go next," he says.
"Managing communication with parents thoroughly means they too will know their children can progress, whatever level they are currently working at."
Easier for teachers
Personal experience of teaching mixed-ability classes leads Mary Bland, head at Coseley School in Dudley, to agree. In her days as an English teacher, she remembers Saturday and Sunday afternoons spent almost religiously designing teaching resources and learning materials for the wide ranging needs of students in her classes.
"With a husband and family to think about now, I wouldn't be able to find the necessary time to prepare effectively for a mixed-ability group," she says.
"However committed they are, teachers need a satisfactory work-life balance. Even if I wanted to, there is no way I could justify asking staff to put in so many extra hours."
Within any set there is still a range of abilities, interests and personalities. For that reason, Rob Bray, head at Ilkeston School in Nottinghamshire, believes that the debate over whether or not to set is missing the mark.
More important is ensuring that lessons focus on personalising learning rather than on teaching, while at the same time giving staff the CPD support they need to motivate students and avoid confrontation.
Despite these qualifications however, Rob still comes down on the side of setting by ability.
"Within groups of roughly comparable ability it is easier for teachers to lead learning and manage behaviour effectively," he says.
"We also find that targeting certain types of provision at particular groups also causes less disruption to timetables, than if all students are taught in mixed-ability classes."
At Banbury School in Oxfordshire, the case of one 15 year-old student has reinforced principal Fiona Hammans' belief that setting is the most effective way of meeting the needs of every pupil.
"This particular youngster's thought processes and ideas are usually good, but he has major problems forming letters when writing," she says.
"Often his spelling can be incomprehensible but he still needs to further develop those basic skills, even if it is just to enable him to write a letter of application in the future or read the information on the wall of a doctor's surgery."
For students like this, book learning and classroom study - focusing on what they perceive themselves unable to do - can cause emotional stress and lead to behavioural problems.
However, a vocational life skills course, like the one this student is involved in at Banbury, incorporates basic elements of reading and writing into a more relevant context for him.
"It is about combining personal skills with literacy, or problem solving skills with literacy," says Fiona. She also considers setting as a necessary prerequisite of targeting provision at more able students.
"When last year's key stage 3 science SATs results told us that our more able cohort were not making sufficient progress, we set up an intensive module for this group, focusing on scientific terms and phraseology.
"It is much more difficult to do this sort of thing if students have to be pulled out of several classes in order to access the intervention."
Age doesn't matter
Whilst all the above ASCL members agree that setting by ability is the way forward, in one Hampshire school the concept is being taken to a new level.
Working in a particularly challenging environment, with high levels of social deprivation and low aspirations, led staff at Bridgemary School in Gosport to look for innovative new approaches to boosting levels of achievement and progression.
Working on the premise that ability is not necessarily age related, since last September, students have been taught in mixed age, mixed-ability groupings.
While staff believe that working in mixed-age classes can stretch the most able students, the groupings also allow extra support to be given to pupils who have fallen behind.
As a consequence, bright 12 year-olds could be encouraged to begin GCSE or even A level courses with older pupils, whereas 14 or 15 year-olds with literacy or numeracy problems might share classes with pupils who have just transferred from primary school.
Students are assigned to the level appropriate to their needs. There is an access level which supports students who are not yet confident or able enough to undertake the key stage 3 curriculum, while an entry level curriculum aims to develop achievement across KS3 and build on the level of attainment shown at the end of KS2.
Students can move to level one (which is at GCSE 'E to C') in one, two or all subjects according to ability, whereas level two ('C-A') and three (post-16) are also available should students progress to that stage.
"Organising the curriculum in this way gives us both flexibility and focus," explains headteacher and ASCL member Cheryl Heron. "Rather than putting students into a pre-determined structure we are building the boxes around the individual child, who can then develop at their own pace."
Although all the ACSL members questioned favour setting by ability, this would not preclude any of them from organising mixed-ability sessions if for a particular group of youngsters, in a certain subject at a specific point in their school life, this would enhance their learning experience of those students.
So as the debate continues; it seems that effective and successful school leaders will not be making a simple choice between two ideological extremes. Instead they will continue to decide how best in a variety of different settings and contexts a particular form of organisation will best meet the needs of students.
Crispin Andrews is a journalist who writes for education and sports magazines. He also teaches PE.
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