More to say on mixed ability…

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Having written an article for TES on how to teach mixed ability, and now looking through the messages and tweets  responding to it, I thought I should respond myself.

It’s always hard cramming everything you need to say into 600 words, let alone a tweet. There were certainly many things I would have liked to have expanded on in the article and I hope I can here.

Firstly, we have to begin with drawing a line in the sand. What do we all agree on? I think we all agree that we want a fairer society where the avenues for social mobility are well oiled and being poor doesn’t preclude children from  the same opportunities as more affluent children. Surely in fact, no self respecting teacher doesn’t agree? And this is not the same as saying ‘everyone is a winner’ either, or that any middle class aspiration for ‘the best for my child’ is a negative thing. It isn’t.  Let’s not allow tabloid sensationalism in here. Certainly, in this era of post truth, we need truths.

I will also add that yes, for some schools this question of mixed ability teaching and choice for pupils are old hat; ‘been there, done that’. Well good! I want to hear people say they’ve arrived here and get it, but sadly this is not the case for most schools, so I will continue to bang on about it until it is, and so should the TES.

Here are some key facts on social mobility and inequality in case anyone was in doubt it is an issue:

The UK has one of the worst records for social mobility among OECD nations (OECD, 2010c; Cabinet Office, 2011; Hinds et al, 2012).

70 % of High Court Judges, and over half of senior medical consultants, FTSE chief executives and top journalists went to public schools, though only 7% of the total population do so (Sutton Trust, 2009). Those educated in private schools are disproportionately represented in the most powerful and well-remunerated jobs (BBC, 2011; Cabinet Office, 2011)

 Private school pupils are over 22 times more likely to enter a selective university than are state school pupils entitled to free school meals, and are 55 times more likely than free school meals pupils to gain a place at Oxbridge. At the 25 most selective universities in England, only 2% of the yearly student intake was made up for free school meals pupils (Sutton Trust, 2010c).

(What’s preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence, 2013:3)

 There are of course many reasons why less affluent children don’t do as well and many of these factors are outside the control of schools. We already act as social service outreach much of the time and if your pastoral care manager is anything like ours, caring for and propping up families is now a huge aspect of their daily remit. However, we cannot escape that education at present, in this country is far from enhancing social mobility:

The evidence shows that in the UK, education at best replicates, and at worst exacerbates, existing inequality. Statistics highlight that British children’s educational attainment is overwhelmingly linked to parental occupation, income, and qualifications (EPPE, 2004; Lupton et al, 2009; National Equality Panel, 2010; EPPSE, 2012). Hinds et al (2011) observe that education has the potential to ‘break the cycle’ of disadvantage, and some schools are of course demonstrating that socio-economic gaps can be narrowed (Allen, 2012). However, in the case of the English education system overall, rather than the socio-economic gap for achievement shrinking as young people progress through it, the gap widens . Lindley & Machin’s (2012) recent work shows that, as educational opportunities have grown, so has inequality.

(What’s preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence, 2013:3)

 Now, there is no doubt that educational inequalities begin before school; however, schools should be places where these inequalities are wholeheartedly and very deliberately readdressed via pedagogy, except they are so often not.

In fact, as my article outlined, for a long time, and to my utter shame as a member of the educational community, these inequalities have been enabled and enhanced by a system that has turned a blind eye to years of the same kind of children, sitting in the same kind of groups, given the same kind of second rate education. Granted, things might have moved on somewhat from a decade ago, but far from readdressing these disparate starts in life, education continues now, today in England to widen inequality.

Now, what do we then do with the over whelming evidence that streaming, setting and ability grouping benefit more affluent children and sustain the achievement gap?

Look at some of the data from 2007 regarding less affluent children in ability groupings:

FSM data

(What’s preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence, 2013:17)

I’m not sure data from today regarding FSM and ability grouping is any better; if anyone has any please share it. (Or fund my PhD and I’ll share it after that!) But have no doubt,  lower sets or groups are more often than not populated by less affluent children.

So, what do we do with this evidence then? Some people have simply chosen to shout louder in their unwavering conviction that ability grouping is best, perhaps hoping that all this evidence will disappear if they keep shouting. Well, it won’t.  Is it then OK to say that mixed ability teaching is just too impractical so let’s just keep doing what we’re doing? Should we not even try something different? How can we ignore such compelling evidence:

Boaler & Wiliam (2001) summarise, “The various studies that have been conducted in the UK provide conclusive evidence that setting and streaming create and perpetuate social class divisions among students. They have also shown that students of similar ability are frequently placed in different sets or streams according to their social class….” (p. 177).

(What’s preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence, 2013:17)

We have to face the fact that we are not dealing with this issue in education unless we begin to make change regarding selection and grouping by ability. It will not be solved overnight and it will not always run smoothly, but these are not good enough reasons not to try.

I hear all the worries and objections to mixed ability teaching, but like all things in education: some things work most the time, most things work some of the time, but not all things work all the time. Mixed ability teaching might not work all the time, but on the whole it narrows the achievement gap and works better for less affluent children and those children deserve a chance; they deserve us putting everything we’ve got into redressing the imbalance.

Here are the main benefits from mixed ability teaching that I have witnessed:

  • Raised self esteem of pupils who are no longer defined by being in a labelled group. This is highly significant as the ‘self fulfilling prophesy’ that often dogs under privileged children cannot be ignored.
  • Expectations held by teachers are modified as children, who might present as ‘low achievers’, are no longer restricted to groups with specific tasks, but instead can try anything anyone else can. Teachers certainly need shaking up here; expectation is more powerful than many of us think.
  • Huge improvements in the oracy of some less affluent children as they learn shoulder to shoulder with children often modelling better use of language and articulation. Let’s not forget, learning is highly social and when less experienced learners are in groups with more experienced learners they will often try to converge speech patterns.
  • Improvements in thinking skills of some less affluent children as they collaborate with more able children who are often more experienced in verbalising their thinking skills and thus model these to others.
  • Improvements in whole class ethos as children learn to work together and support each other rather than sit in separate groups.
  • More under privileged children catching up with the attainment of the more affluent children over time.

Now, I have no doubt that in some cases there are children who really need lots more intervention and direct instruction. Yes, it is impractical to put them on that fluency to ‘Blooms’ synthesis type journey. However, do they always need to sit in a separate group? Are they all called something like ‘the lowers,’ or the ‘blue group,’ so that they only identify as ‘that group’?  Can we lessen the ‘baggage of underachievement’ on them? How often are they able to learn alongside more experienced  children?  Small changes will have a big impact here.

Of course, there’s no denying children are well aware of who is behind and who is ahead; this is not about everyone being the same, but we are not helping to redress that imbalance by concretising identities via groups with labels. Remember, that line in the sand and what we want for children; education should not make life worse for children who need more of a helping hand.

If you want to read more from the meta-analysis referenced here you can find it here.

Ability setting – breaking the habit.

There are advantages to being at the bottom of the pile

‘Why is my child not on the top table?’ This is a question I am occasionally asked and for which I have to do everything in my power not to roll my eyes, heave a deep sigh and bang my forehead repeatedly on the nearest table.

The reason I find this question so frustrating is because it is almost always born from a misguided one-up-manship that not only serves to embed attainment differences, but also to reinforce social divisions, and even those of ethnic and gender origin too, as most parents who ask me this are those of white middle class girls. I’ve even been asked to list the other children on this supposed ‘magic table’. Unsurprisingly, I meet with many a furrowed brow when I explain that there is no top table in my class.

Grouping by ability should be a teaching tool adopted in the right circumstances. It should not, as it so often becomes, a method of rubber stamping children because all too often the stamp lasts throughout a child’s education…and beyond.

Contrary to Gove and Wilshaw’s old boy’s world view, setting and streaming in primary schools (and I suspect secondary schools too) is not supported by any empirical evidence whereas teaching mixed ability groups, but differentiating appropriately within them, has proven to be far more effective, both empirically and anecdotally. Not only does mixed ability teaching like this raise the lower achievers up, but it drives the high achievers forward as they secure new concepts faster by frequently having to create explanations for others. Moreover, I have proven all this to myself in my own class for several years.

The key to this is ‘smart differentiation.’ This is achieved by offering differentiated activities to the children to select themselves, but allowing the children to sit in mixed ability groups. The way I do this is by taking the core teaching concept and creating three different activities. I call these the ‘must’, ‘should’ and ‘could’, sometimes I even throw in a ‘would’ too. Then these activities are either in baskets at the front of the class or presented as clear choices in the white board.

At first you always get the children who either underestimate or overestimate themselves (feel lazy or want to show off) but this quickly rights itself as the children don’t like being bored doing things that are too easy or struggling with things that are too hard. Children thrive on learning and progressing through activities, which they can here.

This approach is then set against the instances when ability grouping is preferable, when a skill needs to be learnt at a specific level. This is where ability grouping is helpful, but this leads into the whole skills and knowledge question, which is a whole other blog.

I will finish then by returning to that original insipid question and end by answering it with another I like to ping back: do you mean how is your child progressing?