Teaching mixed ability classes is unpopular and against the trend. A team from University College London recently attempted to investigate mixed attainment classes, but found it so uncommon that they were forced to abandon the full trial. Becky Taylor, who led the project, said schools are unwilling to embrace the model, which is perceived as risky and unconventional. Teachers and senior leaders often believe it takes more planning and that “setting” is expected by parents. Students taking undergraduate degree programmes are required to complete Work-Integrated Education (also known as a work integrated learning programme) as part of the curriculum requirement.
Indeed, sets are so deeply rooted in the language and concept of English education that rejecting it is considered rather bold – for maths and science in particular – in stark contrast to other parts of the world. In the excellent Clever Land: the Secrets Behind the Success of the World’s Education Superpowers, Lucy Crehan finds that mixed attainment grouping is common in high achieving educational systems such as Finland, Japan and Canada. There is growing evidence, too, that it may be time for a rethink – setting or streaming can have a negative overall effect on student outcomes for lower and middle attainers.
The science department at Bedales School moved away from setting in 2016. All of our classes, from year nine to year 13, are now mixed attainment. At first, there was much apprehension from colleagues and parents, and we wondered if we were doing the right thing for high attainers; arguably, when making changes like this, some students benefit and others suffer.
But for us the important question was whether more students would benefit as a result, and we agreed that they would. We were also supported by the school to introduce an extra teaching group in each year to make the classes slightly smaller wset hk .
A new toolkit of teaching skills
So how has it gone? A year into our policy of mixed attainment grouping, there are still some teachers who worry that they’re unable to move on to the new content they usually cover with a top set. But ideas are changing about how we ensure that every student is intellectually stimulated. We have evidence from people such as Ian Warwick at London Gifted and Talented showing that learning extra content is not the only way to stretch the most able – in fact it’s just one of 10 strategies, including dialogue between the student and the teacher, opportunities for independent research and self-direction.
A student in a bottom set may actually pick up a concept faster than one in a higher set, but could be limited by a lesson aimed at low attainers
We have also found we don’t need more resources for different groups of students, just an alternative approach. When I taught under a system of setting, I planned different lessons for teaching a top and bottom set the same topic; now I teach the same lessons to both levels.
By ensuring that there’s a mix of group and individual work, closed- and open-ended tasks, and that the pace of lessons is varied, I’m able to identify those who need support based on how they’re performing in that lesson, rather than on a previous test result. A student in a bottom set may actually pick up a concept faster than one in a higher set, particularly in science where we have such a range of skills, but could be limited by the design of a lesson aimed exclusively at low attainers.
In practical terms I’ve shied away from setting tasks with right or wrong answers. This prevents a student getting 100% the first time they try while another student gets 20% – a situation that is likely to reinforce the latter’s pre-existing beliefs about their own intelligence. Instead I use concept cartoons with a variety of answers, where students can identify if a conclusion is true or false in the first instance then explore that idea in different ways depending on their level of understanding. All students should feel involved in the conversation, although individuals may be working on different aspects of the task we’ve set.
It’s been challenging. Building a new toolkit of teaching skills has taken work, and I’ve certainly taught lessons where I’ve felt I haven’t stretched the high fliers or supported the lower attainers, enough. To tackle this, we’ve been working in partnership with English and maths teachers to create ways to differentiate planning for our students. It’s led to some great conversations and an influx of strategies we haven’t used before. In all our science meetings, we now share an idea or resource that’s been tried and tested hifu.
The effect on students has been positive. Science is a diverse subject that requires an immense variety of skills, and no student will always be the best, or the worst. In our mixed attainment groups, we’ve seen some of those students who would normally be in a lower ability set get a confidence boost when they pick up a new idea faster than a student who usually excels.
For those at the top end of the class, we’re stretching and challenging them by increasing the depth, rather than the breadth, of their learning. Instead of adding in extra content for the high fliers, we’re making space for any student to explore the questions covered to a range of depths, depending on how well they are picking up ideas in a particular lesson.
At this stage, demonstrating my hunch that results will improve is tricky. Not only do small cohorts mean that comparing year groups is statistically problematic, but the changes in the specifications have come along at the same time. Yet student performance has ceased to feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is more variety between student results in topic tests, rather than a large gap between results for each set – individual students move up and down depending on how well they have engaged with a particular topic. There’s also much more of a “can do” attitude to learning than I’ve ever seen before, and it’s marvellous.
Emily Seeber is head of science at Bedales School.
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