Stories + Views
No template, says Ofsted chief, just so long as you avoid mixed-ability teaching, says DfE
It’s encouraging that Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw said, “There will be no OFSTED template which compels teachers to do things they wouldn’t normally do. We need to celebrate diversity, ingenuity and imagination in the way that we teach.”
However, this diversity isn’t extended to teachers with mixed-ability classes. Sir Michael acknowledged that it’s possible to teach mixed-ability classes and differentiate between pupils but it was incredibly difficult. However, the Department for Education (DfE) told TES:
“Ofsted will mark down lessons where there is no differentiation between high and low attainers.”
It’s unclear why the DfE answered TES’s questions about Ofsted – the inspectorate is supposed to be independent.
Although Sir Michael explicitly said, “This is not a judgment on mixed ability as opposed to setting or streaming”, his remarks were interpreted as being a sign that mixed-ability classes would be censured by inspectors. According to the Daily Telegraph, inspectors have been instructed to “crackdown on schools that fail to stretch the brightest and weakest pupils by placing them in mixed-ability lessons.” No recognition here that skilled teachers can successfully differentiate between pupils of differing ability in the same class – primary school teachers do it daily. According to the Telegraph, the “brightest and weakest” can only be stretched in classes set by ability
The Mail went further. Under a heading, “Mixed-ability classes ‘are holding back bright pupils’ says head of education watchdog”, the paper reported that although schools can’t be forced to place pupils in sets according to ability, headteachers are likely to “rethink their practice of mixed ability classes for fear of being marked down in future inspections.”
ConservativeHome went further still. A blog accused the “Left” of trying to silence Wilshaw by not mentioning his critique of mixed-ability teaching. The blogger said the “Left” was “completely ignoring the scandal that our education system squanders 20% of our talented youngsters.” This is a misrepresentation of what Sir Michael actually said. He expressed concern about the 20% (or thereabouts) of pupils who attained Level 5 in their Key Stage 2 tests but did not achieve grade B or higher in GCSE. He blamed this on a combination of factors not just undifferentiated mixed ability teaching. The other factors he cited were entering GCSE early, low expectations in schools of pupils and a failure to track the progress of pupils.
Whether it’s possible, even desirable, to “differentiate” in lessons which are normally mixed-ability such as art, PE and Personal/Social/Health Education is unclear. Differentiation in these subjects is through outcome but there’s no recognition by DfE that this is possible. Primary school classes usually contain the full range of ability – there will be times when the teacher will set different tasks for different groups but there will be others when the same task is given to the whole class but the teacher will expect the standard of work produced to match each pupil’s capabilities. Under the new Ofsted regime, the latter lesson would likely be downgraded.
Concerns have been expressed about the competence and experience of Ofsted inspectors. This raises the question whether inspectors will recognise differentiated teaching in a mixed-ability class when they see it. Or will they, like the Daily Mail, define differentiation as setting and downgrade any teaching, however ingenious and imaginative, which is found in a mixed-ability class?
No template, then? Just make sure pupils are in sets.