Streaming primary school pupils labels them for life

Melissa Benn's picture
Research shows students from mixed-ability schools perform better academically and achieve more social mobility, says Melissa Benn. This piece was published in the Guardian site on Tuesday 9th August 2011.

Long ago, when I started at my shiny new comprehensive, our year group was divided into 12 classes, comprising four ability streams. Most of the white, middle-class children were placed in the top bands while the poor, black or transient pupils were largely put in the bottom streams. By our third year in secondary school, streaming had been abolished in favour of a mixed-ability approach. But the damaging labels endured, throughout our school lives and beyond.

Several decades on, and the wheel has apparently turned full circle. Streaming, the wholesale allocation of children to groups on the basis of a fixed, single ability label, is making a big comeback, part of the retro traditionalism sweeping our education system. According to a recent study from the Institute of Education, one in six primary-age children within the UK is now streamed by the age of seven.

In some schools, the practice is so extreme as to amount to a return of the grammar-school principle. Crown Woods school in south London has caused a furore for its decision to house children in "schools within schools", according to ability, each with its own colour-coded uniform. Fighting has already been reported between students located in different blocks.

But there's a twisted logic behind the Crown Woods scenario. Surrounded by selective or partially selective schools, and struggling to stay atop the league tables, the school is merely responding to the market. In today's competitive climate, more and more schools are caught up in local turf wars, trying to win their share of high-achieving pupils.

Educationally speaking, however, this is pure disaster. Researching the recent history of UK schooling, I was fascinated to discover how much of the 1944 Education Act was based on the IQ work of educational psychologist Sir Cyril Burt, whose research was later discredited.

In the words of one sceptical civil servant of the time, Burt believed "that children were divided into three kinds. It was sort of Platonic. There were golden children, silver children and iron children." Each was to be assigned to different institutions – grammar, secondary modern or the technical schools – according to these rigidly, unimaginative descriptors.

We've come a long way since then – or have we? Certainly, all the current international evidence points powerfully in the opposite direction. The highest-performing and fairest school systems in the world delay specialisation and setting – the grouping of children into different classes for different subjects – until much later in adolescence.

Academic Jo Boaler followed two groups of young adolescents in the mid-90s, one separated into rigid ability groups, the other taught in mixed-ability groupings. Not only did the mixed-ability students outperform those who had been put into separate groups in national examinations, but when Boaler tracked down a representative sample from both schools, she found the mixed-ability group had achieved more social mobility, in relation to their parents, than their streamed peers.

Escaping early labelling had clearly expanded their sense of confidence into young adult life while those who had been streamed talked, famously, of "psychological prisons" from which they never escaped.

Wroxham primary school in Hertfordshire has outlawed all ability labelling, including reference to the all-pervasive national curriculum levels. The headteacher, Alison Peacock, has taken the school from special measures to outstanding status in a few years, and produced cohorts of confident, inquiring learners.

Wroxham is part of an exciting project called Learning Without Limits, which promotes a more open-ended and progressive view of human potential. Such work is particularly vital in the current climate, with so many siren voices declaring "mixed-ability teaching" a complete failure.

The irony, as Learning Without Limits understands, is that even to talk of "mixed ability" is to constrain and categorise, in unimaginative fashion, what we believe the child is capable of learning.

Something vital is at stake in all these arguments, not just about the quality of learning in our schools, but the kind of school system, and society, we ultimately want to foster.

For all its rhetoric about improving the education of poorer children, many of the coalition government's reforms risk returning us to rigid, know-your-place, limiting hierarchies. Now, more than ever, we need to keep alive the theory and practice of rich, alternative visions.

• Melissa Benn's latest book, School Wars: the Battle for Britain's Education, will be published by Verso on 5 September
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Andrew Old's picture
Tue, 09/08/2011 - 11:13

I can't believe anyone is still quoting Boaler as if she is a neutral academic rather than a propagandist for mixed ability. She only does tiny qualitiative studies of anonymous carefully selected schools. The one time anyone tried to verify her work it turned out to be utterly unreliable:

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 16:01

If Ms Boaler has been discredited then perhaps you'd better tell Carol Vorderman and the authors of the recently-published report on Maths teaching. The report cites Ms Boaler as an example of good practice as follows (p57):

"Jo [Boaler] is collaborating with researchers at the University of Sussex to study UK schools using complex instruction. In a project called REALMS (Raising Expectations and Achievement Levels for all Mathematics Students), teachers ask mixed groups to solve complex problems, with different students taking on roles to encourage reasoning and productive group work."

"The teachers involved have been surprised by the quality of the work produced by students they had previously thought of as low achieving. They report moving from talking to the students from the front to an approach whereby they engage students
in collaboration and discussion of complex tasks; which means that they are now able to access the thinking of their students as they work."

"One of the schools is the very successful Parkside Federation in Cambridge. A Year 7 student reflects: ‘Well, we used to kind of just copy from a textbook, like we read through and answer questions and that would be the end of the lesson, whereas here we learn about it all through the lesson and we talk about it.’"

It's encouraging to see a Conservative-produced paper advocating such teaching methods.

Jo Boaler's picture
Sat, 13/10/2012 - 05:04

try reading this Mr Old:

Jo Boaler's picture
Sun, 14/10/2012 - 00:56

Read this to see details of the persecution and bullying that Milgram has conducted and is being promoted on this site by Andrew Old:


Andrew Old's picture
Sat, 13/10/2012 - 07:04

So just to sum up, research evidence has to remain confidential and beyond scrutiny? Any attempt to independently verify results is an invasion of privacy and a violation of human rights? Any suggestion that this is inadequate evidence for pursuing practices with decades of failure behind them is persecution?

I'd be able to take this complaint more seriously if there was any reason to think the research was rigorous in the first place.

Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 14/10/2012 - 07:27

Somebody clearly is absolutely desperate for Boaler's work to be beyond scrutiny.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 14/10/2012 - 07:37

Perhaps it's the other way round, Andrew. "Somebody is absolutely desperate" for Boaler's work to be discredited.

You make the generalised, sweeping statement that the "practices" have "decades of failure behind them". Why, then, did Vorderman's maths report, commissioned by the Coalition, praise Boaler's work (see my post above 11/08/11 at 4.01)? Of course, Vorderman is only giving an "opinion" but that "opinion" seemed to have been based on the views of teachers involved in research conducted by the University of Sussex. But perhaps the teachers' observation that low-achieving pupils had produced surprising results using Boaler's methods is only "opinion" as well.

Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 14/10/2012 - 07:57

Seriously? You want to cite Carol Vorderman?

Given how many times you've attacked other people for not being expert enough on teaching to have an opinion worth listening to, don't you feel slightly embarrassed to be resorting to this?

Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 14/10/2012 - 08:00

By the way, if you are not ignoring me anymore perhaps you could answer my question from a few months back. You referenced a TES article about phonics, and I asked you if you had written it yourself. I believe you have still failed to answer that question. Any chance you could do so now, please?

Andrew Old's picture
Tue, 09/08/2011 - 11:19

My own views on the mess that is mixed ability teaching can be found here:

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 09/08/2011 - 15:15

Andrew - I enjoyed your article about mixed-ability teaching and I recognised some of the scams, although “copying from a book” was a new one. The only time I’ve been aware of pupils being expected to copy chunks of information was when pupils (at a grammar school) were told to write down extensive notes about “Pride and Prejudice” from the board. I would consider that kind of copying to be bad practice whether it was in a mixed-ability or a streamed class. That would apply to all the examples you cited – they would be unacceptable in any class when used in the way to describe.
I would make an exception for group work if pupils are expected to collaborate on a problem but, as you make clear, group work should not be one pupil doing all the work while another “picks his nose”. Of course, pupils don’t work on problems all the time, and there are situations where teachers have to impart knowledge. But knowledge alone isn’t enough – it has to be applied, and that’s where group work can be useful.

Andreas Schleicher of the OECD described what he thinks is responsible for the success of Shanghai students in the 2009 PISA tests: they focus on collaborative and creative learning, and teachers motivate pupils to learn for themselves.

Andrew Old's picture
Tue, 09/08/2011 - 17:37

I am once more shocked at how blatantly you accept anecdotal evidence when it suits you and reject it when it doesn't. Andreas Schleicher's anecdote about teaching methods in Shanghai is not in line with much else that has been written about Shanghai schools. They might be "student-centred" by Chinese standards, but they would appear highly traditional by English standards.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 09/08/2011 - 14:28

It should be remembered that there is a difference between setting and streaming. Setting is when a child is placed in a set for a particular subject based on his/her achievement in that subject. Streaming is when a child is placed in one group for all subjects.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that creating "homogeneous schools and/or classrooms through selection" had little effect on the average performance of a country's education system BUT was associated with a variation in student achievement. "In particular, the earlier in the student's career the selection occurs, the greater the impact of socio-economic background on learning outcomes." OECD also found that "the more schools group students by ability across all subjects [ie stream] and the more frequently schools transfer students to other schools because of students' low academic achievement... the lower the school systems' overall performance." (p13 Viewing the United Kingdom School System Through the Prism of PISA).

Andrew Old's picture
Tue, 09/08/2011 - 14:47

I knew that would be coming pretty soon from Janet.

The problem with that sort of research is the basic one of cause and effect. Do countries have large differences in ability because they stream and set, or do they stream and set because they have large differences in ability? Some other countries manage to do mixed ability whole class teaching even in subjects such as maths. However, even advocates of "mixed ability teaching" in this country don't seem to advocate this here and generally suggest minimising the amount of whole class teaching.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 09/08/2011 - 15:27

The OECD wasn't discussing pupils of differing ability, but pupils of different socio-economic background. It found that school systems which that had wide gaps between the achievement of advantaged and disadvantaged pupils tended to be those that used selection, and, as I pointed out above, the earlier this selection takes place the greater the impact.

I think the key is flexibility, which is why I don't object to setting but do object to streaming. I take your point about Maths, and can't see how one teacher could teach a class with both high achievers who can do complex equations and the mathematically challenged who struggle with place value. However, I'm not a Maths teacher and, as you say, some countries do manage it. My subjects were English and most of the time I taught Sets 3 or 4 (out of five) at GCSE level although I did have one mixed-ability cohort when GCSE began. I also taught GCSE Business Studies (mixed-ability because the pupils opted for it). Oh, and Personal and Social Education was mixed-ability, too.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 09/08/2011 - 19:17

Andreas Schleicher is the Head of the Indicators and Analysis Division at the Directorate of for Education in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. He is the spokesman for the OECD on matters educational. His opinion, therefore, can't be dismissed as anecdotal as it will be informed by data produced by the OECD. His opinion, therefore, carries considerable weight.

However, you say that his opinion does not match other evidence about Shanghai schools. You may indeed be correct as I know little about these schools and was relying on Mr Schleicher's opinion. If, however, you have links to other evidence, I should be grateful if you could provide it.

You say that I "blatantly" accept anecdotal evidence when it suits me. That is not true as I explained when you accused me of doing so on a previous occasion. I have made it clear why I accepted Mr Schleicher's words as evidence. However, if you doubt his opinion you could always email him at

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 10/08/2011 - 10:19

What he said in that article *was* an anecdote which he used to justify an opinion. You are right that this is not the first time you have used informal utterances from Andreas Schleicher as if they were authoritative and as I recall all you did to defend this in the past was to lecture us on how widely accepted OECD research is.

Of course, it wouldn't be quite so annoying if in the past you hadn't attacked other points of view for failing to meet far *higher* standards of evidence and repeatedly failed to clarify what standards you actually believe in. You attacked me for listening to teachers' accounts of what's happening in schools. You attacked Nick Gibb for believing the evidence on phonics rather than listening to all opinions no matter how poorly justified.

It's hard to miss how your standards of evidence change according to whim, and when challenged to clarify exactly what standards you do think should apply you simply ignore the question.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 10/08/2011 - 14:33

Andrew: Mr Schleicher's opinions are informed by research from the OECD. To say they are "anecdotal" is like dismissing the opinions of an expert witness. His opinion (based on properly collected evidence, rigorously analysed) has considerable weight. Even Mr Gove recognises this (although he chooses to cherrypick OECD data, and ignore warnings about the use of the OECD 2000 PISA figures):

"No nation that is serious about ensuring its children enjoy an education that equips them to compete fairly with students from other countries can afford to ignore the insights Andreas’s work generates. Ignoring what Pisa tells us in education would be as foolish as dismissing what control trials tell us in medicine. We would by flying in the face of the best evidence we have of what works."

I find myself in complete agreement with Mr Gove about the high regard in which Mr Schleicher's opinions can be held.

Re your comments about Nick Gibb's misuse of data: I was not attacking Nick Gibb's views on phonics (about which I am neutral) but his denial of the controversy which surrounded the issue. That is why I chose an OTT comment to demonstrate the vehemence of the controversy. My mistake was not making that absolutely clear and so the thread became highjacked into a discussion about synthetic phonics rather than the misuse by a Minister of research.

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 10/08/2011 - 14:57

You just did it again. Can you not understand the difference between someone being in charge of co-ordinating important research, and their every informal opinion and anecdote being considered "evidence"?

Can you not see how this fits in very badly when you are willing to dismiss other informed opinions as being "denial of the controversy", or dismiss the experiences of teachers as "anecdote"?

The inconsistency is the issue here, and you have failed once again, to state what principles you use to acknowledge something as "evidence".

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 10/08/2011 - 17:41

Definition: anecdote
1. a short account of a particular incident or event, especially of an interesting or amusing nature.

2. a short, obscure historical or biographical account

Mr Schleicher's opinion, based on the evidence gathered by OECD and trusted by governments, does not fit the definition of an anecdote. If his opinion about education systems is requested by reporters, politicians, organisers of seminars and so on, then what he says cannot be dismissed as "informal opinion and anecdote". If there are other "informed opinions" which contradict the respected opinions of the OECD, then please provide links.

Definition: anecdotal evidence

1 a: of, relating to, or consisting of anecdotes

2 : based on or consisting of reports or observations of usually unscientific observers

Re: denial of the controversy - it was Nick Gibb who was denying the controversy, I highlighted the controversy. The wealth of differing opinion offered in the previous thread was further proof of the controversy.

As for what kinds of texts I use for evidence, I can only refer you to the large number of links which I provide to support my opinion. The majority of these are from respected and trusted organisations. If you do not trust them, then there is nothing I can do about it. If you have contradictory evidence then please provide links, as requested.

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 10/08/2011 - 18:02

By your definition of anecodote then this, the only empirical evidence of Schleicher's claim, certainly qualifies:

"For example, in one math class visited by Schleicher, the teacher threw out a complex problem that provoked classroom discussion as to how to best arrive at a possible solution"

I *know* you accused Nick Gibb of "denying the controversy" when he looked at the evidence rather than at all opinions no matter how unjustified. That's my point. What Schleicher said is far more dubious and makes no reference to any evidence other an anecdote but you didn't condemn that for "denying the controversy", you quoted it as fact.

I note that you are still unable to identify the principles you use for deciding when something is evidence or not. It is no good telling me to work it out from your links, if I could see any principle at work in your selection of "evidence" other than blatant cherry-picking, I wouldn't have to ask.

W Smith's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 13:31

In my opinion teachers I have worked with who do not like mixed ability classes are those who get frustrated at not being able to just "impart knowledge" to the group of children in the class who can listen, respond and complete tasks exactly according to the knowledge led lesson plan they have prepared in great detail previously.

Any children who cannot access their delivery and lesson plan as they have planned in their heads frustrate the teacher and lead them to say that mixed ability teaching cannot be successful.

When in fact if they had planned the lesson according to the children they are about to teach in relation to the knowledge they want to impart - things would be different.
It is funny how children will always get the blame.
I don't blame teachers either ( I'm one of them) the pressure to train and expect teachers to teach the knowledge rather than the child is the madness that continues to imbue our system.
(And having 1 teacher to 30 children means that chalk and talk is much easier to organise and manage. Why we feel this ratio is acceptable is another question - not many private schools( that have sets) and adult training sessions have that ratio.)

Mixed ability teaching when planned for the children who are actually going to be sitting in front of you, rather than a regurgitated plan from last year or the year before or using the age related ramblings of government produced schemes, is inspiring, challenging and can impart far more knowledge to all of the class. It is the true definition of teaching.

The barmy Ofsted and government backed notion that every child should be seen to make progress in every lesson in every hour of every day helps reinforce setting and streaming because it is much easier to plan a little chunk of knowledge for 30 so called similar children for an hour ,evidenced by a page of their books completed and ticked.

As a teacher you get a great deal of satisfaction from all of those ticks and not having to deal with challenges or coming at things from different angles or taking it to another level. As an Ofsted inspector you can tick to say you have seen progress made by every child as all their books are shiny and complete.

But this is not real progress - progress is cultivated, links are continually being made and refined. Judging progress from 1 hour is beyond ridiculous but is how we appear to want to judge everything from school to tv shows.

Mixed ability will never work when we are training teachers to impart the same knowledge to all children so that they can all reach the same level at the same time. But ironically I believe that more children would reach this level if we were allowed to teach the kids first and then the knowledge.

When we start teaching "children" they and we (society) will be on to a winner until then we will just keep going round and round in ever decreasing circles.

We the adults with all our data, stats, politics etc are making it far harder than it needs to be for our children.

JimC's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 14:06

Whilst I mostly agree with what you are saying about OFSTED and school bureaucracy I've got no idea what you think a good mixed ability lesson is actually like. Perhaps you could describe what happens in a good mixed ability lesson?

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 15:04

I don't really care about whether it is shown on the paperwork or clear to OFSTED, but if you can't identify what knowledge you are teaching to kids then in what way are can you actually be said to be teaching them?

One of the major problems I have with so-called "mixed ability teaching" is that children are often left doing activities, any activities, rather than actually learning.

W Smith's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 16:05

Andrew - of course you can identify the knowledge but it is related first and foremost to the children in front of you. Your argument is so symptomatic of the setting brigade - to you "activity" appears to mean not learning. If you sit in a class of pupils who are ( after being provoked, inspired, set in motion by teacher input) fully engaged in learning - ,without always needing constant input from a teacher, and really analyse what is going on, the learning is immense. But the children might not all come to the end learning outcome or have a good understanding of the "knowledge" that the teacher planned for at the end of that hour, they might have more, they might have less, they might have different - gaining knowledge and being able to use that knowledge is a work in progress.
Just because a teacher has taught a class of 30 something for an hour do you really think they all go away with same understanding of it ready to begin the next lesson at exactly the same place? Imagine if you and I both started learning a new language at the same time , in the same hour every week, would we have exactly the same knowledge as each other at the end of 6 weeks? And that is just 2 people!
And without a teacher assessing the "activity" going on in the classroom and without questioning, talking and observing the learning that is happening for different individuals in the class what is the point of planning for the next bit of knowledge just because that is what all children should be doing this week?
What activities do you consider not learning? - If you say colouring in worksheets - then that is NOT what mixed ability teaching is! If that is what you mean - then that is exactly the kind of activity our teacher training and government prescribed teaching schemes encourages teachers to dole out in an attempt to fit in the knowledge rather than teach the children and that is not the teachers fault.

JimC - talking about a "good mixed ability lesson" in isolation is part of the problem.

Educating children is not about isolated lessons. A third of a class of 30 children will have the personalities, characteristics and developmental ability to soak up anything a teacher gives them - boring or otherwise.They deserve more than just being imparted knowledge and the other two thirds need real teaching to enable them to access the knowledge you (we) so desperately want them to have. So mixed ability learning ( rather than lessons) involves
1. knowing the children who are going to be sitting in front of you that is vital - it is called building relationships and in our system not seen as anywhere near as important as imparting knowledge - funny that considering current state of affairs out on the streets!!.
2. Children being able to work on tasks independently ( A high expectation that takes time from early years to cultivate and should be given top priority in our curriculum - without it you are stuffed and mixed ability will not work and this is a main reason why it doesn't in a lot of lessons and why we have setting because in setting a teacher can chalk and talk and every one can do the same at the same time with the same outcome - easy peasy!!
3. You use the children's previous knowledge and learning to plan your lesson/next steps. Ignore them and you have lost two thirds of them before you begin.
4 Introduce a question/problem related to the knowledge you are teaching. Don't just tell them - today you are going to learn blah blah - they get that every hour of every day and you are not talking to them.
4. Be prepared for how the kids respond AND USE THEIR RESPONSES IN THE LESSON
5. Giving teacher directed instructions of expectations of tasks to be completed completed independently making sure that the children can own as much of that task as possible. They are doing it because they want to and have a stake in it not just because they have to. ( although of course they have to!!).
6. Acknowledging that they are the learners and why they are learning - don't just talk facts.
7. Continuous communication

I am not sure whether these points will be a good enough intro to the art of mixed ability teaching as they are not a prescription for a good lesson - and that is what so many teachers inspectors politicians seem to crave. Everyone wants a formula.

But in my humble opinion that is not good teaching!!
Hope that helps!

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 16:10

Any lesson where pupils are left doing the activities in the way you describe on your blog is a poor lesson regardless of how the pupils are organised. The secret is in the quality of the activities and how they are managed, and that holds true whether the group is mixed-ability or set. The authors of the recent maths report (see above) were so impressed by work being done by Stanford University with mixed groups tin Cambridge that they cited it as an example of good practice, so not all mixed-ability classes are as poor as your blog describes.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 16:51

I was pretty clear that I was describing the sorts of activities teachers end up having to set in reality (as opposed to in an academic's theory), if the range of abilities in the class prevents them from actually teaching. Obviously, the more time teachers have the better the activities can be. But the question remains, why are teachers being forced to put their efforts into organising activities rather than actually teaching directly?

JimC's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 16:50


You seem to be providing tips for good teaching and learning rather than anything specific to mixed ability sets. Bits of it almost seem to be an argument for setting so am I right in thinking that your issue is poor teaching rather than setting?

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 17:43

It is not that children cannot learn from activities, it is just that they learn better from being taught because it allows teachers to plan for learning rather than for activity. There is also the benefit that it is far more likely that teachers can plan to teach for 20+ hours a week than that they can find useful activities that children can work on independently to cover that amount of time. I know I have painted a fairly pessimistic view of the sort of activities that are used, but let's face it, there are only so many hours in the day and if it's a choice between "draw a poster" in some lessons and going without sleep every night, we shouldn't be surprised if teachers choose sleep. It's not OFSTED that's creating the pressure here, it's the idea that activities which children can learn from independently can be found easily when in reality they are unlikely to be found at all for a topic of reasonable difficulty. I'm sure we've all heard of teachers who do wonderful activity based lessons only to discover that, no matter how much fun the lesson is for the kids who like activity-based work, their classes are actually taking an hour to learn what could be taught in 5 minutes.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 18:34

Planning for activity does not rule out planning for learning. If the teacher has planned well and the activity is structured then it is not the case of children vaguely "playing" in order to discover something or other. In the early 1970s the Elfrida Rathbone Society* issued a pamphlet about the effectiveness, or otherwise, of different teaching methods. It concluded that the difference between an effective lesson or a poor one was not the difference between formal and informal, but whether the lesson was structured or unstructured. A good formal lesson (where pupils listened to a well-planned and interesting exposition from a gifted presenter) was effective; a formal lesson where the teacher jumped from point to point in an unplanned manner, waffled and bluffed was ineffective. A good informal lesson, where the children were taking part in a guided activity, and the teacher allowed them to articulate their experience was effective. An activity lesson where the children just played with materials in an undirected manner was not.

The activity must be challenging. "Fun" is a by-product, yet detractors of activity-based learning often demean it as just "playing".

*Sorry, I can't provide a link. It doesn't seem to be available on the web. I lost my printed copy years ago after completing teacher training.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 07:50

If education is deemed to be only something needed to pass exams, then the "tell it in five minutes" approach will suffice. However, if education is more than just absorbing information then Confucius has the right idea:

"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."

Note: the quotation is for illustrative purposes only. It is not designed to be regarded as "evidence" to support my point of view. I happen to agree with it, yes, but Confucius puts in more elegantly than I could.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 19:26

I don't think that anyone has denied the *possibility* of children learning from an activity. It's just hard to see how it can be consistently effective given that it takes up so much of the teacher's time and reduces the teacher's options for ensuring that learning takes places. It's all very well saying that *in theory* a teacher can plan for learning *and* plan activities for independent learning at all levels of ability, it just seems a bit far fetched that it could happen on a day-to-day basis. I can't get across the extent to which my bleak scenario of what happens in mixed-ability lessons is not what would happen in the hands of the least capable practitioner, but what can be expected in mixed ability classes from any teacher that works a full week as a teacher and expects to sleep at night.

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 17:33

Good, I am glad it is not evidence because:

a) I really don't think it is from Confucius.

b) It blatantly isn't true.

c) The point is not that education is "absorbing information", but that it is about learning which requires that information (in the widest possible sense) become known, and known well.

This discussion is in danger of following the pattern of all discussions of dodgy teaching methods, where once it can't be established that it helps learning the justifications just become vaguer and vaguer:

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 19:51

Variety is key - one wouldn't expect a teacher or children to be involved in guided activities all the time. And it's essential that activities are discussed - experience alone is not enough, it has to be articulated. A balanced diet is as necessary in a classroom as it is in nutrition.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 17:55

Again, you appear to have completely ignored my question about what you consider to be good evidence, and yet come up with evidence from a source that I cannot imagine you ever accepting as reliable if it went against your argument.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 18:43

Are you referring to the unreliability of the maths report? It contains sound recommendations, some conflicting ones (like recommending greater autonomy for teachers but welcoming the Education White Paper which gives Mr Gove greater powers than any other previous Secretary of State) and some which run counter to the desire of the authors to raise standards (like expecting all pupils to "pass" GCSE grade C in maths - this grade is supposed to be the equivalent of the old 'O' level, it obviously isn't, if every pupil is expected to "pass" it). It is a thorough piece of research but it contains some dodgy statistics (discussed on a separate thread) which could undermine its conclusions.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 19:13

I am referring to the fact that you are quoting opinions from a party political document (which may well refer to research, but clearly not only to high quality research) as if it was authoritative. At other times you have dismissed opinions based on evidence as not reflecting "the controversy". I am challenging you to demonstrate that there is some underlying principle to your selection of evidence, so as to indicate that you are not engaged in cherry-picking backed up by double standards. Quoting more opinions as "evidence" of any given position doesn't clear anything up, in fact it just makes the whole thing even less clear.

W Smith's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 18:10

Exactly Jim - good teaching is about the children in front of you - not picking them off into sets ( by many dubious means) before you start teaching them. But it is very difficult to do under our present system and "traditional" views of what to teach rather than how to educate children.
I am not sure what you mean by being " an argument for setting" though? What are you looking for when you want something "specific" to mixed ability teaching? I think it may be because the "tips" above are often acknowledged but payed lip service to in our curriculum and education system especially in a classroom that is set.
Setting makes it easier to impart knowledge , produces good results for some, produces short term data for tables and enables some else to have the responsibility for teaching the rest!
There is a fear that the children who succeed through setting will be failed in a mixed ability classroom because learning may not appear as neat and rote. I would argue that in a mixed ability class the learning for all will be deeper and more significant to society as a whole. AND knowledge gained would be far greater. But it will not be as easy to collect data and tick boxes on every hour after hour. It is not paint by numbers. The system needs to acknowledges that we need to teach children how to learn not just what to learn ( Mr Gove would not agree). Differentiated work sheets are not mixed ability teaching - but are quite often how it is interpreted and how teachers are taught to teach.

But ..... I haven't got any huge pieces of data or stats to prove it!!!!!

I can see that the craziness of our school systems state, private, free etc etc - are not making things any simpler and all hanker after success through data rather than success for the children.
So getting results through the easiest options to bring in the dosh will be the driving force for what happens in our classrooms. Setting means that you can guarantee some good results whether you set by class or by admissions. But by not thinking about how to educate "all of our children" to live work and succeed in our society, we are not even beginning to have the real debate.

JimC's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 07:56


You seem to be saying that setting is a symptom of poor teaching.

This seems a bit implausible to me. With regards to your considerations of what good teaching is I can't see any reason why a good teacher can't build relationships or get children to work independently on a task if they are in a set rather than a mixed ability group. Some of your considerations, such as a teacher outlining expectations for a task, are surely easier to achieve if the students are set.

I'm not saying that setting doesn't present its own set of problems but a poor experience in terms of the activities on offer isn't one of them.

Alan's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 13:13

Good teaching is no use if the fabric of the educational system is flawed, which it is. Theories of the mind, and factory education are at fault, not teachers.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 19:39

It's not so much that you need data or stats to prove it, it's that you need an argument to make it sound remotely plausible. At the moment the gap between the outcomes you suggest and the methods used to achieve them is so great that it looks like mixed-ability teaching is half-way between wishful-thinking and magic. We can probably all picture a fantasy mixed-ability lesson where there is really deep learning and no dumbing-down, but in my time in teaching I still haven't seen one of these lessons even when sent observe teachers who specialise in activity-based learning. Forget trying to prove it with facts and evidence, I would settle for a real-life example which wouldn't make me think "hang on that wouldn't work, and certainly not every lesson". I gave a link to my examples of really bad mixed ability lessons earlier, could you give examples of *plausible* or even real, mixed ability lessons that don't dumb down?

Alan's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 13:01

We do need stats because there are no plausible explanations for decades of educational failure. Higher regard for academic over vocational is flawed to begin with – take a look at recent success rates from the top % of society’s intelligentsia. Mix-ability is just that, it’s a range of abilities that don’t fit underneath an asymptotic bell curve irrespective of the underlying maths that juggle continuous probability beyond 3 standard deviations. In other words, it’s a distortion to say that ‘intelligence’, IQ, g, ‘whatever’, is normally distributed in the population because the statistics were invented to shape education, then to quantify and categorise thinking in its image, they do not measure a diverse range of abilities, that is why there needs to be a complete paradigm shift in education to capitalise on what all kids are good at, as individuals.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 20:02

Andrew - re quote above about Boaler. I wasn't quoting the maths report as if it were authoritative. I was showing that the authors (note, the authors, not I) thought she was creditable enough to be quoted as good practice. I wouldn't know one way or the other. I thought it was funny that someone whose research into mixed ability teaching had been discounted by an academic study was being used to support ideas about maths teaching in a document commissioned by the Conservative party. Of course, it could be that those who discredited her are outnumbered by those who believe her research to be valid. There's obviously some controversy here.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 20:42

It's a report with Carol Vorderman's name on the front. How creditable does one have to be to get mentioned in it?

Incidentally, are you now suggesting that we determine the validity of research by counting how many people are taken in by it? I really can't keep up with your new and different ways of assessing the quality of evidence.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 07:39

Andrew: I really can't keep up with your new and different ways of deciding whether what I say can be classed as evidence. Please read my post again: "I wasn't quoting the maths report as if it were authoritiative". I'm surprised I have to repeat the statement - I would have though I'd made it clear that I was using it as evidence that someone who has been discredited by one lot of academics is being used by another lot to support their views.

And as for Ms Vorderman being on the front cover, it was the Conservatives, and Mr Gove who covered her with fullsome praise, who made much of her credibility. Ms Vorderman may well be an excellent mathematician, but she is more well-known for being on Countdown picking numbers out of a tray to stick on a board.

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 17:42

I'm not "deciding" how you use evidence, I am asking you how on earth you decide that it is valid. As things stand you do appear to cherry-pick and also try to shut down debate through use of double standards. It would be nice if you could either a) establish that this is not the case by explaining what you *are* doing or b) stop doing it.

You now appear to be (again) using the "some people disagree" argument as grounds for ignoring inconvenient facts or arguments you can't answer. Can you understand how such an argument, if accepted, would count against all the things you say as well? In fact it would probably count against almost any claim that anybody could ever make.

W Smith's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 15:21

Jim - setting is easier for the teacher for a one hour stand alone lesson, where for the child and teacher the previous hour will probably bear no relation in subject knowledge to what has gone on before.

Setting is nothing to do with the child, you are right when you say it is easier for the teacher. Teaching to the one hour lesson is really at the heart of why there is the continued debate over setting/streaming/mixed ability. If you want a formula one hour lesson with a set of children selected from some kind of criteria it doesn't necessarily mean it is poor teaching. But it does mean that poor learning will happen ( as any kind of teaching) but ignoring this and arguing that setting is the best way to teach children is not really understanding why we are teaching children in the first place.

In a year group of 300 children split into 10 classes of 30 being taught in one hour segments for 5 days a week, which set would be easiest to teach? Which set would carry the most points for the school? Why?

In a year group of 300 children organised into 10 classes based on teacher assessment, personal and social, friendships, gender etc, being taught in small groups through out the day with high expectations of independent challenges set by teachers and themselves to be an integral part of their learning, which class would be easiest to teach?

I can see you looking in horror at the last mixed ability organisation as it is so alien to our traditional system!!! BUT it is a very powerful way of teaching that does not just happen overnight - children need to be taught how to learn, to be independent, to have high expectations of themselves and their own learning from a very early age and then - yes magic does happen!!!!!
To ignore the mechanics of learning for children is doing them and us in the long run a huge disservice. When children know how to problem solve, think, reflect, ask questions and listen to the "wise one" at the front the amount of knowledge and their ability to use and extend this knowledge is amazing. And setting becomes a flexible tool that can be used as a powerful way of moving small groups and individuals through any tough spots.

I have and will continue to group small numbers of children for some activities and challenges based on yesterdays assessment but to deny a group of children access to a wide range of inquisitive peers and alternative points of view and think that they can only achieve what I have "set" them to achieve does not fit with my experience of how children learn.

Have you witnessed the consequence of setting/streaming for many many of our children who are not in top sets?

Have you witnessed the consequences of setting/streaming for many many of our children who have been in top sets? ( I'm thinking politicians, bankers etc here ) Maybe having lots of knowledge isn't the key to growing up to being a responsible member of society? I wonder if the knowledge they gained during their education would be having different consequences on our society now if they had had the privilege of being in a mixed ability environment during their school years?

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 17:46

You still appear to be repeating your claims about outcomes without any plausible explanation as to how they could be true. The more you repeat something that sounds like magic, but ignore the requests to explain "how" the less credible it becomes.

Incidentally, I personally love teaching bottom sets in Key Stage 3 and I have frequently seen the positive consequences of setting.

JimC's picture
Sat, 13/08/2011 - 06:37

"Jim – setting is easier for the teacher for a one hour stand alone lesson, where for the child and teacher the previous hour will probably bear no relation in subject knowledge to what has gone on before."

Does this mean you are arguing for changes to the school day?

"...not really understanding why we are teaching children in the first place."

I think this is the source of our disagreement is here. I'd like to think I'm improving childrens abilities and even interest in my subject although the pressure of examination passes and league tables sometimes hinder with this process. Either way I've found this much easier when they are in sets. Why do you think we are teaching children?"

"which class would be easiest to teach?"

I suppose the answer you are looking for is that mixed ability groups are the easiest to teach although as Andrew said you've yet to explain how one goes about this.

"children need to be taught how to learn, to be independent, to have high expectations of themselves and their own learning from a very early age and then"

I don't see why these things can't happen in sets.

"And setting becomes a flexible tool that can be used as a powerful way of moving small groups and individuals through any tough spots."

I'm a bit confused now - so when mixed ability classes run into trouble we should resort to setting?

"Have you witnessed the consequence of setting/streaming for many many of our children who are not in top sets?"

I think there are two problems the most serious is that groups of lower ability children are stuck with groups of badly behaved children who will conspire to ruin lessons if they are not dealt with properly. Also (and much less serious) I think the ranking of various sets too public which is an issue for some children.

"Maybe having lots of knowledge isn’t the key to growing up to being a responsible member of society?"

Of course it isn't.

"I wonder if the knowledge they gained during their education would be having different consequences on our society now if they had had the privilege of being in a mixed ability environment during their school years?"

Are you blaming schools for the banking crisis?

W Smith's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 18:35

Andrew - tell me more about the positive consequences of setting - especially long term.
What kind of plausible explanation would you like and what kind of truth are you looking for?
What kind of answers to "how" do you want me to try and explain to you? ( I knew that using the word magic as a description of watching learning happen would provoke a very traditional response but I risked it just to see!!)


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