How far down the egalitarian path should comprehensive schools go?

Nigel Ford's picture
Having heard some of the debate on the recent Policy Exchange about grammar schools (although the acoustics weren't great) I felt Fiona could have done with someone more on her wavelength in her corner.

Believers in the comprehensive school system oppose private and grammar schools, not least for their use of selective exams which determine their intake creating a social apartheid, yet do we not give our opponents an advantage if we argue for mixed ability classes in comprehensive schools?

I'm a great believer in discipline, team sports, school uniform and setting according to ability in most subjects apart from Humanities where I don't think the ability level of pupils matters so much when teaching or absorbing the subject.

I believe that kids outcomes are maximised if they are taught with other pupils of a similar level. It must be frustrating for the progress of a quick learner to be slowed because his/her peer can't take in the information and must make it more difficult for the teacher to do his/her job effectively. Furthermore I'm not sure this situation is in the interests of the slow learner who could be left behind. Is it more difficult for the teacher to know where to pitch his/her topic if the class has a broad spectrum of abilities?

I know the evidence from some countries points to the benefits of mixed ability teaching, but as a culturally different nation I'm not clear whether that system is best for us. I think the argument that a potential troublemaker who's not interested, hindering the advancement of others is not without foundation, and if he/she is taught with like-minded people in the bottom set with a teacher that can meet those needs, would it not be advantageous to everyone involved?
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Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 23/10/2011 - 09:21

I couldn't agree more. Mixed ability teaching just doesn't work:

I would make a couple of points though.

When considering the evidence from other countries we should distinguish between the absence of setting and the use of mixed ability teaching. If a country is socially very homogeneous, has an excellent education system right from the first year of schooling, doesn't believe in "inclusion" at all costs of those who need specialist help and keeps children back if they fail a year then they are likely to have a much smaller ability range in each year group. Such a country will probably be able to avoid setting. However this should not be considered "mixed ability teaching" as it may, nevertheless, teach children in classes with a very narrow ability range. For this reason you are absolutely right to suggest that we are, as a nation, in a very different situation to many countries with supposedly mixed-ability classes.

Secondly, we should be very careful not to take at face value people's claims to be egalitarian. It is one thing to support a comprehensive principle that argues for a high quality academic education for all ("levelling-up"). It is quite another to support a comprehensive principle that says a high quality academic education is an unfair advantage and access to it should be restricted and instead every child should be forced to endure a dumbed-down, child-centred, mixed-ability, progressive education (levelling-down). We should be careful not to confuse these two positions and should be wary of people who might appear to support the former but actually support the latter. The easiest way to tell the two positions apart is the level of denialism about the state of our schools. Supporters of the levelling-down position deny that the Behaviour Crisis or dumbing down exist in state comprehensives and argue that inequality is caused by middle class access to good schools. Supporters of the levelling-up position argue that we need to improve the education system and that inequality is caused by the bad schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 23/10/2011 - 09:56

International evidence shows again and again that those countries which achieve the best educational results overall tend to be those which are most inclusive: where children are not segregated in different schools either academically or geographically (for a longer discussion see my comment on the thread linked below). But as Andrew points out it is important that there is sufficient support and specialist help for those pupils that need it. And there might be subjects, such as maths and foreign languages, where setting would be necessary.

PISA in Focus 6 discussed the effects on education systems of students repeating grades. It concluded that:

1 High rates of grade repetition can be costly for countries.
2 In countries where more students repeat grades, overall performance tends to be lower and the effect of social background is greater.
3 Countries where there are fewer options to trasfer pupils use other means to work with struggling students, such as giving more autonomy to schools to design curricula and assessment.

Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 23/10/2011 - 10:09

I think there is a pretty basic confusion of cause and effect here. If an educational system is successful, it would look "inclusive" by most measures because fewer students would drop out, need special help or need separate provision. That is quite different from claiming that an inclusive approach results in the best educational results. This error is particularly obvious in the PISA document you link to. It appears to be arguing that retention is ineffective because outcomes are not better in countries which retain more students. Common sense, however, would suggest that greater retention is a result of having worse outcomes. In effect PISA are arguing that as doing something about a problem is correlated with having the problem then there would be less of a problem if nothing was done about it.

They should have listened to Jack White first:

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 23/10/2011 - 19:24

I have taught mixed ability maths in recent years at secondary level with excellent results (all exam cohorts exceeded FTTDs).

I can understand why those who haven't seen it done would be sceptical of it, however it is an exceptionally powerful way to teach if it properly done. It pushes the teacher to use difficult but exceptionally powerful pedagogies.

I'm happy to discuss the details of what's involved and why it works with anyone who's interested.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 23/10/2011 - 20:44

and I promise not to use the phrase 'exceptionally powerful' again.

I'm also happy to come and teach for people if they don't believe it can be done. It makes a heck of a lot more sense when you see it action. It certainly doesn't 'level down' the most able students. What bunkum.

Hello again Andrew! :-) Nice to meet you again on a forum where I'm allowed to post without the retinue of abusive posts/systematic deletions/random pre-moderation and bannings.

Gemma's picture
Mon, 24/10/2011 - 11:51

Rebecca - I can't see how it can work. Not day in, day out; lesson after lesson.

Take two of my kids. At age 7 one couldn't count to 100, had a real problem with teen numbers and place value. At the same age the other one could add up three digit numbers in her head, do all her times tables, was basically through KS2 maths.

The teachers in both cases said they couldn't cope with them (honest I thought). How the heck do you teach a single lesson to those extremes?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 24/10/2011 - 16:21

Hi Gemma,

Thanks for your question. I'll have a go at explaining but please work with me as a lot of the techniques I'll be trying to describe are only really effectively taught person to person by demonstration so it's going to be very difficult for me to give you any more than a partial insight into what goes on. But if you keep questioning me I'll give you quite a few partial insights and that might provide the framework for a picture.

I suppose one of the most important things to understand is that I was taught that the best maths teaching involved working with students in blocks of typically 2 weeks which started from low level and robust structures which students could clearly mentally picture and manipulate and that these would form the basis for an intellectual journey which would take students as far as they could go (which might be way beyond the what we would normally expect) while personally developing robust and highly flexible understanding that they could fluently describe and confidently relate both to the original structures (which may be abstract diagrams, a semi-real situation or an authentic real world problem) and to new situations.

The idea that students should be ranked by their level and taught then next level while their attained level was recapped did not sit easily with the pedagogical methodologies I was taught as it was considered likely that such teaching would encourage students to 'learn recipes' for maths rather than to expect to deeply understand it.

For me, as a teacher, maths is defined in topics (which overlap) rather than by levels. The NC levelling structure is a useful tool for me which I identify and address gaps and misconceptions and to set students personal revision ladders to climb, but it is very definitely not 'what maths is'.

Does that make sense at all for starters? It's probably not very clearly expressed as it's half term and my kids need my attention. Got to run for now....

Gemma's picture
Mon, 24/10/2011 - 19:55

I think I understand - you set within the class, you don't do 'mixed ability teaching' you teach to each child's needs. Sounds absolutely great in theory, but in the real world:-

1. It sounds exhausting - you have 16+ sets of two kids and you have to keep each of them stretched. I don't think a normal teacher could keep that up for a week never mind a term. In the real world the outlier kids are lucky if they get a different hand out. My friend's child who is at a private school, with 16 in the class, gets this sort of attention and individual teaching.
2. It is not rewarded in the current scheme of things. As I understand it the teacher (as she said to me) has to teach to curriculum (and has to teach what the other teachers at the school in the same year are teaching - so all the kids get the same experience). And not only do they all have to be taught the same stuff in the same way - the aim it to get as many kids as possible to a set level (2B or 4B - the 'expected level'). The outliers are ignored - either because they're lost causes or because they've got to the expected level. The sensible teacher will concentrate on the mass in the middle who, with help, will get to the expected level.

If your method is going to catch on I think the factory mentality in the state school would have to go.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 24/10/2011 - 21:28

Hmmm, that's an interesting response Gemma.

You say I don't do 'mixed ability teaching', but what good mixed ability teaching involves is teaching using tasks and methods which differentiate by outcome rather than by input.

One thing it's hard, but important, to imagine is that good mixed ability teaching depends on a discursive and mature attitude within the class. In almost every case if a child can't resolve a problem for themselves their first line of attack is going to be to discuss it with the students around them.

So no - I'm not teaching every child individually. I'm watching and shaping and intervening here and there - steering and planning.

Now you may assume by what I've just said that mixed ability teaching is only suitable for well behaved students but history, but the practical history of it and my personal experience (with extremely challenging groups) demonstrate otherwise. What is needed for effective mixed ability teaching is a run-in time during which students learn to learn in this way and learn to communicate effectively with each other. It can take weeks or even months for students who are used to being 'taught the facts' to learn to learn effectively in this way.

Having said all that - I do also have lessons which are about teaching specific techniques and for those I would often set within the set, spending time teaching each group and expecting groups to work effectively with each other and with the aid of their books when I am working with another group. They are better at this than most students because of the way I've trained them to work in mixed ability lessons. Students can move freely between the groups depending on their progress with the particular topic being studied and their preference for working with material which stretches them or working more cautiously.

This methods of teaching I'm describing used to be very common at secondary level Gemma but they have been virtually wiped out in most areas now, especially where there is no strong centre of HE nearby to support teachers. Because students are required to deeply understand things they are using their brains holistically. This means that their learning goes more in fits and starts than most teaching and it also means they have a tendency to be off task some of the time.

It's an inspirational way to teach - your students frequently inspire you with their originality and creativity and you get to watch them develop rapidly as people as you work with them and watch them grow in confidence. It's wonderful for the students who are better at some topics than others - particularly dyslexic students who often excel at geometry and can use the higher level teaching in that area they get from me but would not have access to in a set based on their average ability to 'back-fill' some of their weaker areas using visual strategies, and it's great for some students who need the excitement of being challenged with harder work but can't, for whatever reason, deliver in tests and can often end up in sets which are too slow for them and become disaffected and bored. Weaker students benefit from having had exposure to higher level topics they would not otherwise have seen at all. Stronger students benefit from the constant communication which demands they see one technique in many ways rather than just the one they need to pass tests and therefore forces them to develop much stronger foundations for future progression.

Sorry I'm flipping between the past and the present. I swapped from teaching students to teaching trainee teachers in 2009 but still teach in much the same way - drawing the attention of my students to the detail of the nature of the experiences they are having as we go.

Is that enough or would you like me to try to explain more? I could talk you through a year 7 two week topic or something like that if you like.

Gemma's picture
Tue, 25/10/2011 - 07:53

Thanks for the detailed response. But my points still remain - a. you can't (and stay sane) do that day after day after day, with kids (32+ of them) some of whom can't read and some of whom have already covered the curriculum.
b. there's absolutely no incentive for a teacher to try to do what you're suggesting in the present system. The school is rewarded for getting as many as possible to 'expected levels'.

You've described an ideal - it just doesn't fit with what's really happening in state schools.

Ian Taylor's picture
Tue, 25/10/2011 - 10:13

In every Comprehensive School I have worked in over the last 36 years, the maths department has chosen to set the children by ability. I don't believe those were random decisions. The teachers were able teachers and mathematicians. In my last school the top maths set in year 7 was operating at GCSE level and the lowest set could barely add up.
The English department of a nearby school moved to set children from year 7, and they immediately changed the books the children were given. I asked my English department colleagues to consider what had happened to the children's ability by putting them into different groups. My answer is that by setting the children in English, the teachers were able to more closely focus on the needs of all the children. Children need learning materials that are matched to their abilities.
My experience is that where class discussion is helpful to learning, children need to be in groups of similar ability. Class discussion is always helpful to learning.

Gemma's picture
Tue, 25/10/2011 - 11:26

That makes sense - I don't see why, as a teacher, you'd want to do it any other way.

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