“Yes Minister 2011” Episode 1

Janet Downs's picture
Scene: a Ministerial Office in Whitehall.

Minister: I’ve an important speech to make, Sir Humphrey. It’s to OMPS – the Organisation for Minor Private Schools. Its members are very keen to become free schools and be funded by the state instead of having to rely on cash-strapped parents.

Sir Humphrey: And their inclusion in the state sector will increase choice and push up standards as you say, Minister. It will also buy you votes from existing parents in the schools. As one of them said, “It was like winning the lottery,” when he learned that the taxpayer would be paying for his child’s school fees.

Minister: And it will give disadvantaged pupils the chance of a private education.

Sir Humphrey: Minister, I think you forget the advantage of a private education. It is so the pupils do not have to mix with the disadvantaged.

Minister: But the admission code applies to free schools…

Sir Humphrey: Minister, there are ways to circumvent the code.

Minister: But that’s outrageous! It’s a legal requirement.

Sir Humphrey:  I doubt that anyone is going to police free school admission policies. When there are several of them then no-one except a few fanatics will bother to read their admission criteria. No-one will complain. The parents will be happy to support a policy which sends out a message that discourages the disadvantaged. And their children will look impressive in their distinctive uniform, especially if it comes from the same supplier that provides uniforms for Eton.

Minister: “No ASDA blazers welcome, here,” you mean?

Sir Humphrey: Quite so, Minister. It’s sometimes important to make changes unobtrusively. If I may remind you, the Coalition’s free school policy is more than just making a few parents happy. It is the means by which English schools can eventually be run by profit-making firms. It’s a way of siphoning tax-payers’ money into shareholders’ pockets. I shall deny it, of course, if asked directly.

Minister: But we’ve said that free schools will not make a profit.

Sir Humphrey: That is true, Minister. But it isn’t the schools making the profit, just the firms that run them. However, it is wise not to draw attention to the matter. Might I suggest that we keep plugging synthetic phonics instead? It was a major coup to make its use mandatory. And international research backs you up: Eurydice has underlined the importance of phonics.

Minister: But didn’t Eurydice also find that the use of phonics was already widespread in the UK? That might prompt people to ask why we should make it a legal requirement.

Sir Humphrey: That should be of no concern, Minister. Both the Lib Dems and Labour support synthetic phonics. And the last US President said, “You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.”

Minister: And that’s what is important, isn’t it? Ensuring that as many pupils as possible pass their literacy test. But didn’t Eurydice also stress the importance of reading for pleasure, books in the home and so on?

Sir Humphrey: Indeed so, Minister, but that is the responsibility of parents. That is why the Secretary of State cancelled funding for Bookstart last year.

Minister: But there was a national outcry.

Sir Humphrey: That was unfortunate but the Government listened to the people and reinstated the funding.

Minister: But wasn’t it funded at only half its previous level for two years?

Sir Humphrey: The important thing, Minister, is that the Government listened to the people.

Minister: Sir Humphrey, what is your opinion about streaming children according to ability? The OECD has found that the best-performing schools systems in the world tend not to segregate pupils in this way. And on the ninth of December the TES published the results of research showing that setting could be causing more harm than good.

Sir Humphrey: The research was actually mixed, Minister. In which case, we can opt for the finding which most suits our policies. One mustn’t forget that your supporters in the media strongly back Grammar Schools. It’s common sense, Minister.

Minister: But the evidence?

Sir Humphrey: Common sense will always trounce evidence, Minister.

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Guest's picture
Sat, 17/12/2011 - 20:12

Mixed ability teaching is one of the things that all parents I know are against.
How do the founders of the local school network stand on this issue ?

Janet seems to support it and makes the claim that all setting is wrong. I know of no professionals who would agree.

Of course I may have misunderstood Janets selection of articles but it would be good for us all to understand what she is tying to say with regard to this point on mixed ability teaching.

So how do the founders and major contributors stand on this important issue.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sat, 17/12/2011 - 23:10

You might like to broaden your somewhat narrow vision and widen your horizons beyond the parents that you know. You might like to read a few more varied newspapers and journals and thus uncover quite a few professionals who advocate mixed ability teaching. Will you ever come out of your deep dank cave?

There have been plenty of posts and comments on LSN - as well as in the press - reporting on the fact that the nations at or near the top of PISA rankings do not select or segegate and have mixed ability schools and clasrooms. Finland is the only European country in the top 5 or so and proves that comprehensive education is not a dream but a reality. The Finnish people are egalitarian, fair and inclusive. For this reason there is greater social cohesion and much less bigotry. You should go and visit.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 11:53

Guest - see my post below (11.32 am) re common sense. You say that I seem to support "mixed ability teaching" and you were trying to work out what I was trying to say about it. I produced the evidence both in "Yes, Minister 2011" and in the post below. However, when I was a teacher I taught both mixed-ability and in sets. This depended on the subject (Personal and Social Education was mixed-ability, for example), whether the pupils selected themselves for an optional subject (eg decades ago this was Typing/Office Practice before it morphed into GCSE Business and Information Studies) or school policy (sets for English and Maths - I taught English, usually to Sets 3 and 4). Because of the range of subjects I taught, I tended to have more mixed-ability than sets. And I can appreciate the difficulties of teaching subjects like Maths and Foreign Languages to mixed-ability groups but I've had no experience of either so I cannot comment.

However, "Yes, Minister 2011 Episode 1" wasn't just about selection and setting. It was more than that.

Guest's picture
Sat, 17/12/2011 - 23:25

Thanks for the attack and abuse.
It's a simple question.

I will assume that you are therefore against setting and believe all classes should be taught as mixed ability because that is what you think happens in Finland.
I am yet to read anything in broadsheet advocating mixed ability teaching in all state schools would be a positive step forward and is supported by any education professionals but as ever I look forward to your links to evidence....

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 00:32

I am not surprised you struggle to distinguish between abuse and sarcasm but I would once more be staggered by your witless demands for "evidence" were it not for the fact that you rarely present any coherent or considered arguments of your own, preferring instead to regurgitate uncritical and anecdotal assumptions gleaned from purely personal experience. Even your calls for evidence, when presenting none of your own, is an unoriginal retort since it is a feeble attempt to turn the tables by parroting what Janet Downs asks from people who make assumptions without offering a reasoned argument or evidence to back up their claims.

I do not think mixed ability classes are taught in Finland, I know they are. I suggest you read the PISA reports on top scoring nations and see for yourself that these nations do not segregate students. My suspicion is that, even if you did, you would not accept them because they do not fit your ideology or presumptions.

Therein lies the problem. You are prejudiced and before you try to gain some facile moral advantage by accusing me of 'attacking' you, please don't claim false indignation before you ponder the more nuanced meaning of pre-judgment.

There are some things requiring links to evidence. This is not one of them. The internet is a great source of information and research. I suggest you join the milions of others who have opened up their understanding of the world by trying harder to find the obvious. Are you too lazy or are you happy to anidely snap away at the back?

Leonard James's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 07:48

I'm going to have to side with Guest here Allan. I am a education professional and am firmly against mixed ability teaching in my school, so are all my colleagues and I've never met a parent who has complained about this situation. I'd like to see how mixed ability teaching manifests itself in Finland before accepting that it works.

It is extremely frustrating trying to debate with people who do not follow their own rules. On another thread you kept pestering someone called Jon (who he?) for evidence that KIPP schools will work in the UK - perhaps you could play by your own rules and provide us with evidence that mixed ability teaching will work here given that the United Kingdom is very different to Finland.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 09:07

The main reasons given for rejecting the Finnish model are that the country has a small population, has little poverty, no private schools, lacks racial diversity. But then neither does Finland rely on endless, high stakes testing of their children, instead giving teachers and schools real autonomy (not Gove-style top down prescription sold as "choice" or "freeing schools from the LA") on curriculum and ensuring that each and every child receives high quality education. Finland has the same demographics as Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway, yet gets superior results. Finland is not a socialist country but it is egalitiarian and therefore eschews segregation and labelling people.

The argument that mixed ability teaching will not work is usually advanced by those who advocate segregation so that the focus can be on developing the abilities and aspirations of the brightest, the most advantaged or deserving of children, that the brightest are held back. There is plenty of evidence that has shown the the most able in a good comprehensive school do well anyway but that, more crucially, children can be inspired to do better when they are placed in a class of children more able than themselves. Perhaps some teaching professionals don't believe mixed ability teaching can work because, unlike their Finnish counterparts, they are too lazy to entertain the idea that, as professionals, they could teach all abilities. Perhaps they are not as highly trained as Finnish teachers. Teachers here are currently being denigrated and downgraded by the government. In Finland they are trusted and revered.

School reformers don't like it being pointed out to them that a nation can have great schools without relying on high-stakes testing and without selecting children, jumping up with the excuse that Finland is so very different from us. They may well have only 4% poverty but this sounds more like an excuse to reject a system that threatens to demolish the government's crusade to open schools up to unfettered free market exploitation of state school and to embed social divisions right from primary school age.

Jon was unable to further his argument that KIPP schools were a great model to follow here because they are not representative of the charter system as a whole, which has failed to drive up standards in education in America to Finnish, Japanese or Korean levels. The mystery is why, instead of attempting to adopt some of the workable parts of the Finnish model, Gove has chosen to import the entirety of the crippingly expensive failed American model, claiming that our countries share the same language, ethnic diversity and challenges with poverty rates. Over there, it is not American students who have benefited. Only the politicians and the corporations. But free market intervention over two decades has profited only the companies that run and supply schools.

Guest's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 08:53

Evidence shows that all of England's top performing schools whether they be Community, academy, grammar or Independent all use setting.
Could you provide any evidence to counter this.

I would be very interested to see where the founders of this site stand on this issue, in particular those who have an input to the education of our children.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 09:12

You need to provide evidence to be countered first, Guest. Where is the evidence please or are you making more assumptions? Can you provide a list of what you call "top performing schools" and data on how they set and how this has influenced examination outcomes?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 18:11

You could try logging into the TES forum and chatting to whoever posted comment 26 on this thread Guest: http://community.tes.co.uk/forums/p/540020/7176840.aspx#7176840.

If you look through other threads on mixed ability you'll find similar leads for people to contact for evidence.

Guest's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 09:24

I could hold up Mossbourne Academy as a simple example. They use rigorous setting to help achieve it's excellent results.
Monkseaton High School in Whitley Bay is another.

I have to say every single outstanding and popular school I googled uses setting.

Allan you believe in this strongly so assume you have some evidence to hand in London schools where mixed ability teaching is used and no setting is allowed. Could you share these examples with us?

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 10:02

Is that it? Just the two then plucked out from google or what you gleaned from your cave? Your evidence is not therefore advanced from study or research gathered from analysis?Just two schools googled? A schools success or failure is the result of a complex interaction of many different factors. Setting is but one, Guest. I am not fixated with league tables and raw information on results in the way that you are Guest so I have never spent time looking deeply into which schools set and which don't and then praise or condemn them on that basis. It's a facile way of assessing a school.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 19/12/2011 - 13:20

I went to Whitley Bay High School (which is in Monkseaton - stupid situation I know).

Being one of the first cohorts through GCSE maths, our top set found that instead of doing O-level in year 10 and OA level in year 11 (to allow for A level in year 12 and Further Maths A-level in year 13) we had to spend 2 years (10 and 11) doing very little content and 6 original projects instead.

In fact we generally only did a couple of projects each since only two were being assessed and then played cards a lot.

In previous years one or two students had gone on to do FMA and typically one of two to Oxbridge. In our year a large set went on to do FMA and 6 to Oxbridge - two of us doing maths (they'd never sent anyone to Oxbridge for maths before). Strange old world - makes you think.
I see results at Whitley Bay are still very good: http://www.whitleybayhighschool.org/information/downloads/sixthformprosp.... I can't find Monkseaton's results.. .perhaps you can help?

Guest's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 10:18

So as ever Allan you are unable to provide any evidence or examples of English secondary schools that embrace mixed ability teaching across the board.

You imply it's because I live in a cave, where in England do you suggest I travel to find this ground swell of parents and teachers who advocate mixed ability teaching?

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 10:29

No Guest. Don't try and attempt to deflect away from your own incapacity to provide links, evidence or articles to support your claim by claiming I never provide evidence. All you are doing is compounding evidence of your inability to get past feeding your own prejudices. Show us some facts that can be challenged, then we can debate. Muttering in your cave about a vague ground swell of opinon is just not rigorous enough.

Leonard James's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 09:52

I'll respond to your paragraphs in order.

1. I am not advocating high stakes testing, top down prescription (if you aren't then why are you trying to inflict your preferred pedagogy on teachers) or the labelling of people. Setting doesn't need to involve any of these things.

2. It never ceases to amaze me when people (who never seem to be teachers) regurgitate impractical advice from other non teachers then resort to insults when confronted with the truth. Most teachers do teach children of all abilities - this is much easier to do when they are in ability groups.

3. Right so according to you one shouldn't use the fact that Finlands demographics are unrepresentative of the United Kingdom as a reason for avoiding mixed ability teaching...

4....yet you can deny that KIPP schools are a good model to follow in the United Kingdom because they are unrepresentative of the charter school system. This is insufferable hypocrisy.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 10:19

What a strange response.

I never suggested you advocated high stakes testing. I am not attempting to inflict my preferred pedagogy on teachers. I am quite aware that many teachers in state schools teach children of all ability children but there is no need to set in all subjects, even if Maths or Science are set. I have no idea what point you are trying to make by joining up your point 3 with point 4. KIPP schools are not a good model to follow because they are fiscally advantageous even when compared to competing charter schools, never mind regular American public schools. For that reason, this handful of schools have not been able to be scale up or be applied across other schools the US so how do you imagine it can be transplanted in the UK when the capital budget for education has been cut by 60%?

The insufferable hypocrisy in the schools debate is where those who advocate schools "reform" and the language that comes with it (standards, literacy, rigorous discipline, selection, setting, results...) pretend all this is to help the disadvantaged first and foremost when their true motives are to ensure that the already advantaged have greater access.

Guest's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 10:43

Allan your bully boy tactics of do as I say but not what I do may work in your own home but not here.
You have provided no evidence as ever.

I am sure you are not a hypocrite so does the school you send your children to practice mixed ability teaching? Or does it advocating setting ?

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 11:13

No Guest. YOU have not provided evidence to support your original assertions so it would be pointless and stupid to offer a counter argument when there is no rational argument to begin with so you will forgive me for not indulging your whims.

For the record, my children go to an inclusive, non-selective school with ethnic and socio-economic diversity reflecting the community we live in that sets only in Maths and Sciences with flexibility to move up. It has an above average number of SENS and FSM children, gets very good GSCE and A Level results and, more importantly is committed to provision for, and encouraging, every child to find their individual talents and reach their own targets and potential. We have been praised by OFSTED and we play an important role in the community. Having said that, my personal experiences play only a part of my opinions on state education and do not cloud my perspective on what I believe constitutes a collective good.

You make yet another of your presumptions about bully boy tactics working at home. There is no need for it in my home. We don't need bigotry bullied out of us. And before you leap in with your royal flush, I haven't called you a bigot. Just a hermit

Leonard James's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 11:22

Allan to be honest it is incredibly difficult to interpret exactly what you are advocating given your propensity to go off topic in your responses i.e. a discussion about setting quickly becomes a scathing assessment of the current education system.

You now seem to be backtracking on setting; your position seems to be moving from 'no setting' to 'no setting in every subject' although it really shouldn't be anything given your renewed preference for teacher autonomy and trust in the profession.

The point I am trying to make is that it is unreasonable to reject one scheme on the grounds that it is 'unrepresentative' then criticise others for making the same claims about schemes you happen to approve of. At least three regulars on this site are guilty of these double standards - sometimes to the point where exactly the SAME evidence is accepted unquestionably when it suits and rejected when it doesn't.

Finally I have a point to add re your conversation with Guest. You have rejected Guest's evidence on the basis that it is not 'advanced from study or research gathered from analysis' (whatever this means) and partly because you disagree with league tables based on raw results. My impression was that the results used in the Pisa analysis was based partly on raw test data - am I right and if so do you now reject this evidence from the OECD?

KIPP schools are not a good model to follow because they are fiscally advantageous even when compared to competing charter schools, never mind regular American public schools. For that reason, this handful of schools have not been able to be scale up or be applied across other schools the US so how do you imagine it can be transplanted in the UK when the capital budget for education has been cut by 60%?

The insufferable hypocrisy in the schools debate is where those who advocate schools “reform” and the language that comes with it (standards, literacy, rigorous discipline, selection, setting, results…) pretend all this is to help the disadvantaged first and foremost when their true motives are to ensure that the already advantaged have greater access.

Leonard James's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 11:23

Please note that the last two paragraphs are not my work - they are an accidental copy and paste from another post.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 12:25

If anyone is guilty is guilty of cherry picking and manipulating evidence it is Gove and his cronies in government, think tanks and the right wing media. It is he who has unquestionably accepted the falsehood that New York Charters and KIPP schools for example are helping drive up standards in America and is perpetuating them via speeches, the DfE website and the New Schools Network, despite research suggesting the opposite.

The reason I am dismissive of arguing about setting with contributors like Guest is because one can smell a mile off that their reason for getting into the debate is to use setting as just another ill considered blunt instrument with which to denigrate the state education system and further the lie that it is "broken". It is particularly abhorrent when such people make wild assertions without backing them up with evidence, not even from commentators. Just anecdotes.

I am surprised that as en education professional, whatever that is, you seem unable to digest properly what you actually read. Where do I say that I disagree with league tables based on raw results? And I have not done so, then how can you link something I did not even suggest to my rejecting evidence from the OECD? This is absurd, except it is actually a crude and rather stupid way of trying to discredit what I say.

The OECD's research is rigorous, serious and impartial. It is noble of you to back up Guest's sniping but given whether to take seriously what PISA have to say based on analytical research and what Guest has decided his true because it reassures his prejudices, I will listen to PISA any day.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 12:58

Leonard - you are correct in saying that PISA analysis is based on the raw results of tests. However, the key word is "analysis". OECD use the raw statistics to analyse what is happening in school systems globally. To do this it doesn't just look at the PISA results but matches them with other information from the school systems eg number of private/state schools, how the system is organised (selection allowed or not), remuneration of teachers, training of teachers, hours spent in the classroom and so on, and socio-economic background of pupils. The research is analysed thoroughly and the results published in huge tomes (see Education at a Glance 2011 to get a flavour of all the factors that OECD consider - it runs to about 500 pages). Thankfully, OECD publish summaries of their findings in the PISA in Focus series.


In England, however, raw results are used differently. Firstly, little analysis takes place - the results are used to place schools in league tables. No-one needs a league table to tell that grammar schools will score better than secondary moderns, yet the league tables are used to "prove" that grammar schools are better. The last Government at least made some attempt to put the results in context by publishing Contextual Value Added (CVA) - a measure which was described by OECD as "a move in the right direction" even though is was an imperfect measure of school efficiency*. This Government, however, has abolished CVA. In England, raw results are used to punish schools - those deemed "below the floor" are threatened with being turned into academies (and presumably their senior management sacked) despite many of these having been found by the Education Endowment Fund as being good, even outstanding, schools - their low achievement being caused by factors outside the schools' control.

*Reforming Education in England, not available freely on the web.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 12:26

No, those two paragraphs you cut and pasted are mine. They make sense

Leonard James's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 14:49


Firstly we are treated to yet another soapbox rant about the current government then you accuse Guest of making 'wild assertions' - perhaps you can point out exactly which of Guest's assertions are wild.

As if this isn't enough you (in a different post) described the use of league tables and raw data as a 'facile' way of assessing a school - it seems absurd that you actually agree with league tables having described them using such terms.

Finally I was after clarification about your views regarding Pisa - nothing more. Now another question - do you agree with Janet Downs in classifying Britain as a high performing education system?

Leonard James's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 14:54

I know what the distinction is thankyou although I don't consider the length of the reporting to be of particular consequence.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 16:38

UK was represented at a summit for high-performing education systems by none other than our Secretary of State, Mr Gove, as I mention in my original post. There was little publicity about it because it would rather undermine his claim that UK is underperforming.

I'm not a fan of league tables for school systems. International test scores reveal much more than a country's relative position. However, Mr Gove and his supporters make a great fuss of them so it is only right that if Mr Gove et al quote them incorrectly, or make false assertions about the UK education system based on them, that the errors are made public. These have been discussed many times on this site so I won't repeat them now. Suffice it to say that when looking at the PISA scores for UK in 2009, then UK was at the OECD average for Reading and Maths, and above the OECD average in Science. UK scores hardly changed between 2006 and 2009 (the only two dates which can be used for comparison). That's no reason to be complacent, of course, there are many things which could improve the English education system. These, again, have been discussed many times on this site. But Mr Gove's "reforms" are not going to improve Englisheducation - his obsession with exam results as the only measure of efficacy, his belief in user choice, and his underhand way of getting profit-making companies into this country proves that.



Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 16:42

It's not length, Leonard, it's quality. The OECD analysis tells countries far more about how school systems work than the league tables and floor standards so beloved of Mr Gove.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 17:47

Leonard James -

What is unbelievable is your increasingly desperate attempts to misquote what I wrote in a feeble attempt to discredit me. I did not say that the use of league tables and raw data is a facile way of assessing a school but that it is facile to praise or condemn schools on the basis solely of whether they practice setting or not. I also stated that a school's performance was the result of complex issues. This is not the same thing and you either know it and are trying to twist my words or you are unable to grasp the nuance of written prose. Either way, this says a lot more about you than me.

Guest's assertions are wild because he offers not reports, articles or other evidence that might back him up his claims of a groundswell of opinion that is clamouring for setting, If he offered more intelligent back up himself, rather than snipe at the sidelines at those who do for no better purpose than to lazily promote the falsehood that state schools are in their death throes and thank God Reformer Gove is here to save us all, then he might be more credible. It is noble of you to support him though, even though that compromises your own credibility.

As for the soapbox performance. Well, the truth about the incompetence of the current government and the way the Tory-led coalition is dismantling and degrading our public services, including education, to ensure success only for profit-making companies makes for very uncomfortable reading, whether that comes from my soapbox or from the Guardian. What is shaming is that press barons who own the majority of the media are not telling us this. Stay tuned Leo.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 17:56

There is no reason to complacent but the perspective from the PISA analysis is that Britain is doing as well as other similar developed countries with very similar challenges. The only European to remain in the top 5 is Finland, so there are clearly lessons to be learnt there and policies adopted but all Gove and his cohorts are doing is importing profit-making schemes that have not actually improved education in America. The tiger economies - Japan, Korea, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong - are unique in that their system of teaching is historically and culturally very different from ours but what is interesting is that even China is acknowledging that less learning by rote and more creative learning is essential for its people to engage in the future with the rest of the world. None of these nations are obssessed with Gove and Obama's league tables and standardized testing, selection and segregation.

Guest's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 20:14


I am sorry but you have totally misrepresented what I said.
I simply asked whether the founders of this site agreed with Mixed ability teaching? It was a simple question.
Your reaction says a lot about you.
I note that none of the founders of this site have cared to answer the question. I suggest the evidence for this is that it is because the schools they are associated with have used setting to improve their performance.
Again most education professionals also support setting, hence why it is widely used in all outstanding secondary schools.

It appears Allan is isolated in his view that he would prefer mixed ability teaching across the board in all schools. We should be grateful his views are his own and will never influence any educational policy.

Leonard James's picture
Mon, 19/12/2011 - 07:56

On Guest's 'facile' assessment:

I don't think we can deny that school performance is a result of complex issues although having said this I wonder why, on another thread, you were praising schools (Finnish if my memory serves me correctly) on the basis of a limited number of variables including 'mixed ability teaching'. You'll have to forgive me from thinking that you disapprove of league tables because I thought you were against all of Guest's assessment not just some of it. I would say that your approval or neutrality towards league tables is a departure from some of your LSN comrades, perhaps you could clarify your position just so we are sure?

On Guest's wild assertions

I don't recall Guest promoting 'the falsehood that state schools are in their death throes' or 'thanking god' for 'reformer Gove'. I do recall Guest's position that most secondary schools in this country use setting. This isn't a wild assertion and at least two teachers have made repeatable observations on this thread - for someone who claims to support 'trust' in the teaching profession I am surprised you require a report or article to convince you of what seems obvious. If you want to continue this part of the discussion perhaps you'd like to be more specific about a 'wild assertion' Guest has made.

On soapbox performances

I understand that your position on the current government - why do you keep repeating it?

Leonard James's picture
Mon, 19/12/2011 - 07:58

I don't think league tables are supposed to tell us about how 'school systems work'.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 11:32

I am pleased that "Yes, Minister 2011 Episode 1" has resulted in such a vigorous debate. If Guest and Leonard refer back to my original post they will see that I posted a link to the OECD evidence which showed that the best performing schools systems globally tend to be those that do not segregate pupils academically or by virtue of where they live (see page 455 Education at a Glance 2011). I also referred to an analysis of the research into setting (TESpro of 9 December 2011, not available on line) which found, "Grouping children by ability may be easier on teachers, but for pupils the benefits are less clear."

The TESpro editor admitted that his gut instinct was to support setting - it was common sense. "But the problems with common sense is that it is not always right, he wrote. He said research has discovered "negative impacts on those of middle and lower abilities. Meanwhile, the benefits to high achievers may have been exaggerated." He concludes that while the research might not persuade schools to drop setting but it "should cause pause for thought".

While TESpro found most of the evidence to be against setting, it did mention one piece of conflicting evidence. That is why in my post above I said the "evidence was mixed". This allowed Sir Humphrey to advise the Minister to choose the evidence which most suited their viewpoint.

Ian Taylor's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 12:15

I am a firm believer in Comprehensive Schools having taught in them for 36 years. I also believe that setting is needed.

Some subjects like art and PE probably do not require setting. Other subjects like maths and modern languages do require setting. The requirement for setting increases as the children get older.

Take GCSE maths as an example. The most able and least able mathematicians study completely different topics. What would be the purpose of putting them in the same classroom with one teacher?

There is a great danger in combining the concept of Comprehensive Schools with mixed ability teaching. My own experience of managing school curricula for more than 20 years in Comprehensive Schools is that most parents and most teachers favour setting in many subjects, and more so as children get older.

If parents associate the idea of mixed ability teaching in all subjects and all ages with Comprehensive Schools, we will be doing these schools a disservice, and damaging the cause of equal opportunity for all.

I know of no Comprehensive Schools where mixed ability teaching for all subjects and ages actually happens. Does anyone? Setting still means that all children are valued. Setting is about putting children in groups where the class can move at a pace suitable for that class. Children need to be able to change sets because they mature and develop at different speeds, and most secondary schools have assessment systems which allow this to happen regularly.

The other parts of Janet’s original post feel much more realistic to me. The thrust being that Michael Gove will put out policy spin in one direction, whilst really advancing a policy in a completely different direction. These differences between what Mr Gove says and what is actually happening should be emphasised. This site could be the focus for such a debate because the Labour Party, sadly, seems to have abandoned any attempt at developing or describing a national education policy.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 13:27

Ian - the practice of setting is, as you say, widespread. And in the context of England you're right to differentiate between selection (for grammar schools) and setting. In the context of my original post I was referring to the evidence from the OECD which discussed segregating children between schools and within schools as if it were the same thing. The article in TESpro (9 December 2011) discussed setting, not 11+ selection, found most of the evidence to be against setting, and noted evidence that contradicted this (hence Sir Humphrey's assertion that the Minister could choose the evidence most suited to his needs). TESpro, recognising that setting is widespread suggested ways in which teachers could, as the magazine puts it, "reduce the negative impact of organising pupils into sets by ability". It's a pity that this article isn't available on the web.

My purpose in writing "Yes, Minister, 2011" was not to stimulate a discussion on mixed-ability teacher (although that's what has happened) but to show that the Government is using misleading information to promote its own agenda, working "unobtrusively" (as the Telegraph said) to push forward profit-making companies running English schools, and using international research only when it matches its own policies rather than using it to develop an understanding of how the best school systems work.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 19/12/2011 - 13:06

Hello Guest,

It's a bit difficult for you to get to know teachers with different experiences to yours when you're anonymous, but we'll give it a try anyway.

Mixed ability teaching was highly respected and well regarded in my area. As in virtually every area that wasn't closely protected by a very highly skilled, respected and stable network of practitioners or an HE institution it was eradicated by the National Curriculum and Ofsted as it did not tick their boxes.

When I was Head of Maths at a school which was heading for closure, we ended up with mixed ability maths sets. It was very scary and exceptionally hard work, especially as we also had severe behavioural issues. Mixed ability + students who can't respect the needs of others means you can't teach to the middle or set within the set and get round the issue, you have to teach mixed ability properly and, with the help of some retired teachers from the area who came in and helped me learn what to do - that's what I did.

It's difficult to describe the benefits, both expected and unexpected that it brought to me students and to me and I'm sure I won't be able to do it justice here, but I'll try none-the-less. Students worked with each other much more - explaining and discovering together. Talking about their maths made them more secure with it. Interacting with others made them see many routes through a problem which strengthened their understanding and made it a much more secure foundation for higher work.

Both this and the adjustments we had to make where topics went from very low levels secured on visual structures to very high levels revealed the primitive structures in a way which is concealed by the doctrine of -'teach a level - recap the previous level and prep the next level.'

When we did set within the set, students had the freedom to move groups for different topics which reveal things about them I'd never otherwise have seen. Some students needed to work above their level to progress while others thrived when they worked cautiously and carefully. Others worked at much higher level in some areas of maths than in others. Creating a structure which allowed them to be the best they could be naturally and easily allowed specific students who would otherwise have been stuck to make very rapid progress.

As a teacher it stretched me and my understanding of mathematics, mathematics education and children grew much more rapidly than it otherwise would have done.

People, including you, seem to put mixed ability teachers into some kind of box which I don't recognise at all. It belongs, perhaps, to lazy or lost teachers who don't bother with the core curriculum. They may have existed decades ago but they don't represent the mixed ability teachers I've met.

I wouldn't actually teach mixed ability all the time. My attitude is to focus on the strengths of each type of teaching and to give students a variety of experiences which allow them to develop in different ways at different times. You can read more about that here http://mathseducationandallthat.blogspot.com/2011/06/yin-and-yang-of-mat... and in subsequent posts if you're interested. Ideally I'd probably put in a couple of blocks - a term or so each - into secondary education and try to ensure that some of the strengths developed during those times translated into setted classes. This is much more realistic with the adoption of linear GCSE with assessment at the end of year 11 which is what we did.

As for results? Well our students exceeded FTTDs (4 externally examined year groups) at every level which I'm pretty proud of given the circumstances we were working with. The other schools I met seemed to have very good results too but I don't know the details. But I think it's not statistically significant as basically these days you can't get away with choosing to teach mixed ability unless you do it very well. It's also difficult to measure which schools do it and which don't as some do it for a bit, or some have wide span of ability classes due to being small schools or whatever.

Do feel free to ask more if there's anything you still don't understand and I'll help you if I can.


Leonard James's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 07:34

Differentiation, getting children to discuss their work, group work and independent learning are things that can also be done in sets. The only convincing thing you have said that is unique to mixed ability classes is that it causes more stress and more work for teachers.

I've been teaching for several years and neither I nor anyone I've taught with have witnessed the sort of turnaround you describe here which tends to coincide with the arrival of a discipline friendly head and years of effort. The influence you had on the students is so Hollywood that one is tempted to believe it is just that - a fantasy. You may or may not be using your real name but a name alone is not sufficient proof for claims which suggest you are that exceptional 'it factor' teacher we all hear about but have never met - even if this is true but a small percentage of teachers will ever have 'it' so your advice is all but useless.

PS I am not attacking or insulting you.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 08:52

I am using my real name and I have electronic data as well has handwritten teachers planners to support what I say. Come and see it if you like.

School discipline was horrific due to Ofsted intervention to shut down the withdrawal facilities and the simultaneous (in my view consequential) stepping down of the acting head leaving a vacuum. With the school lurching towards a botched academyisation no-one was interested.

It's one of the benefits of mixed ability teaching is that when done properly it demands that students act with a great deal of autonomy and independence which actually suits situations where there is little external discipline much better than many pedagogical strategies which rely on a culture of strong external discipline. Students rapidly develop a great deal of self respect and in the context of both that and other benefits of mixed ability system personal respect between the student and teacher thrives.

In your assessment of the benefits of mixed ability teaching you seem to have missed the part where I explained how some of my students seemed to double jump levels because they had exposure to higher level material they would not otherwise have had, and the way in which some students were much stronger in some aspects of maths than others and having access to the higher maths in their strong area allowed them to get round their weaknesses in other strands. Then there was the way that teaching topics starting from visual structures which are accessible to all and extending to very high levels while remaining rooted in those structures seems to be more closely related to the strategies used in China and Japan described by LiPing Ma and revealed by the TIMSS international study.

You have, of course, also completely missed the massive benefits of mixed ability to PLTs, but that's okay - the whole system has for the last 20 years so that's reasonable.

My career history is available in full on Linkedin.com. Just google Rebecca Hanson education. You'll see I've been lecturing in education since then, may be why I have such wide exposure to many schools and have seen things you haven't seen. It's also relevant that I was in Cumbria where there are a lot of small schools. Small schools = classes with wide spans of attainment so mixed ability strategies tend to survive even in the least clement external conditions (because other strategies fail) and thrive when external conditions are reasonable.

I didn't have 'it' Leonard. I had a bit more of 'it' by the time the school shut and that means a lot to me. 'It' is of course the ability to command the personal respect of students (mainly by empowering them to feel in charge of being the people they have the potential to be). Teachers in the schools which used to have outstanding mixed ability teaching round here weren't born with 'it' either. They learned it on the job.

Leonard James's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 05:17

Rebecca this is getting ridiculous. You are, once again, simply listing a few ways in which good teaching manifests itself alongside some fashionable pedagogy and pretending that those things are only possible in mixed ability classes.

Thanks for pointing out your Linkedin profile, I took a few minutes to read some interesting information about the schools you said you worked in. Perhaps the most significant source is the website for the West Lakes Academy (the school that replaced Edenside Community school where you were HOD) which clearly mentions the use of sets in Mathematics.


Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 09:01

Did you know, Leonard, that West Lakes Academy used to be Wyndham, one of the most respected schools for maths in the country and that when it had that accolade it had mixed ability teaching to the end of Year 9?

One of the previous Head of Maths went on to head up the maths education team at the OU and to nurture the development of that department into being probably the most respected centres of the academic teaching and researching of maths education in the world? (The HOD was Eric Love and if you doubt the latter claim you could explore it on the discussion forum I run on Linkedin.com - Math, Math Education, Math Culture where this department is praised often by people around the world). Eric wasn't the only nationally respected teacher who emerged from Wyndham.

I applied for a mainscale job there in 1999 and was one of 8 teachers at interview (I didn't get it). After the removal of mixed ability the school lost it's position of respect and credibility for maths education and the local community. They had to advertise 3 times for a HOD recently due to lack of applicants and eventually had to appoint someone with no A-level experience.

The change happened because Wyndham was forced into special measures for political reasons. I was teaching at a school down the road at the time and our headteacher used to come into briefing each day ashen faced and tell us about how they were doing at disproving the 70 reasons for going into special measures inspectors had turned up at the schools with (they disproved all but 3 as I remember and therefore got the delightful benefit of being 'improved' I was later to experience at Ehenside).

When I couldn't cope with my mixed ability classes of 'delightfully behaved' children and didn't know what to do I was able to find teacher in their 70s who could come in and demonstrate that things were possible that I couldn't previously imagine (as you can't now) with teaching strategies with which I was then unfamiliar but am happy to come and demonstrate for you should you wish to better understand them.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 19/12/2011 - 13:08

Guest -

As I suspected, your points about setting were nothing more than to score points in your inelegant and rather obvious way of sounding the trumpets for school reform. Once again you make assumptions to put over your crude point - perhaps the founders of LSN can't be bothered to answer your facile question (the practice of setting in some subjects in widespread and hardly controversial, but I am not surprised you are trying to make a meal out of hot air) because they just can't be bothered?

I never said I supported mixed ability teaching across the board - I made it quite clear that the excellent school my children attend set in maths and science. Back in your cave.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 19/12/2011 - 13:08

Hello Leonard,

Please see my post above. Rebecca

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 19/12/2011 - 13:30

If you like, Guest, I'll come and teach some mixed ability lessons in your school for discussion and observation by your maths teachers.

I'm not out to try and convert them to mixed ability teaching - just to have an intelligent discussion about its benefits and how those benefits and how those benefits can best be understood and exploited by your school in ways which allow it to evolve form its current practices without a sudden step change.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 19/12/2011 - 13:46

Guest - one of the things which surprises me about cyberspace and discussion forums if that I meet people like yourself who hold exceptionally strong views about something which you don't seem to have actually experienced or researched.

Your comments show no insight into mixed ability teaching or the research which understands, contextualises and effectively criticises it - understanding what it does well and what it does not so well.

I'm not trying to criticise or attack you - I'm just puzzled about this. To me it's like me going on a rant about people from Venezuela, without ever having met one or read anything about Venezuela. I just wouldn't do it and don't understand why others would.

Could you help me out by explaining bit about how you've come to hold the strong views you clearly have?

Alan Henderson's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 09:31

It is little wonder that his site is rapidly turning into an echo chamber. The founders, who generally argued a case well, have been sidelined by the over-aggressive and the boring.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 09:45

I think it's quite a good forum Alan, but it's always a good idea to explore more than one. It's healthy to interact with a variety of communities of people. I would recommend you try UK Education (an open forum) or Education UK (a closed forum) on the linkedin.com platform for discussion about issues in English education.

rosemary fergusson's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 10:39

I have scanned the posts and would have to concur with Alan H that some posts , though I support the points the poster makes , are overly-aggressive, distortional and scathing of other peoples viewpoints. Though take heart not nearly as bad as Mumsnet (when they discuss people on benefits) or our own local Anti_Academy group facebook site which rapidly descended into personal abuse of school staff .

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 18:14

I've written up some notes on how to handle the abuse here if anyone's interested:

It doesn't bother me. Trying to handle discussing Israel and Palestine on a US based forum with 150,000 members kind of gets you used to it. At least here no-one's sabotaging your computer.

rosemary fergusson's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 10:22

Janet- Can I butt in to say how much I enjoyed your parody of Yes Minister ( er no you can't parody a parody..can I correct that to "homage") . I fondly remeber watching it as young teenager with my parents .....very acute ...If only such biting political satire without descending to abuse could return to mainstream TV. Perhaps a career change J?


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