Way back in the early 1990s I undertook my initial teacher education in humanities and social sciences at the Institute of Education in London. My teaching practice was, in large, comprehensives in Central London, and mixed ability teaching was a well-established mode of teaching. I was taught how to tackle mixed ability teaching and when and how to differentiate the tasks I set. The clear message was to focus was on what each child can achieve, rather than what each child can achieve in relation to their peers, and to teach to the top while supporting everyone to achieve.
Naturally, this was easier said than done, but I was not aware of any impetus to switch to streaming or setting at the time in my small sphere of experience because there was an acceptance that every group is a mixed ability group, however segregated it might be. The key was to understand the needs of individuals in each subject and acknowledge how these may vary over time.
I chose to focus on how I had approached mixed ability teaching for my dissertation (grade A!) and reviewing it again now, little has changed. If I was writing it again today, I’d almost certainly draw the same conclusions.
The Education Endowment Foundation’s Toolkit offers a vote of confidence for mixed ability grouping. It found that, “On average, pupils experiencing setting or streaming make slightly less progress than pupils taught in mixed attainment classes. The evidence suggests that setting and streaming has a very small negative impact for low and mid-range attaining learners, and a very small positive impact for higher attaining pupils. There are exceptions to this pattern, with some research studies demonstrating benefits for all learners across the attainment range. Overall, the effects are small, and it appears that setting or streaming is not an effective way to raise attainment for most pupils.”
Former teacher, Dr Mike Husk, feels certain about the benefits of mixed ability teaching. “It's the best way. I say that after teaching secondary sciences for 30 years. Also, I didn't micro-manage my pupils. A carefully worded question, challenge or problem and the provision of appropriate resources usually enabled everyone to achieve the learning I hoped for, often by different routes.”
This academic support for mixed ability teaching is not without reminders of the practical issues faced by teachers who are planning for classes of children with a wide range of attainment. One teacher told me about how hard she found it to plan for and believe that she had done the best for everyone. Teachers need clear advice on how to make it work best in their context so that it doesn’t get reduced to “nebulous” extension activities.
Other teachers expressed concerns to me about the lack of support for changing current habits, while some parents object to their children “knowing what table they’re on and what it means”. And for most, there is recognition of the fact that no group is anything but mixed ability and that success in the genuinely mixed classroom depends on good relationships with the children and between them – the latter being particularly important.
Retired headteacher and ITE tutor, Chris Chivers, acknowledges how challenging mixed ability teaching can be. “Every class is a de facto mixed ability, even when in a set or a stream. The range might be narrower, but there will be a top and bottom with a range in between. In sets and streams, issues arise at "borders", particularly where artificial limits are set on class or group sizes. The difference between bottom of one and top of another might be miniscule; one mark difference in a test? I would argue, therefore, that even subsets are mixed ability.”
Naturally this has an impact on what is offered to children as challenge. “This can become "artificial differentiation”, different challenge for each group, with no calibration of capability. The bottom can be underchallenged, just because they're ‘bottom’,” Chivers explains. “I think everyone can hear the same information being shared, as lesson introduction, suitability interpreted through layered language, use of imagery and diagrams. Checking security of access is important. Handing over the thinking challenge to children is where some differentiation might happen, from a close adult clarifying each step, to use of appropriate apparatus, as far as levels of independence will allow,” said Chivers.
He continued, “Harnessing the independent capacity of children is important; even a 10-minute slot frees the teacher to engage with others. Monitoring the classroom is essential, to enable timely intervention, adjustment or reinterpretation to need, even individual, including the close monitoring group with the TA.” There is no doubt that mixed ability classes, “require a teacher dynamic that starts from an initial premise of capability, refined in practice, with adjustment to subsequent planning. It's a constant need.”
“Reprise time and evaluation is an opportunity for children of all abilities to share their thinking, so that the broader group gets insights into different ways of thinking that might support them in later challenges,” Chivers said. “It's a mix of overview plans, short term plans and noting in time adjustments that were needed and child or teacher behaviour. It gets easier over time and, to me, is essentially good practice.”
Any grouping requires meeting the needs of the individuals within it. I concluded my dissertation with the words, “If, “Humanities is about people; how people create the world they live in; how the world they live in makes them the people they are” (The Humanities Association, Statement of Aims), what message do pupils receive it if it is taught in segregated groups?” Those messages last. We should make sure they are positive ones.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.