3 years ago I would have defended mixed-ability teaching to the end. I would have told you that children learn best when they have strong role models within the class. I would have informed you that there is no such thing as a “middle ability” child until you put them in a “middle ability” set and give them “middle ability” work (whatever that is.) I would have talked about the damage setting does to children’s confidence and self-esteem. The less able will quickly work out they are in the “lower ability” group when they realise half of their class have special needs and the rest of the class can’t speak a word of English. I would have told you that with careful differentiation and the children have the freedom to choose their level of challenge mixed ability groups shouldn’t hinder progress. If by this point you were still listening and hadn’t punched me, I would have sanctimoniously pointed you in the direction of the research Jo Boaler and Dylan William that tell you that setting has no positive impact on attainment. Of course you can also find the evidence to tell that mixed ability teaching fails children. So what is the truth?
If in doubt, when debating any aspect of Education, have a look at Finland. They are help up as this paradigm of excellence. All Finnish schools teach in mixed ability class (Secondary schools too.) They have much smaller classes though (they limit it to 20 pupils at the most.) They have incredibly high expectations and when there are pupils in the class that are struggling they put more qualified teachers into the class to support. Something that we have to avoid is looking at other counties and hoping just to cut and paste a model over because it isn’t that straightforward.
One thing I know for sure is that David Cameron bloody loves sets (or, at the very least, understands that Middle England love to hear him talking about sets.) Sorting children into groups by their ability is one of his favourite things. Way back in 2006 when being Prime Minister was just a wet dream, he said:
“I want to see setting in every single school. Parents know it works. Teachers know it works. Tony Blair promised it in 1997. But it still hasn’t happened. We will keep up the pressure till it does.”
So is Mr Cameron right? Does setting “work”? I suppose it depends what you mean by “work”. Here are some truths:
- Setting is easier on the teacher. If the data you are using to set with is accurate enough, and you have enough staff you ideally have a situation where the teacher only has one “level” of children in their set. It is much easier teaching a class of children that are all level 2 than a class of children that range from level 1 – 6.
- Most able – all research and evidence seems to conclude that the most able pupils attain higher in schools where there is setting.
- Less able – the same research found that “those given a place in the middle or lower streams do worse than they would if there were no streaming.”