Tania's note: “Setting” in school is a controversial topic. While some feel it’s best to teach according to current ability level, for children who aren’t in the top ‘set’ it can be demoralising, when a child with a 'spiky profile' is put in the bottom set, for example, because of writing problems or attention issues, instead of in the set according to their intellectual ability with the support they need to write or focus. Others feel mixed attainment gives everyone a better chance.
We’re very pleased that today on SNJ we have an expert educator to tackle the issue. Jules Daulby is an experienced inclusion, literacy and assistive technology specialist and writer. She’s worked in education for more than 20 years as a teacher and in national strategic and advisory roles. Jules is also a campaigner for both to support women in education and for the prevention of exclusionary practice in mainstream school. You can read her fuller bio at the end. If your child’s school uses setting or streaming, you may want to pass this article along...
How mixed attainment classes can improve your school and promote social justice
by Jules Daulby
I’m always amazed at the difference in opinion on teaching in sets or streams. As a secondary modern alumnus who is summer born, a girl, received no tutoring and neurodivergent, I am unashamedly against placing children in class or school from perception of ability. Those who don’t make the grade immediately feel like they’re sitting in second class while looking envyingly at the first class carriage with their comfy seats and palatial leg room. They are better, get better and end up better - it’s not fair.
In every system people miss out I know, but for me setting, and worse still streaming, affects disproportionately those who need education the most. It is steeped in bias, engenders low expectations of those in bottom sets and gives children an impoverished curriculum and opportunities. Which children do you see walking around the Houses of Parliament? Top set or bottom set? Which children do you see invited to upper school to work with the science department on an exciting project? Gifted and talented or those with SEND who are not?
I did my PGCE dissertation on ‘mixed ability’ groupings as it was then called and I interviewed a number of heads of departments in secondary schools, some for setting and others against. Whether you agree with this or not, the sentence which I still remember clearly from all those years ago was:
“Setting somehow gives the illusion that bright children will not be infected by those less academic than themselves.”
It’s a powerful sentence and one which is likely to annoy many of you, but children can languish in bottom sets and often get a raw teaching deal.
I purposely use the word ‘bottom’, I refuse to sanitise a system which mainly benefits children in top sets more than those lower down the hierarchy. As always, there are exceptions to this. I work periodically in special schools and I often see children getting a far better deal than they would in a mainstream school. A pupil referral unit who gives learners what they seem to need, over what they have to have, can turn around certain children. Even a bottom set that has a highly qualified teacher with high expectations can do wonders for certain individuals. It’s why inclusion is ‘technically simple but socially complex’ (a phrase I stole from Prof Mel Ainscow).
Mixed attainment promotes an inclusive society
My personal belief is that if mainstream schools mixed socially and not by attainment as a reflection of an inclusive society, this would benefit all students. That special schools and alternative provision do such amazing work is fantastic but also bittersweet. Why can’t all schools do this and why can’t they thrive in mainstream? Why can’t we put resources into one big school where all children are accepted and set up to succeed? There are examples of such inclusion in Canada and Italy but setting and segregating children (which ultimately means by class) seems to be a strangely British affair.
If you don’t agree with me or see my suggestions as too radical, some more evidence-based research might be worth at least considering. It is a grouping research project at UCL Institute of Education led by Professor Becky Francis. Their research in mainstream schools showed that other than a few highest attainers, setting showed no impact for many but had a negative effect on the most disadvantaged. In fact, these students made less progress than the students in higher sets; the gap got wider. The findings are pretty conclusive and for teachers dedicated to social equity, shocking.
“Setting has no significant positive impact other than a very small effect on top set but has a negative impact for those in lower sets and this disproportionally affects the disadvantaged.”TES podcast with Professor Francis,
Francis accepts however, that some schools may not be ready or prepared to become mixed attaining and certainly doesn’t want to force mixed attaining groupings onto schools without some pedagogical advice, resources and more research. UCL has instead asked that schools take a pledge to begin a conversation about mixed attainment groups and setting with their colleagues. Find out more here: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/departments-and-centres/centres/best-practice-grouping-students
In addition, UCL has produced an excellent aide-memoire on the Dos and Don’ts of attainment grouping and setting. It’s a great document to print out and read but I’ve also written a quick summary so you don’t have to:
- make setting subject specific
- group students by attainment only
- re-test regularly and move children around
- use a lottery system for borderline pupils
- ensure each group has access to a rich curriculum
- apply high expectations to all sets
- set by timetable convenience
- stream – student should be set for individual subjects, not a cluster
- assign subject experts to top sets only
- give less homework to low sets
- provide low sets with a dumbed down curriculum
- leave students in sets without regular testing
If using Mixed attainment groups...
- practise differentiation
- change in-class groupings regularly
- have high expectations of all the students in the class
- plan rich accessible tasks for all pupils and ensure they receive feedback
- encourage a classroom climate where learners support each other
- teach to the middle
- establish fixed within-class ability groups
- plan three lessons for every class
- over-rely on high attainers explaining to others
Advice for mixed attainment group teaching
There are some excellent videos and research papers on the site to explore but in summary, the study pedagogical advice includes:
- Levelled questioning techniques
- Concentrate on the learning process rather than task completion (when students and staff talk about individual learning gains)
- Differentiation by outcome and feedback rather than by task
- Open choice boards rather than limiting by levels
- Know your pupils really well and respond
- Plan for difference for the same work
- Teach to the top and scaffold down (although I don’t like this phrase as it seems to contradict the mixed attainment ethos. I prefer ‘Teach all the content to all the students with scaffolding where necessary)
I would add the following:
- Teachers and TAs to work with all students
- Use memory aids, prompts and concept mapping
- Use visuals and dual coding
- Plan for difference for the same work
UCL recognise that bad advice would be to recommend all schools racing to become mixed attaining without training and resources, which they’re working on. But get your school to sign up to the pledge to at least begin conversations about the research among teaching and support staff. It’s an important conversation to have, especially if there’s a chance that disadvantaged children, including those with SEND do not benefit from current setting systems.
More about Jules Daulby
Jules Daulby is an experienced inclusion, literacy and assistive technology specialist, writer and public speaker. She has worked in education for more than 20 years as a teacher and in strategic and advisory roles. Jules is also a national leader for @WomenEd and @WomenEd_Tech, both set up to support existing and aspiring women leaders in education and technology. She also campaigns for the prevention of exclusionary practice in mainstream school. Jules is committed to inclusive and comprehensive education.
Jules sits on panels as an inclusion expert for the DfE’s Standard and Testing Agency, regularly gives keynote lectures such as the Annual National award for SEN Coordination Conference at Manchester Metropolitan University and Harris Academy’s teacher training programme as their literacy and dyslexia expert. Her engagements take her round the country having spoken at The Festival of Education, South West’s special school heads’ conference and internationally, where she recently spoke at EduRosey’s Education Festival in Switzerland. Jules writes for publications such as Schools Week, Teach Primary and the Times Educational Supplement. Recently she gave evidence to the Education Select Committee on preventing exclusions, has appeared on local and national TV and radio discussing exclusions and alternative provision.
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