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Difference is all around you

pedagogy | Published in TESpro on 7 December, 2012 | By: Michael Shaw

Mixed-ability teaching is under attack, again. Earlier this term, Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw received plentiful press coverage for criticising “the curse” of mixed-ability classes.

This kind of story appeals to those who believe the myth that comprehensives refuse to divide pupils by ability because they are run by anti-elitist lefties. In fact, the majority of lessons in state secondaries in England are now taught in ability groups. It may not be a large majority - only 55 per cent - but that figure masks an understandable variety among subjects and age groups. So while more than four out of five pupils are taught maths in sets, the figure falls for less popular subjects such as computer science or Latin, where there may only be enough students to fill one class.

Perhaps surprisingly, mixed-ability lessons became the minority under the last Labour government. When Labour came to power in 1997, it promised it would not “defend the failings of across-the-board mixed-ability teaching”, which, it said, in too many cases had “failed both to stretch the brightest and to respond to the needs of those who have fallen behind”. The complaint then that comprehensives were dominated by the “ideology of unstreamed teaching” was made by Tony Blair.

The chief inspector’s critique is more subtle. He is not necessarily demanding compulsory setting in every subject. What he actually criticised was “the curse of mixed-ability classes without mixed-ability teaching”. Mixed-ability lessons do not work, he says, “unless there is differentiated teaching to groups of schoolchildren in the class”.

So, in Sir Michael’s eyes, good differentiation can still save the day.

Even if your school uses setting like crazy, differentiation will still be crucial. Because even if all the pupils were from the same kinds of families and were divided into a dozen sets for every subject (including PSHE and PE), there would still be differences in the pace at which those pupils learned.

All it takes to make a class mixed-ability is to let more than one student through the door.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw.

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