In Lambeth, South London, one secondary school is learning from a primary school as it moves away from sets, and towards mixed-attainment groups for all subjects.
Dominic Bergin, headteacher of The Elmgreen School, credits the work he has seen at Rosendale Primary, part of the same academy trust, for the change of approach. “If you go down there you just see very, very high quality work going on there, of the sort I sometimes feel we lose at key stage 3 and key stage 4. That for me was the real driver,” he explains.
“I went down, looked at some Year 6 work, mixed-attainment, and was just blown away by the quality of it, by the pace of it.
“You had much more of a process of cementing the knowledge and cementing the skills, but the children were really engaged in that process.
“For me, it was the idea that at Year 6 the children are producing four or five pages of very high quality written work, then somehow that gets lost at key stage 3 when they come to us, and that shouldn’t be the case.”
He cites research saying that mixed-attainment teaching works, and says that moving to this approach means “the curse of the bottom set” does not exist, and “’low ability’, all of those phrases, are immediately thrown out of the window”.
It has been a process that has taken about three years. Last year all subjects apart from maths and science were taught in mixed-attainment groups. From this month, these two subjects will also make the switch for the new Year 7 intake.
The maths team have visited Rosendale several times and “have been convinced enough that they think they will want to give it a go”, says Bergin. “Mathematicians are notoriously the most ‘setty’ of teachers, and certainly it has been a conversion process of the maths department this year, but they are convinced they can make the progress with the children.”
The school has appointed an existing member of staff as a practitioner who is leading on mixed-attainment teaching across the school, and it has held joint training sessions across the primary and secondary schools.
The mastery approach, where the class does not move on until all pupils understand key concepts, appears to be a natural fit for mixed-attainment teaching, and it is the approach that Elmgreen is taking.
“We are looking at a mastery curriculum, a very knowledge-based curriculum,” says Bergin. “We are not dumbing down. We are saying that these are the expectations that we have, and this is where we expect everybody to go, and the task of the maths department is to ensure that that happens.
“It’s a slow process, but even the higher-attaining students are still processing that information and ensuring they have those key concepts in place for them to move on as well, and obviously a lot of their explanation to other students, a lot of their working in the class, will cement that knowledge for them, and obviously within the class there will be differentiation of tasks so that students can move on.”
And Elmgreen’s experience suggests that parental opposition is not a given when schools move away from sets.
Bergin says: “We have been very clear about how English has worked over the last few years and how the humanities have worked, and I can’t think of a single issue we have had with parents. James, the head of maths, did write to parents about the switch to mixed-attainment teaching, and we had nothing back at all apart from interest about how it works.”
But he is conscious of the concerns that some raise that classes where pupils have a wide spectrum of abilities can fail to meet the needs of all their members, whether it be those at the top, the middle or the bottom.
“It’s about constant monitoring of the teaching that is going on in that class, and constant monitoring of how the support works,” Bergin says.