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Helping George feel valued

Elizabeth Jurd recommends mixed-ability groups to help under-achievers realise their full potential.

"I'm in the bottom group with the bad boys."

"No, George, you're sitting on the green table."

Children are very aware of their own place in the class. They know who is below and above them socially and intellectually.

I always remember a very bright child looking over my shoulder and saying, with sincerity: "That's really good for Hailey, isn't it Miss?"

No one was offended and Hailey was delighted to be complimented by one of the bright sparks.

However, it is an entirely different matter to be labelled by the teacher as one of the bottom group.

George must feel like giving up completely. The next stage for him is to cause a distraction by misbehaving.

I'm not saying that the bottom groups are always the worst behaved. I'm suggesting that rigid grouping tends to discourage children from making a real effort.

We don't need to read research reports to tell us that children tend to conform to their teachers' expectations (but there are plenty of such studies).

We know from our own experience that children usually fit in where they are placed and perform as predicted.

Groups are a good way of showing that the work is differentiated. There it is written down neatly on a plan. Different tasks are allocated to the different ability levels in the class.

It is all neat and documented and useful for those wanting to inspect our planning.

On the other hand, it's all very discouraging and disheartening for George, and his entire group.

It's so important to build up their self-esteem and make them feel that they are capable of making progress. There is nothing worse than feeling they are stuck in the bottom group with no hope of progress.

More fluid groups can help here. All children need an element of formative assessment and revision at the beginning of a new theme.

They can usefully set off on a common task, which can be adapted throughout the week to include elements of challenge and consolidation. The same task can often be set to a class with widely differing abilities.

Differentiation is then achieved via outcome and especially through levels of support. A flexible learning support assistant is invaluable here.

Children of differing abilities can co-operate on the same activity and support each other's learning. They all benefit from working in a mixed-ability group. Different abilities and skills are valued. Hopefully the children will learn to co-operate and discuss, and so acquire vital life skills. Positive attitudes to behaviour and learning can be reinforced.

It is truly thrilling to be confronted by a burst of genius from an unexpected source. All children can come up with the most amazing questions if they are encouraged.

George was the boy who asked me how the sun was formed. We are still struggling with that one together and George is no longer sitting under the table throwing pencils.

He knows his contributions are valued by everyone in the room.

Elizabeth Jurd teaches at North Primary School and Nursery in Colchester.

She was Simms School Mistress Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College in 2000

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