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Message mixed up on ability grouping

Politicians should stop giving glib advice and leave decisions on organising pupils to the professionals, says Peter Miller.

At least the political focus has shifted to what really matters. At last they are talking about what happens in the classroom, and how children learn. Unfortunately, this is a mixed blessing. Labour leader Tony Blair makes a reasonably measured speech about classroom organisation (TES, June 14), the Labour spin-doctors ensure that the message is once again knocking copy against comprehensives, implying that teachers are ideologically committed to mixed-ability grouping at all costs and to the detriment of children's achievement. And now grouping by ability has become one of Labour's manifesto pledges.

It is probably too much to hope that politicians will base what they say upon reality in this period of ferment leading up to a general election but surely we all know that the vast majority of secondary schools employ a judicious mixture of groupings to ensure that children make good progress.

There are very few secondary schools where 100 per cent mixed-ability grouping is the norm. Sidney Stringer Community Technology College in Coventry which recently received "glowing praise" from the Office for Standards in Education (TES, June 14) is a notable exception. Like Estelle Morris, a Labour education spokesperson, I used to teach at Sidney Stringer in its early days in the 1970s. Internationally renowned at that time, the school made mixed-ability teaching work where the resources were made available.

Teams of teachers, including educational support and language specialists, met in timetable time each week to review progress and prepare resources to ensure what later became known as "differentiation" was a reality, and that all pupils made genuine progress. Staffing was generous, with a "float" teacher usually available. Few secondary schools in the state sector can afford to follow suit these days, but with teamwork and planning, mixed ability can be made to work.

Ask about groupings in a fee-paying school, and you will often be told that the groups are very mixed in their ability. Surprisingly, perhaps, there has been little outcry about this. Could it be that with the small class sizes possible in a well-funded school, the teachers are able to ensure that all pupils are given the support and attention they need?

Rather more typical now than Sidney Stringer is Wrenn school in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. Formed into a mixed comprehensive from two single-sex grammar schools in 1975, the decision to teach the first-year pupils in mixed-ability forms was taken in 1983. All concerned would probably agree that teaching methods lagged behind the change in organisation. None the less, in 1988 that year group obtained the best GCSE results till then for the school; and with the usual annual fluctuations they have continued to improve since. In 1990 that same year group also gained the best A-level results the school had seen. Mixed-ability grouping in the early years of their secondary education had benefited the whole year-group.

In 1996, Wrenn school, like most secondaries, operates a mixed economy, starting in Year 7 with all teaching in form groups. These groups are constructed to keep positive friendship groups together and to ensure a balance - of abilities, backgrounds and ethnic groups. By Year 9 pupils are grouped by ability for most of their lessons.

Groupings depend upon many factors including the pupils' age, the teaching team and their approaches, the subject and the support available. Before a subject department introduces ability grouping, the curriculum leaders of the school have to be sure that the department has effective assessment in place. The flawed key stage 3 national tests, for example, would not be acceptable, even if they were available when needed. The size of teaching groups and educational support available have to be considered, and there must be genuine provision for movement between sets. Pupils and their parents are kept informed, and the children make good progress in terms of their agreed action plans.

By all means let us examine the groupings deployed in our secondary schools, and make sure that the teaching methods used are appropriate to the children's needs. The assertion by Anthea Millett, chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, that pedagogy is at the heart of education is more welcome than Mr Blair's pronouncements. Let us ask the politicians as they stoke up the fires for the impending election to stop giving glib advice on the organisation of schools and to entrust this to the professionals who know the needs of their pupils and to the governors who know their school.

The true role of our political leaders should be to provide sufficient resources, not to interfere in the curriculum and organisation of each school.

Peter Miller is vice-president of the Secondary Heads Association and deputy head of Wrenn school.

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