All set to succeed
Educationists concerned that some primary schoolchildren are not fulfilling their potential soley by being in mixed ability classes have developed a project in ten inner city schools which has children divided into target groups, or sets, for maths and English.
It is one strand of a local education authority initiative, partly funded by City Challenge, designed to raise achievement in inner city Nottingham schools. Originally developed as a GEST project linked to a reading recovery scheme, it has been maintained to run alongside City Challenge until 1997. Along with target grouping, LEA schools are developing innovative home-school partnerships and projects that draw parents into schools to help out and gain marketable experience at the same time.
But it is the target groups that are arousing the most interest, not least because the idea of setting in primary schools appears to go against the liberal pedagogical traditions of mixed ability primary education that have led the state system since the 1960s. And Nottingham, whose education committee is staunchly Labour and would not be associated with practices such as streaming, is firmly behind this scheme. There is no contradiction here. According to John Botham, headteacher of Greenwood Junior School and field manager of the project, "This is much more flexible than just ability grouping and it has nothing to do with streaming. We are reacting to evidence showing that something needs to be done. What we saw was that, as an LEA, we were doing particularly badly with the higher achieving children, those who get on with things quietly and appear to be doing well but not fulfilling their potential. " Whereas streaming can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for children, target grouping in these Nottingham schools is characterised by fluidity: regular termly assessments are conducted to monitor children's progress and ensure that they're getting the most out of the set that they're in. At Greenwood Juniors, five or six children a term go up a set. These sets are not made of stone.
To work out the target groups in the first place, pupils are tested every summer in maths (for which NFER tests are used ) and English. Children are placed into the appropriate group based on the results of those tests, together with teachers' assessments. The Ginn Core Maths Scheme is used throughout the ability groups. At Greenwood, each year group has four such groups, referred to by the name of the teacher who takes each one. You're not in Set A (the highest) - you're in Ms Knott's group three doors down. Academic pecking order is not mentioned, even if children know where in the hierarchy of achievement they fit. Sarah Blamey, acting deputy head, says: "At the beginning, I was worried about the impact this could have on children's self-esteem. But we never use the terminology that places them in any order." She and other colleagues believe there is no more attention drawn to achievement levels through this system than there is in mixed ability classes, where the differences are far more apparent. Headteacher John Botham, to support this, cites the example of a child in a low ability group. "He said he was glad he was away from the smarter children who were putting too much pressure on him."
Children spend each morning in their allocated maths or English set, which means most of them moving from their classroom and teacher to another, as they would in secondary school. After lunch, they re-group in their mixed ability classes for the rest of the day. This mixing of methodologies is very much part of the scheme. No single orthodoxy exists and teachers will talk about the advantages of both approaches for different subjects and situations. "Some subjects lend themselves better to mixed ability groups, like art, creative writing, topic work, content-based subjects like history. But for teaching specific skills, it's much easier and more effective to do it in set groups", says Sarah Blamey.
At Greenwood School, further target groups are employed. Girls have their own science lessons and children who have missed a lot of school, for example because of overseas visits, are grouped together to get them back on course.
As you might expect, adequate support is necessary for a scheme that is designed to meet children's individual needs. Muslim children make up 60 per cent of Greenwood Junior's population, which means that Section 11 teachers deliver an important service, working closely with class teachers. So do nursery nurses, who are employed to support teachers and are seen as having equal status by staff or pupils in their tasks. "We involve the support staff at every stage and work in teams, in which everyone's opinion is valued, " says Kath Twigger. "The target groups wouldn't be as effective if the teaching and planning were not collaborative."
And effective they seem to be. Results from tests show children's achievement has been raised to a measurable degree since the target groupings were introduced in 1992. A recent OFSTED evaluation, the draft copy of which was circulated at the City Achievement Conference, bears this out, although figures are not yet available. So impressed is the LEA with the results that it will be considering how to broaden the concepts to reach more schools.
As a project that aims to heighten expectations and achievement among inner city children, it appears to be a success. The most able children can, many for the first time, stretch and progress at their own pace. The less able can progress at a speed that is realistic for them, but not too easy, collaborating and bouncing ideas about as they would in any group, because diversity exists even in target groups. The middle sets, too, meet their challenges, designed and closely monitored by the LEA and the school.
Sarah Blamey speaks for many of her colleagues when she extolls the virtues of this approach. "You're setting goals for the children all the time and because they're targeted at their ability, they can make those achievements. We try to celebrate their achievements within the setting groups. Children get a sense of self worth by getting better at something. And they are getting that in set groups."