Setting helps teachers, not their pupils

7th September 2001 at 01:00
Primary maths results are better in mixed ability groups, says a new study. Athalie Matthews reports

PRIMARY schoolchildren who are taught in mixed ability groups for maths achieve better results than those who are put into sets, new research has shown.

A study, carried out by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, of the progress of 1,200 children at key stage 2, found that the test results of mixed-ability classes were up to 7 per cent higher than those achieved in sets.

Mixed classes were shown to be of benefit to slow learners, while levels of attainment in more able children did not suffer.

The findings, published in the Oxford Review of Education, vindicate teaching methods in other countries, such as Japan, Hungary and Switzerland, where attainment levels in maths are particularly high. But they conflict with pronouncements by the Prime Minister and David Blunkett, the former education secretary, encouraging more setting.

The study, carried out in schools in Barking and Dagenham, East London, is seen as more reliable than previous research because all the schools used the same teaching materials.

Teaching methods were also harmonised, with desks placed in a horseshoe. Children were encouraged to vocalise their answers as well as working on their own.

The report concludes: "The figures support a tentative conclusion that children of all levels of attainment do better when taught in mixed ability groups and that the diversity of attainment is unlikely to be widened as a result of this. It seems increasingly likely that a policy of setting is adopted primarily for the not unimportant objective of making a teacher's task more manageable."

Professor Sig Prais of the ESRC said the study strongly indicated that British primary schools should be following educational policy in continental schools where mixed ability classes are the norm.

He said: "This study came about after experts spent seven years studying teaching methods in countries with better maths results than Britain.

"In Switzerland, where children work in mixed ability groups and teachers have a manual with lesson plans for each day, pupils were getting the best results.

"We decided to translate the Swiss teachers' teaching manual into English and carry out the same lessons in setted groups and mixed groups to see whether the way children were grouped made a difference."

The Department for Education and Skills said: "This vindicates the findings of the Numeracy Task Force in 1998 and the decision to make it compulsory for primary schoolchildren to be taught maths in mixed ability groups for one hour a day.

"Since the introduction of this policy there has been a marked increase in standards, with 13 per cent more 11-year-olds reaching the expected level than before."

Another study by London University's Institute of Education showed that secondary pupils do not like being taught in mixed groups.

Questionnaires filled out by more than 6,000 14 to 15-year-olds revealed that six out of 10 pupils preferred to be put into sets. The main reason cited was being allowed to work at their own pace and not being distracted by behavioural problems.

Most of their teachers also felt that mixed ability groups were not suitable for maths teaching.

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