Don’t set pupils in stone, use mixed-ability classes

27th November 2015 at 00:00
Rather than grouping children by what they can already do, stretch them further

Imagine a classroom where the “set” tables are labelled from “killer whale” to “plankton”. Yes, “plankton”.

Even in schools ardently in favour of setting, you’d think such a situation would never occur. But, unfortunately, this was a real set-up at one of the teaching practice placements of a colleague of mine.

Whenever I share this story with teachers their reaction is always one of horror. Not at the setting itself, but at the naming of the tables in such an insensitive way.

My response is always the same: is there really any difference between labelling children as “killer whales” or “plankton” and labelling them as “hexagons” or “circles”?

Personally speaking, the thought of telling a child what they are – and are not – capable of feels morally wrong.

What do you tell the seventh child who can’t fit on the “top table” as there are only six spaces? How do you prevent children from feeling pressure over maintaining their place in the room or raise the self-esteem of the child sitting in the “bottom” group? Why should we tell each table of children what they are capable of, giving them work we have already decided that they can do?

Our learning should not be limited by our own expectations or those of others. We don’t just avoid setting at our school, we even avoid the term “ability”: “current attainment” is so much more open-minded.

Admittedly, the move to mixed-attainment seating is not easy. It has taken us a while to get it right and has involved much experimentation. Here are the key changes:

Logistical planning

Our lesson structures are radically different from what they were. The three-part lesson has gone and children are now involved in a whole-class introduction only if they need to be. Some choose to opt out of this if they feel the content is something they can already do. For example, the teacher might share the type of calculation the class will be learning to solve in maths that day. If a child already feels confident with this, they have no need to listen to the explanation – they can proceed independently.

Spontaneous “carpet clubs” are a common feature of lessons as the teachers use effective Assessment for Learning strategies to change the direction of the learning in real-time response. If a group of children is showing they have nailed a concept, they can move to the carpet space, where a new piece of learning can be established to broaden their understanding or take them on to the next stage of thinking.

Depth of knowledge

Secure teacher subject knowledge has to be in place to enable truly effective differentiation. To this end, I have released my maths leader from class for the year to support colleagues, providing a true understanding of what depth and mastery looks like in the subject.

Peer learning

Our children have mixed-attainment learning buddies for different subjects. This is in response to findings from the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit that show peer tutoring and collaborative learning are highly effective.

Pupil involvement

There is a huge focus on pupil involvement. The children are familiar with the acronym WE CARE – recognising Working together, Enthusiasm, Creativity, Ambition, Reflection and Enquiry as key learning skills.

These skills form a pivotal role in our curriculum and pupils are expected to understand what they look like and what they need to do to improve them.

The clear use of WALTs (“We Are Learning To...” – some would call this a learning objective) and success criteria helps to facilitate structured self-reflection. Combining this with our feedback policy, we seek to ensure that our children always know where they are, what they are aiming for next, how they are going to get there and what it will look like when they do.

In addition, our Learning Ladders assessment system makes the next steps really explicit to our children. They let their teacher know when they feel they are ready for a “prove it” task to secure the next rung.

Self-selected work

Because our children are now so much more confident in making judgements about how their learning is going, they can make decisions about the pitch of work they can access. Teachers share the tasks on offer and explain how the level of difficulty increases.

Yes, this needs practice. There will always be occasions when an adult needs to step in as the task selected is too tricky or too simple. Yet, as time passes, these mistakes are fewer and further between.

A practical suggestion for a maths lesson would be to have the first few answers available so that when the children have completed the questions they can check to see if they were correct and then decide if they need to change challenge. Children can opt for the carpet clubs. They can also choose to access “clue cards” that will give them the sorts of hints that a teacher would give while helping to maintain their independence.

Teachers can decide to have children work in their “base place” (usual seat) on their chosen task or they might group all the “Task A” children together, especially if the task is resource-dependent.

Sometimes the teacher will instruct the pupils on a certain task based on the marking of the previous learning.

I clearly remember a Year 3 English lesson when our children used to sit in “ability” groups. The table that was struggling the most was a lively group of boys and one lone girl, who all found it difficult to stay on task with their writing as they constantly distracted each other.

The adult with the group moved from one to another, helping them in turn, while also trying to keep their behaviour in check. We tried mixed-attainment seating instead and the result was so positive. The boys were dispersed around the room, sitting with peers who modelled good learning to them. The adult could still go and work with each of them in turn; they just needed to take a few steps from table to table to do so.

The message to those children was that they could learn like everyone else in the class and they were expected to rise to the challenge that was set for them.

Is mixed-attainment teaching in the classroom always easy? Definitely not. Is it worth the effort for the impact on learning and pupil self-esteem? Always.

Sam Hunter is headteacher at Hiltingbury Junior School in Hampshire

‘Many in low sets speak of their shock and embarrassment’

We are now 18 months into our Education Endowment Foundation-funded project Best Practice in Grouping Students, writes Becky Francis, professor of Education and Social Justice at King’s College London.

After a pilot year working with six secondary schools, we are currently half a term into the two-year randomised controlled trial element of the study with 139 schools.

Our pilot study confirmed many of the trends established by international research on segregating children by attainment. It seems that setting and streaming do indeed begin to shape children’s perceptions of their “ability”.

Although many in low sets are able to rationalise their placement as being “for their own good”, many also speak of their shock and embarrassment at their placement in lower groups. For some there is frustration that, however well they seem to do, they still remain there. Those in high sets speak freely of how they would feel ashamed and discouraged if they were in lower groups. The question for our setting intervention is whether measures to address such experiences will make a difference.

What is becoming clear is that there are no easy solutions. Although we see inspiring teaching in our mixed-attainment study schools, it seems children, as well as teachers, tend to hold the view that mixed-attainment teaching is more difficult. We have learned that schools are going to need a lot of help to transition to mixed-attainment practice.

We are all learning together going forward, and are excited at the prospect of being able to test effective practice in grouping students, as well as developing the tools to disseminate that practice among schools.

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