May 2013


  • Advantage, Anyone?
    The belief that streaming and setting promotes rigour and therefore raises standards is not borne out by the evidence and could be putting poorer students at even greater disadvantage, according to new ASCL research into social mobility. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
  • Leading lessons
    A school-based centre dedicated to leadership and training is developing innovative approaches to professional development for the school that runs it and for its neighbours, explains Chris Holmwood. More
  • Climate control
    Switching to part-time headship ahead of retirement can give a school extra time to recruit a new leader and help the transition to a new life, as Colin Mason is discovering. More
  • Making vital connections
    They began as informal self-help groups but business manager networks are morphing into a vital source of support for the profession. Liz Lightfoot reports. More
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The belief that streaming and setting promotes rigour and therefore raises standards is not borne out by the evidence and could be putting poorer students at even greater disadvantage, according to new ASCL research into social mobility. Dorothy Lepkowska reports.

Advantage, Anyone?

A great deal of care goes into the planning of teaching groups at Swanwick Hall School in Alfreton. Teachers consider which students will work well together academically as well as socially and emotionally and may put out name cards on desks before each lesson to ensure the class is correctly structured to meet the demands and challenges of the lesson.

Unlike most schools, this Derbyshire secondary does not stream or set by ability in most subjects. Students are set in maths in Year 7 and in science in Year 9, but for every other subject, including English, they are taught in mixed ability groups.

Jonathan Fawcett, the headteacher, believes that this is unusual. “As far
as I know, mixed ability teaching in secondary schools is not the norm,
but it works well for us,” Jonathan says. “One of the contexts in which
we work is raising aspirations because of the area we serve.”

Swanwick Hall has an intake of mainly white, working-class children living in a former mining community. A signififi cant proportion of them come from areas of high social deprivation, with a wide socio-economic mix among the population. That mix creates a diversity of attitudes and aspirations.

“I know when I speak to colleagues who head schools in more urban areas that migrant families often bring a work ethic and aspirations that rub off on all children and they are a role model,” Jonathan says. “We don’t really have that here, and that is one of the reasons we group students in the way we do. But mixed ability is not just about random grouping. We use a rigorous process to create the right balance within teaching groups.

“Our view is that if you stream students, you risk ending up with a grammar/secondary modern set-up,” he adds. “You also run the risk of grouping children not by ability or potential, but by behaviour or attitude.”

Studies into the effects of streaming and setting would tend to support the view that social mobility can be affected by the ways that schools are structured and children are taught.

Nine interventions

A report commissioned by ASCL, Promoting Social Mobility: What the government can and should be doing, lists nine interventions that need to be considered by policy makers in promoting social mobility in schools. One of these looks at the signifi cance of reducing segregation within schools – in other words, teaching children of different abilities together.

Becky Francis, professor of education and social justice at King’s College London, who has researched social mobility for a number of years and wrote the report, says, “Nearly all comprehensives going back decades have had some sort of student grouping and more recently, in the minds of politicians, there is a conflation between standards and streaming and setting which somehow equate to rigour, though there is no evidence for this.

“The research around streaming and setting has never said anything other than that it disadvantages poorer students.”

The report points to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data that shows that students achieve more in
schools where there is less segregation and that jurisdictions with more integrated education systems have narrower achievement gaps
by socio-economic background.

Other studies have also cast doubt on the benefits of setting by ability
even for those who are high-achievers. Research by Boaler and Wiliam in their 2001 paper, Setting, streaming and mixed ability teaching, found that overall “there is little, if any, research that supports the notion that setting enhances achievement for students.

“Indeed, in bringing together the different research studies on ability grouping the general conclusion is that streaming has no academic benefits whatsoever, while setting confers small academic benefits on some high-attaining students, at the expense of large disadvantages for lower attainers.”

Reasons for this could be the quality of teaching assigned to higher
and lower sets and the distorted perceptions that teachers hold of
young people in different sets.

Research showed that, overall, lower streams and sets tend to be
assigned less experienced and less qualified teachers, while the best
teachers tend to be concentrated on the highest ability students.

One 2005 study showed that teachers working with higher attainers tended to deliver faster-paced and more demanding lessons, for example, while those teaching groups of lower abilities covered less of the curriculum and at a slower pace. This, in turn, led to disaffection and damage to young people’s self-perception.

“Furthermore, studies showed that children from challenged backgrounds are disproportionately disadvantaged for all the wrong
reasons as they may often be streamed and set not on their raw ability, but on teacher perceptions,” Becky says.

She adds that headteachers and teachers were o often understandably
sceptical when presented with the evidence about setting, perhaps because it seemed intuitive to organise classes in this way. One prevalent view among the profession was that it was hard for some teachers to meet students’ individual needs in a mixed ability group.

Mixed ability teaching

“We know that mixed ability teaching is more demanding on the teacher, but good teachers know how to teach mixed ability so there needs to be greater emphasis on this in teacher training and continuing professional development (CPD),” she says.

“Schools are now being tasked to narrow the socio-economic gaps in achievement, which is well overdue, so how they organise their classrooms is something they need to consider closely.”

She says schools considering how to organise their classes should ask themselves if there were missed opportunities for mixed ability
teaching, whether low ability sets had equal access to excellent teachers and, where sets are used, whether pedagogy for lower sets is of high quality and set to high expectations.

At Swanwick Hall a great deal of emphasis is placed on the quality of teaching and on ensuring that the methods employed in the classroom are appropriate to the group. Teachers taking mixed ability groups are expected to use differentiation across the ability range.

“In English, for example, when studying a text, the teacher may begin
questioning of students with simpler, more basic questions and gradually make them more difficult and sophisticated to bring in students of higher ability,” Jonathan Fawcett says.

“This enables students of lower ability to follow the discussion and hopefully see the deeper thinking behind it. Often this differentiation is
very subtle. We had a situation where an Ofsted inspector could not see it.”

Maths and science, the two subjects in which students are put into sets, remain a challenge for the school, he admits.

“That is the irony here – we seem to still have an inverse correlation
between our approach and performance. I am now looking at ways of introducing mixed ability teaching in mathematics, but I accept the arguments that it is a subject that lends itself better to setting by ability.

“But our sets are very fluid and students can move between them depending on their progress.”

Mixed ability teaching across the majority of subjects has seen
performance improve and attendance rise. In 2006, when he arrived as head, 30 per cent of students were achieving five A* to C grades including English and maths (49 per cent in all subjects), compared with a result last year of 56 per cent (75 per cent in all subjects).

Attendance has gone up from 92 to 95 per cent, and the number leaving the school and not going into education, employment and training has come down from 12 to 1 per cent.

“I believe our approach ensures that every ability range is engaged in the lesson and nothing is done to the detriment of the A* students,” he says.

“The more motivated students, regardless of ability, create an ethos of achievement which motivates and engages all students. A culture of whole class, extended discussion and involvement enables all students to raise their game.

“In a school where aspiration is one of our biggest challenges, this is what works for us.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.

ASCL-commissioned reports into social mobility can be found at