Teachwell | Mixed Ability Classes
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Mixed Ability Classes


One of the 5 big debates chosen for the Debating Education event at Michaela Community School last Saturday, was whether mixed ability classes worked. While I discussed this in brief in my blog about the whole event, I feel that it is an issue worth exploring.


The evidence against setting includes:


  • the bottom set suffer from low self-esteem,
  • they do not learn from their peers,
  • they lose hope and motivation,
  • behaviour management becomes a nightmare,
  • those who are placed in multiple lower sets end up seriously disengaged from the education system.


It was clear that Bruno Reddy’s knowledge of mixed ability groups was confined to that of secondary schools. In particular, his suggestion that children be placed in mixed ability classes but be grouped by ability and or receive additional support during other lessons, is a common choice in primary school’s already.


So how does mixed ability work in a primary classroom? Essentially, one has a few choices in terms of how one seats a mixed ability class. If the tables are in groups then it is usually the case that children with similar abilities will be sat together. What this actually does is recreate the sets at classroom level. This has spawned the practice of sitting the lowest ability and SEN pupils on a table which becomes the ‘TA’s group’. This creates a culture of dependency among those children. If they are lucky, a teacher will wean them off this constant support but not all are so lucky.


Oh and children know the groups are based on ability. I recall a new Year 4 child being shown around my class by a buddy. She went straight to the list of reading, writing and numeracy tables, and asked her how the tables were ranked. So much for using neutral names for groups.


Other means have been tried such as sitting children in non-ability groups and pairs but the issue remains. Why? Because they know. They only have to glance at the person next to them to see if their work is harder/the same/easier. Of course there is the worksheet with ‘increasing’ questions of increasing difficulty but unfortunately, there too, it’s clear who has completed more of the sheet.


Open-ended? What numbers are on their question? Or maybe that should be mixed too, in which case we can hope that the child struggling to add two 1 digit numbers will not notice the child who can add 3 digit numbers with ease. Maybe they will miraculously learn from their peers and close this gap. Of course we come to deliberate mixed ability pairings so that the more able can teach the less able. Instead of making the lower ability children dependent on TA’s we make them dependent on other children instead.


Of course there is the argument about different subjects – but I wonder which. Reading? Will still read at different levels. Writing? I have some sympathy for this in terms of generating ideas but the reality is that those children who struggle to write need, even for a short time, a curriculum which reflects this. Scaffolds, paired writing, group writing, scribing are no substitutes for actually being able to write.


As for additional support in other lessons, children are openly pulled out of class and who is this hidden from? The children in the groups? The children left in class? How many of those children have to be in these catch up intervention groups year after year? This means that they miss out on music, history, PE, etc. They are unable to lay a foundation in these subjects and this catches up with them at some point too. The real tragedy is that we know that some children will learn literacy and numeracy skills through these subjects better than in lessons dedicated to them respectively. In fact, these subjects may be their forte in the first place.


So after all these myriad attempts what benefit do we really get from mixed ability classes? What benefit do the children get? Is setting really any worse than missing out on other subjects in order to catch up?


Oh and did I mention – the children know anyway.


This post was originally published on the Labour Teachers website.

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