The Starting Gun
It was the day after I had run the London Marathon in 2017 and the last thing I wanted in the world was an after-school staff meeting. To exacerbate matters it was held in a classroom where the only seating option was a stool (at the time it was in transition from an Art room to a Drama room on its way to becoming a Maths classroom now that it isn’t a Science lab anymore) so my legs were particularly unhappy to be present at the meeting and not in an ice bath. On the agenda was setting and in particular whether we should move towards mixed ability classes. High on acid (lactic) I was unusually happy to sit back and listen to the various perspectives. The mathematicians were acutely angry, the scientists were studiously skeptical, the geographers were earth-shatteringly eager. I had done limited research, and keenly aware that you could make research say whatever you wanted to anyway, voted with my blistered feet. Let’s go mixed ability in English and think about it in September once my calf muscles stop throbbing.
Mixed ability teaching fits our school perfectly. We have a truly comprehensive intake, a wonderful cocktail of the most affluent and the most socially deprived. From the beginning we have set out an ethos whereby any visitor should be able to walk into any classroom and not be able to tell who is the son of a millionaire and who gets a free school lunch. For me, the main problem with setting is that this ethos just doesn’t work. If you set in Year 7 based on prior attainment or even your own baseline testing, you are inevitably reinforcing the social divide that any decent comprehensive school should be seeking to close. If you would have walked into a bottom set lesson at our school in the spring of 2017 you would not have thought “oh, what a lovely cocktail of social backgrounds”. Mixed ability teaching allows us to fully embrace our ethos, to truly claim that those from the most deprived backgrounds have the same opportunities as the most affluent. And that is why we had to make it work.
Who’s Your Number One?
For the first couple of months, it didn’t really work. You could pretend that it did: behaviour was much better, the students with the lowest attainment made more progress, there was no resentment over who taught which class. But the cracks were there. Parents of the most able students emailed to question whether their sons were being stretched enough (they were right). Assessment data showed that boys in the middle were making no more progress than before (it didn’t lie). And while behaviour management was easier than ever, there was a nagging sense that we were working too hard to get everyone where we wanted them to be. The scourge: teaching to the middle. The cure: Tom Sherrington (amongst others). Having started a department meeting this time last year by reading Teaching to the Top we decided on our new approach to planning. For each class we were to name the ‘number one’ boy in that class and plan the lesson as if it was just for him. Once that was in place, all that remained was to differentiate downwards. This shift in mindset was instrumental in improving our delivery of mixed ability teaching, ensuring that stretch was there automatically rather than a bolt-on. The scourge was laid to rest.
Home and Away
In terms of my own teaching, one area where I’ve had to become more flexible in order to deliver mixed ability teaching effectively is seating plans. In the past I had let behaviour drive my seating plans, employing a largely ‘divide and rule’ approach that seemed to work but paid little heed to the academic side of things and was only refreshed every half-term, if at all. With my room set out in groups, it undermines the ethos of mixed ability to group the class by ability as you just end up setting up mini-sets within your own classroom. Instead I have adopted an unofficial ‘home and away’ system. At ‘home’ the boys are strategically grouped so that the most able and least able work alongside each other, the affluent rub shoulders with the pupil premium and the studious influence the distracted. But within each sequence of lessons I make sure that these groupings are broken. The ‘away’ seating plan allows the high ability to challenge each other, while allowing more strategic intervention for those who require it. I change these all the time and the boys seem to enjoy a more dynamic approach to where they sit and who they can learn from.
Best of Both Worlds?
Having embedded mixed ability teaching at KS3 and made it work, this September we have gone totally mixed ability with Year 10 for the first time. I have been reticent to do this in the past, concerned by the effect it could have on the attainment of the most able. We are fortunate in our school to have co-curricular built into the school day so at KS3 finding bespoke ‘stretch’ lessons has been straightforward. At KS4 this is less easy but luckily, and much to my surprise, the timetable has come to our rescue. In Year 10 we now have the luxury of 5 lessons a week instead of 4 and this has provided us with the chance to have the best of both worlds. Instead of letting the extra lesson be soaked up by more curriculum time (we will get through the curriculum, we always get through the curriculum) we have used it as a weekly ‘review’ lesson where the high ability are stretched, the middle ability consolidate their learning and the lower ability have a consistent booster. While the course is delivered in 4 mixed ability lessons a week, the bonus lesson (currently ‘Turnaround Tuesday’) means that we are personalising learning like never before while sticking to our ethos that mixed ability works for us.