Would you prefer your seven year old child to be taught in a mixed ability class or not?
According to the Millennium Cohort Study whether a seven year old child is taught in a mixed ability class or streamed makes a significant impact on their attainment. This paper from the IoE draws on the evidence from the study and draws some stark and not altogether surprising conclusions: “Children in the ‘top’ stream achieved more and made significantly more academic progress than children attending schools that did not stream, while children in the ‘middle’ or ‘bottom’ streams achieved less and made significantly less academic progress.”
I have not had access to the rest of the report so I am not sure what conclusions it draws but from this statement alone the challenges for primary education are huge. Streaming is not good for ‘middle’ ability and ‘low’ ability children, however it is good for children in the ‘top’ stream. If you are a parent of a child who would be potentially in the ‘top’ stream the likelihood that they will achieve more and make significantly more progress if they were streamed than they would in a mixed ability class is something to ponder. In order for the majority of children to do better as a whole parents of children who are highly able should think carefully, do I want my child to do worse so that others might do better or do I want my child to do the best that they can so that they might have an academically flourishing life?
This is something that is very close to home for me. My little ‘un, when she was six, was taught in a mixed ability class. I guess that she was one of the ‘top three’ pupils. What do I mean by ‘guess’? Well, her teacher and the school went to great lengths to deny that they were ‘setting’ within the ‘mixed ability’ class. The children were assigned to tables which were given names to differentiate them: Octagon, Hexagon, Pentagon, Rectangle, Square, Triangle, and Circle (despite the names hinting that the tables would be different shapes they all, somewhat disappointingly, looked the same). My little ‘un and her little friends were sat at the Octagon table; there were three children sat at the ‘Circle’ table.
What angle were the school trying out with this I wondered, only to be told again and again that the names of the tables were not significant. However, the children knew,.. they told us octagon got the difficult work and circle got the easiest. The tables were there to serve some hidden purpose, I can only think it was probably to do with worksheet distribution. In the hothouse atmosphere of the Octagon the children were given worksheets and when they had completed the worksheet they were given ‘extension work’ worksheets to do. The teacher spent most of the time teaching to the ‘middle’ where the majority of the thirty or so other children found themselves (the bell curve…) The two assistants spent a lot of time working with the ‘circle’. The result was that the Octagons decided, as they ended up with more worksheets by completing their worksheets, to stop completing worksheets and talk to each other instead. By the end of year two my little ‘un got a report which said she is always chatting and never completes her work. This was her experience of the Octagon for you: chat to your friends and do the minimal amount of work. I’m sure that this ‘Ofsted Good’ school is not typical but it does seem to reflect something inherent in the report and somewhere along the lines that those who are ‘top’ might be left to their own devices a bit more and that the pretence of mixed ability might be not as mixed as we would expect it?
If some primary schools are ‘setting’ by tables in mixed ability classes, is ‘this’ really mixed ability teaching? If it is, I suppose my little ‘un and her fellow octagons in the classroom had some positive effect on the others in that class, well according to the report cited above ‘they’ did but for me this is all most unsatisfactory. What does really good mixed ability teaching really look like and even ‘if’ this is done can it truly fulfil the needs of all pupils? I doubt it.
The problem is, what can be done? Either we pitch parent against parent in the battle for their little ones’ futures or we try and do something else, is there a solution that can help all children to fulfil their potential, not streaming, not mixed ability, but a mix of the two? Are there schools who teach part set and part mixed ability across all subjects at Primary and I mean in all subjects, in a fluid way? Would this be possible in primary schools or, at least, in some primary schools? Or should we just not worry about it and carry on as before?