The trouble with schools is that we never quite get it right when it comes to student groupings and that’s because it’s complicated and not clear cut.
This is the sixth in my series of 6 priorities I believe are essential, if we are to recover fully from school closures. Hopefully, attention given to these six areas will not only help schools recover but place them in a stronger position than before the closures.
The 6 priorities are as follows:
- Become Trauma Informed
- Give more time to Form Tutors
- Develop aspirations in young people
- Prepare for the future by developing extended tasks
- Focus on skills and habits of learning first
- Re-set/re-group; there will be gaps to close
Apologies for the delay in writing this one, but I continue to be distracted by all that’s going on – however, let’s put all of that to one side and focus on student groupings.
Now that all our students are back, I imagine most of you this term, have been assessing learning and progress against what we would expect to see normally, year to year. If your findings are similar to mine, I’m sure you will agree with me that in terms of:
- Knowledge – a lot has been forgotten.
- skills e.g. literacy and numeracy – there has been deterioration in ability
- learning habits . . . well . . . have you discussed or considered these?
Your findings will have no doubt identified the increased gap in attainment and skills between students from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to more affluent families. The Education Endowment Foundation has a good summary of findings HERE.
When we started back after Easter and I first began to write these 6 blogs, I included this topic because my first thought was to follow my natural instinct and look at how best to group our students. After reading about some of the research into the attainment following the first round of closures, I anticipated a big gap and wondered how best to group students on our return.
I must confess, I haven’t sat down with Heads of Department and discussed this with them, mainly because there were so many other Covid response related distractions to contend with; the main one being the Centre Determined Grades (or whatever the equivalent was in England).
In a school with our demographic (situated in a very high area of deprivation) the gap noticeably increased as we progressed through both closure periods, and so the temptation was to re-set our students in order to ensure lessons were pitched at the right level for the large range of ability and need. On hind-site, I’m glad we haven’t yet.
There is no definitive evidence to state that setting works or doesn’t work. It is a very complex issue. Have a look at this literature review on student groupings which although was carried out in 2005 is still very relevant. The Education Endowment Foundation which draws on work from the last 50 years states:
“The evidence suggests that setting and streaming has a very small negative impact for low and mid-range attaining learners, and a very small positive impact for higher attaining pupils.” Click here to read the full article.
Should we put the needs of staff first?
Even this study ‘suggests’ rather than states the findings with certainty. In short, grouping or setting for the vast majority of students in mainstream has little or no benefit or disadvantage. What it can do is make things easier for staff, in relation to differentiation or personalisation in the staff room.
While staff considerations are certainly a factor to consider at the moment following the stresses they have been under over the past 18 months or so, school leaders should be conscious of the fact that if they are regrouping or resetting children at the moment in their schools, the prime reason may be to focus on the needs teachers who will be the main beneficiaries rather than the children.
I’m not saying we do this deliberately or even consciously and it may be the correct and proper thing to do in schools at the moment, however we need to be aware of this, and always question our reasons for setting. It may be that we find putting the needs of teachers first, leads to more effective lessons where teachers can realistically set work at the appropriate level for all of the students in their class. If this is the case then we need to be particularly vigilant when it comes to measuring the relative progress of students in all classes or sets.
There may be cases where it is right to set or even stream.
I’ve described in a previous blog the small transition groups we’ve created in Years 7 & 8 where the students are taught in the main by primary trained teachers and do practical subjects with the rest of the school. To some extent this can be regarded as streaming as most of their lessons are taught in the one class with the same pupils. Streaming has been frowned upon and I don’t agree with it wholesale either. However we have implemented this for cohorts of our students, who will flounder in mainstream classes no matter how good the teacher. These are students who ten or fifteen years ago in times of greater funding to schools and more access to support from external agencies (who now no longer exist), will have attended specialist provision.
We do monitor the progress of these students closely and after 3 years of doing this, I believe we made the right decision as the students are progressing well. There are downsides however, such as not being given the opportunity to work alongside and learn from more able peers or good role models, but disadvantages such as this are outweighed by the advantages of consistently implementing a curriculum and pedagogy that works.
We have moved into Year 9 and 10 with this model for a small group of students and I would say the advantages begin to decline. As the students grow older they become more aware that they are in ‘different’ classes and the other students in the year become more aware that these groups exist. Observations would suggest though, that all the students in these year groups have lived with these groupings in school since they arrived and don’t really acknowledge the differences. Nevertheless, vigilance is vital and the sensitivities of the students in these year groups need to be monitored through student voice.
A possible solution
So, is there a way to address the needs of all students without placing unrealistic expectations on the teacher, but at the same time ensuring that the young people in your school have access to good role models, are pushed by their peers not held back and given the chance to fly?
I personally think the answer comes in the form of team teaching combined with a project-based learning approach or extended activities. I know, I’m guilty of flogging this approach far too often, but I am convinced it is the most effective way to enable learning for all in a 21st century context.
Projects or extended activities enable a blended approach which involves three types of learning activity:
- Seminars/lectures – where the difficult concepts are identified by the teacher in advance and taught in whichever way the teacher finds effective
- Focus time – where the students who are able to (and have understood the difficult concepts), work on their projects independently or in teams with a teacher facilitating.
- Tutorials, where small groups meet with a teacher to have their work/progress checked and discussed, or where those who have struggled with a difficult concept (or those who need to be extended) are given a small group seminar.
In normal good lessons this will happen, however it is difficult for one teacher where there is a wide range of ability in the class. This is where team teaching comes in. In subjects such as English, Maths or Science year or half-year groups are often taught at the same time and so team teaching can take place. Newer schools may have open spaces, or classrooms with flexible walls which can combine two classes, but even if you don’t have these luxuries, it can still be possible.
Take the following example in a school without open spaces: Three teachers all have a Year 8 classes running at the same time. They plan the project together and come up with the following:
- They decide upon the difficult concepts that will need to be taught and discussed with students and then do the following:
- They then decide to book the hall to deliver lectures at certain times to all three classes. The teachers decide in advance who will prepare and deliver each concept.
- For some concepts, they decide to cram the equivalent of up to two classes into one class allowing one teacher to deliver, one to support and one to take the rest of the students to a class to deliver the concept at a differentiated level
- For some concepts they deliver the session in their own class
- Focus time and tutorials are divided up in the following ways:
- Two teachers take all of the students in two separate rooms to carry on with their projects while the other takes small groups of four out at a time to discuss their progress, or to deliver a small group seminar to challenge some students further or to ensure understanding.
- Some ‘trusted’ students are permitted to go off to the library to work independently. This allows space to have all of the other students in one room working on their projects, while one teacher facilitates, one teacher takes out individual or groups of students for tutorials and the third teacher takes a group out to conduct a small seminar as described above.
You get the idea. The teachers are not only planning together, but they then work together. They have a ‘home’ class, but they are also responsible for all three classes. The students soon realise they have three teachers and may begin to recognise the areas of particular expertise certain teachers have and use them as a resource.
At Eastern High, we have combined humanities subjects (which normally wouldn’t be blocked at the same time) with English, where humanities provide a context to deliver the skills embedded in English. This allows more opportunities for teachers to work in partnership.
This method of teaching and learning allows students of all abilities to work together, gaining from all the advantages this brings. I also provides opportunities to differentiate without it killing teachers.
It’s not easy though and very different to what teachers have been trained to do and are used to. It requires trust between teachers and the sensitivity that some teachers may not be as experienced, skilled or able as others. However, get this right and it provides excellent professional development for those who require it by giving some inexperienced or less able teachers the opportunity to learn from their peers.