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Selection, streaming and banding......

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#1 Guest_andy_walker_*

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Posted 04 June 2003 - 01:40 PM

Working essentially in a small pocket of the 1950’s (Kent where the Tripartite system still prevails), ones views are inevitably somewhat colored by a system that is quite clearly failing all levels of ability in the county. The pattern across the county is for “coasting” grammar schools with very narrow traditionally academic approaches to be glorified as paragons of virtue, and for single sex secondary moderns to struggle along without the resources or money to make a difference. Kent has a disproportionate number of schools that are really struggling and yet the commitment to a discredited selective system remains as strong as ever. Despite Ofsted’s apparent love affair with the county's grammars, it is clear that much more could be done with the able students they cream off.
Labeling in such an environment is very real. My own school (non-selective girls) borders the local girls grammar sharing fences, entrances, and in some cases barbed wire and anti vandal paint! . Girls who pass the 11+ wear green uniforms and girls who fail wear brown. Thus a child’s basic IQ is communicated publicly to all by clothes she wears…. One can only imagine the extent of the negative effect on self-esteem and aspiration such a daily reminder can have and I trust that many will be duly horrified that such practices still exist. Remarkably it is also common practice for secondary modern schools to further set and band their students. The bottom set of the bottom school must be quite a dreadful place to be!

The purpose of this paper however is not to berate Kent for its archaic and discredited approach to education. Rather it is to discuss the issues of selection streaming, banding and setting in our schools and the possible negative or positive effects such practices have on the children we teach. The views of the author are clearly that selection is a wholly negative thing and it is hoped that an interesting and lively debate will ensue on the forum. As this is such a vast area of debate I will merely post a number of introductory discussion points below.

I am treating the broad issue of selection by ability to encompass the continuing tripartite system, and streaming and banding in comprehension schools

Arguments for selection, streaming and banding

1. Certain subjects are “hard” and would be impossible to teach successfully in a mixed ability environment
2. The needs of the majority are met in setted groups – differentiation is easier to achieve and prove.
3. Children are different and require different approaches. Some children are academically gifted and require specialist help; others require a more basic skills approach.
4. Mixed ability grouping holds the best students back

Arguments against selection, streaming and banding

1. Setting is only easier for teachers but has no measurable, provable benefit for students at either end.
2. Teacher “labels” become self fulfilling prophecies. Top sets are expected to perform better and do, bottom sets are expected to perform badly and often to behave badly and do so.
3. There is a predominance of working class children in bottom sets and non-selective schools who therefore do not can access to “higher” academic knowledge and skills. Selection, streaming, banding and setting therefore perpetuate the existing class structure and limit the opportunities of working class children
4. Equal opportunities issues (see point 3)
5. Teacher’s low expectations of bottom sets and secondary modern pupils result in less preparation and effort on the part of the teacher.
6. Mixed ability groups in comprehensive schools are important in the social development of children and the progressive development of society
7. IQ testing is outmoded and discredited and a totally unfair way to determine a child’s future and prospects
8. Selection and streaming is deeply damaging to a child’s self esteem

Web links for further research

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#2 Dan Lyndon

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Posted 04 June 2003 - 03:41 PM

I have a dilemma about setting / mixed ability. My old school was also a girls (former) secondary modern in Sutton, where selection also still exists. At that time I believed firmly that History should be taught in mixed ability classes and remember vividly having a lengthy debate with the new HoD about changing from mixed ability to setting (it was left to the discretion of the Hod, rather than being a whole school issue). He was persuaded to keep mixed ability and became convinced that it was more appropriate for the students. The range of ability in the school was not too wide and there were positive social (mixed range of backgrounds, cultures and experiences) and academic ( pairing of pupils of different abilities - where appropriate, and not all of the time) benefits of this style of teaching. However, for the last three years I have been teaching in an inner city boys comprehensive where setting is used. I have subsequently changed my view and feel that setting is appropriate for the school that I am in. I am even considering introducing setting for the two GCSE classes that start next year. There are a number of reasons for this:

1) The intake of pupils in my school is vast; we have over 50 community languages and have over 90 feeder primary schools and boys from both middle and working class backgrounds. As a consequence we have boys arriving at the schol with a vast difference in their baseline education - ranging from students who literally do not have any spoken English, to those who have had no formal education as a result of wars in their home lands, to those who arrived with levels 5 and 6 in their KS2 Sats. Mixed ability would not work in this case.

2) Within each set there is still a vast ability range, therefore I am still efectively having to differentiate as if I was teaching a mixed ability class. For example in my top set year 8 I have students who range from level 4 to level 7.

3) At GCSE I currently teach in mixed ability classes and as a consequence am teaching boys who will struggle to get a G in the same class as those who hopefully will get an A. Now I firmly believe that I am teaching them to the best of my ability and I do get great support from an SEN teacher, but I am not sure if I can benefit the whole class as much as if I separated them into effectively a Higher and a Foundation class.

So although I am, in principle, in favour of mixed ability teaching, I have learned from my experience that it is not always appropriate.
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#3 Andrew Field

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Posted 04 June 2003 - 04:02 PM

I don't really have enought experience to offer valid and carefully thought out opinions on this issue, but I am certain of one thing. Three years ago I took on a mixed ability Year 10 class with predictions of G to A, it was more 'bottom' heavy than top, but it was most certainly mixed. Professionally every single lesson I felt that I was letting the higher ability ones down. They never complained, never failed to complete homework, never messed about - whilst I had to work damn hard to even get some of the 'lower' ability ones to write their name and the date. I saw this group through their GCSEs and they did get their Gs to As but I really felt quite embarrassed each week.

I do see many positive things from mixed ability teaching when it is a good teacher involved, especially as it is best practice to be differentiating throughout your lesson anyway. OFSTED came to see me teaching my Year 10s and were very happy, but I still can never forget how I professionally felt something was not right.

I think perhaps the end product of this seminar will be to decide that, as has been suggested, it isn't just a 'selection' is best or worst, rather that each method can suit particular circumstances. I'm sure many schools don't take the academic decision to set and stream pupils or otherwise, it is surely more than often the timetabling requirements handed down from above!

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#4 Nichola Boughey

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Posted 04 June 2003 - 10:12 PM

I too teach in an all girls modern comprehensive school!

We do not officially set our classes across the board at KS3 but we do have two lower ability classes. These classes are taught differently and are much smaller. Two years ago when I started teaching there, and to some extent today, I can still see the arguments for and against this concept. Some of which support Andy's original arguments.

My opinion based on personal experiences:

For setting:

1. You can target specific academic problems more easily with smaller classes.
2. There is a safe and nurturing environment for less able students to practice basics like reading out loud.
3. Differentiation is easier.
4. You can give lessons that will enhance their understanding rather than their levels.

Against setting:

1. The girls feel the stigma of being in less able classes.
2. The same weight of expectation is placed on them by their parents even when in foundation classes.
3. They play up to their SEN reputation.
4. Some more able students slow down their learning process out of fear of changing groups.
5. Teachers enter the classroom feeling that they are in for a tug of war!
6. SEN and setted classes often feel that it is ok to behave badly!
7. More able classes are left feeling superior - unconsciously or subconsciously!

The most interesting fact in my school is that whilst SEN pupils have smaller classes of their own at KS3 when it comes to KS4 they suddenly find themselves uprooted from the safety and security of their SEN groups where their friends are and teachers are less restrictive on their behaviour and placed in a mixed ability class. This causes problems.

My most recent Yr. 11 group had an A* candidate learning alongside candidates with dyspraxia, dyslexia, ADHD, SLD and at least 4 others with learning and behaviour difficulties. One student asked me questions constantly during revision lessons that had nothing to do with the lesson and would then sulk and cry when I asked her to be quiet.

Personally I do feel that there should be a foundation GCSE class option - but that the current system is unlikely to change!

#5 Carole Faithorn

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Posted 04 June 2003 - 11:01 PM

Like Dan, I find myself in a quandry on this one. Idealogically I believe in mixed ability groups on the grounds of equality and because the self-fulfilling prophesy argument is a compelling one. However experience in a variety of schools (maintained and independent, comprehensive and selective, single-sex and mixed) has taught me that few teachers - and I'd include myself - teach mixed ability groups well. Effective differentiation where the ability range is wide is hard to achieve and my experience is that the less-demanding children tend to be left to 'get on with it'. These are often the more able children who lack the stimulation that they need to fulfil their true potential.

Against setting, as has already been said, are the horrors of the 'sink classes' and the 'labelling' that goes with that. I struggle with the dilemma that this creates both in practical and ideological terms.

No one yet has really discussed banding. I have only worked in one school - and that was a very long time ago - where banding was used. The school was a former Sec Mod which had just become Comprehensive when I joined the staff. I thought the system worked pretty well and certainly had less of the disadvantages of either setting or streaming. The ability range was narrower than in a mixed ability class and the opportunities for labelling were less obvious. There were no clearly identifiable 'sink sets'.

I am rather out of the loop these days, but banding seems less popular than it was. Is that really the case?

#6 John Simkin

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Posted 05 June 2003 - 06:49 AM

So far all the contributors have made full use of their experiences to discuss this extremely important issue. However, they have done so from the point of view of the teacher. I want to instead concentrate on looking at this issue from the point of view of the student.

I was one of those students who was labelled “thick” by his teachers. I went to a secondary modern school. All the kids on my council estate did. If you passed the 11+ you went to a school outside the area. Although our council estate was large it was not large enough to house a grammar school. If we spent any time thinking about doing well in our 11+, and we didn’t, the idea of leaving your mates to go to a school some distance away was hardly likely to motivate you to do your best.

I left my secondary school without any qualifications. In fact I could barely read or write. It was the same for all of us. That is not surprising as teachers in a secondary modern school barely had time to teach. Virtually all their efforts were spent trying to keep us under control. They had my sympathy and a teacher crying in class was fairly common (men and women). If you think teaching a bottom set of a GCSE class in a comprehensive school is difficult try teaching children in a non-examination class in a secondary modern school. They of course had to do it every lesson. The school did not have the staff to teach “intelligent” children and you had to transfer to another secondary modern school at 13 if you wanted to take examinations.

I was lucky. I met my first good teacher when I was 17. He was a fellow factory worker who had not been trained as a teacher. However, he knew that education was about inspiring students. He knew the first stage, in fact every stage, was about building up the confidence of the student. You don’t do that by labelling them as being unintelligent.

Later I decided to make my education official by taking a degree. I joined the Open University in its first year and therefore in 1976 I was one of small batch of working class people to graduate. The editor of Sesame, the OU newspaper, asked me to write an article about my experiences. In his book, A Sociology of Education, Roland Meighan quotes from this article when discussing the issue of comprehensive schools:

“I know that I was no more intelligent than the rest of the kids at my school. Only unlike the others, I met a man who helped me obtain a desire for education. My case does not show how intelligence wins through. My case shows how, year after year, we allow the intellectual abilities of thousands upon thousands of children from the working class to go to waste.”

The Open University was part of the educational reforms (including comprehensive education) that was introduced by Harold Wilson’s Labour government (1964-1970). In fact, the OU and most of the comprehensive schools actually came into being under a Conservative education minister called Margaret Thatcher. In her memoirs she talks about this decision to allow the passing of legislation drawn up by the previous government. As she says in her book, she finally agreed for it to go through because it was the cheapest way to educate the masses. Although she found it acutely embarrassing as prime minister when she attacked comprehensive education. As her critics used to point out to her, more comprehensive schools came into existence during her period as minister of education than any other holder of this post.

For those who are too young to remember, the philosophy behind the introduction of comprehensive education was to give all our young people an equal chance. It was not to create a school within a school. That was the policy of those who vigorously opposed comprehensive education. I remember a reactionary Head of English explaining to me why he taught in a comprehensive school. He was a product of the grammar school system and eventually became a teacher in one. In the early 1970s he was looking for promotion but all the heads of department jobs that were coming up were in comprehensive schools. He went to see his headmaster and asked him what he should do. His advice was to go for the job and then to create a grammar/secondary system in his department. That’s what he did. So did many others knowing that it would completely undermine the ideas behind comprehensive education.

This Head of English told me this story following a heated debate in our staffroom about whether individual departments should be allowed to rigidly stream their students. The History department that I was a member of was fully committed to mixed ability teaching (that was not unusual in the late 1970s). We argued that what the English department was doing was completely undermining what we were trying to do. For comprehensive education to work it had to be comprehensive throughout the school and not in individual departments.

After the debate had finished the Head of English told me that he completely agreed with me that he was undermining comprehensive education. He then told me the story of his former head’s advice. He told me the story with a smile on his face. He knew he was winning. In recent years the situation has become much worse. I suspect many teachers are not even aware of the debates that went on in the 1960s about the need for comprehensive education. They probably think that setting and banding is comprehensive education. I dare say that Tony Blair and Charles Clarke do think this. To her credit, Shirley Williams, the education secretary that first introduced comprehensive education, has not forgotten and still speaks a lot of sense on this issue.

Of course every class we teach is mixed ability. I have always found that the higher you go the wider the gap becomes between the abilities of the individuals within the group. Universities is where mixed ability teaching really reaches its zenith. I always find mixed ability teaching difficult when providing INSET. I have considered asking headteachers or the LEA advisers who have organized the sessions to put the teachers into different ability groups but I decided against it. I thought it might affect their motivation to learn. Anyway, I didn’t fancy teaching a bottom set of angry teachers.

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Posted 05 June 2003 - 08:35 AM

Thank you John that was a really powerful contribution.
I am struck by the extent to which the teaching profession has lost the comprehensive vision and seemingly become incapable of challenging the establishment view on selection etc.

Perhaps this has much to do with the reform of teacher training through the 80's and 90's. (I would argue that this was clearly the government's aim). It is certainly true that despite the creation of comprehensive schools there was never a sustained attempt to create comprehensive teachers - hence the school within a school approach of so many today - the orthodoxy depressingly, is still the old grammar/sec mod model.

It is vitally important to look at these issues from the point of view of the student. ...... I very much like John's final analogy, infact I will be suggesting the introduction of IQ testing of staff at my College and creating seperate uniforms, groups, staff rooms and salary scales for the "dim" ones. It will be for their own good in the long term, more appropriate for them, and I really don't want them holding back us clever ones ;)

#8 Paul Smith

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Posted 05 June 2003 - 10:13 AM

As somebody working in the post 16 sector I have found this debate stimulating and educational (gadzooks!). There is a growing debate in our sector as the desire to increase participation is matched by a growing realisation that the "standard" entry for a AS/A2 "package" of 5 GCSE's at C+ is not necessarily appropriate for the AS/A2 route. Some colleges stick to this offer and have excellent results, but I ahve noticed an increasing trend in post 16 to require about 4 B's for a 4AS/3A2 programme. Differentiation is a major issue in post 16 teaching. I think we have a huge amount to learn from our colleagues in the 11 -16, 11 -18 sectors.

I cannot see setting or streaming formally entering the post 16 sector but how to manage the range of academic ability and learning styles on our courses is a constant challenge.

I was struck, particularly, by one sentence from Nichola's comments - the reference to smaller class sizes. While not a panacea and there are economic realities (don't get me and Walker started) but the drive, particularly in post 16, to larger class sizes to maximise funding must work against effective teaching at levels suitable for all students. I am well aware that in post 16 we operate with classes most 11 - 16 teachers only dream about (although my current AS History and Law groups are larger than most of the GCSE groups I taught!)

As a product of one of those Grammar Schools in Kent that Andy Walker so correctly praises to the hilt (MGS- he'll know) I concur with the comments many made. Not just for those who didn't pass 11+ (at least those from Southborough Sec. Modern could gain some satisfaction by beating the **** out of us on the bus home at nights) but for those who didn't make the grade within the streaming system in Grammar.

I was "lucky" it would interesting to hear from anybody who has experience of dealjng with the lower streams at a selective school.

Paul :huh:
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#9 neil mcdonald

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Posted 05 June 2003 - 03:28 PM

My knowledge of the 11+ issue is vague - my father took it and passed, as for me - I went to local Catholic Schools and by the time I was old enough to go to secondary school that system had gone. I think my comments therefore have to relate to the students I teach in a mixed abilit class - near on 30 of them with varying ability in Year 7.

1) There are six - eight of them that are way ahead of the rest in terms of skills and ability - they are highly intelligent and hard workers - if I could I'd want them out of the classroom doing big research projects but I can't.

2) The majority of students eighteen say in total that have moderate ability but struggle with higher level thinking for the most part - they try hard (some but not all...) They are my mid band.

3) I have a handful of students who need support but because they don't kick off in my lessons I don't get much support with them.

Consequence. I can differentiate my resources, I can differentiate my tasks, homework etc but not my teaching. This is the crux of the problem - I want to help all of them but can't. Like Andrew said, I have little I can do fo the top end of the class and the less able don't get the support they need.

I can't pretend to know the answers of mixed versus streamed ability teaching, all I know is from my standpoint I would do better as a Teacher to teached in a streamed group - why?

1) Specialised SoW for students - i.e. Foundation - greater emphasis on skill over content
2) Varied Teaching styles - Opportunity for independent research projects etc.
3) More focus on the students need and not the majority.
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#10 Helen Evans

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Posted 05 June 2003 - 06:29 PM

I completely agree with Andrew on his point that he feels he is letting some pupils down in his mixed ability groups. I feel exactly the same. We set throughout Key Stage 3, but not rigorously and there is certainly plenty of overlap. I come out of most lessons feeling I have done a good job and knowing that I challenged the more able and as much as possible made the work accessible for the least. It is worth noting that in other written subjects in my comprehensive, the pupils are in mixed ability classes and the gifted and talented pupils, especially in year 8 feel they are being failed - and are quite vocal about it. In fact they feel that History is the only subject that really makes them think. This is because using the same content as the rest of the year I can provide teacher led discussions and explanations on a much higher level and therefore encourage the pupils to enjoy higher level thinking, rather than being embarrassed by it.

Timetabling means that GCSE classes must be mixed ability and they most certainly are. My current tens range from u-a*. As the group is more heavily waited with more able, I am aware that I teach 'up', and feel to an extent that I must for the benefit of the majority. I know that some of the least able are lost in the lessons, and though I try my best to support them I frequently leave the lesson feeling I have let them down.

I accept all the arguments on the effects of setting on self-esteem and somewhat feel guilty that as a good 'leftie' I support setting. At the end of the day it would be great if we could all teach in mixed ability classes, but it is simply not practical - we all work our fingers to the bone as it is and could not work any harder for our pupils - those who suggest that teachers who can not perform to their best in mixed ability classrooms are not doing their jobs probably are living in a dream world. There simply is not enough time to plan every lesson for a mixed ability class in which all (or most) pupils' needs are met with consistency.

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Posted 05 June 2003 - 07:29 PM

I accept all the arguments on the effects of setting on self-esteem and somewhat feel guilty that as a good 'leftie' I support setting.  At the end of the day it would be great if we could all teach in mixed ability classes, but it is simply not practical -

My main argument is that the self fulfilling prophecy and the resultant lack of equal opportunities leads to a perpetuation of the existing unequal power structure in society. As an educator and progressive I find this utterly unacceptable no matter how difficult effective mixed ability teaching may be.

Question for those who see some form of selection/streaming as desirable or a "necessary evil" -
Why is it that working class kids and ethnic minority kids are over represented in bottom sets and in secondary modern schools? Are they by nature less intelligent or are the systems we use, (based as they are on the ideology of the Tripartite system) doing them a grave injustice??

Are we, consciously or otherwise, teaching, recognising and encouraging white middle class values/attitudes over all others?

If you had to describe your "ideal student" what would they be like?

#12 Dan Lyndon

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Posted 05 June 2003 - 07:49 PM

I think that there is a difference between selection, which I am ideologically opposed to (for the issues that have been raised already, such as low self-esteem, labelling etc) and streaming / banding, which I am more willing to accept within a comprehensive school system. The advantage of the latter is that there will be some classes (PSHE for example or subjects such as History where the teachers / HoD feel it is appropriate to teach mixed ability) where the students will experience the wide cultural / socio -economic differences that makes up our society and this has such huge social and educational benefits. The former does not allow for this kind of environment and that is why it is, in my opinion, wrong. Sadly, as John pointed out, we have never had a truly comprehensive education system in this country and that is one of the reasons why we are still having this debate today.
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#13 Andrew Field

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Posted 05 June 2003 - 07:55 PM

Question for those who see some form of selection/streaming as desirable or a "necessary evil" -
Why is it that working class kids and ethnic minority kids are over represented in bottom sets and in secondary modern schools? Are they by nature less intelligent or are the systems we use, (based as they are on the ideology of the Tripartite system) doing them a grave injustice??

Are we, consciously or otherwise, teaching, recognising and encouraging white middle class values/attitudes over all others?

If you had to describe your "ideal student" what would they be like?

Due to the inherent racisim with the school system and society in general. I don't think it is fair to lay the blame for this on setting or mixed ability teaching. I see your point about the negative potential for selection to reinforce existing values on others, but is this a reason not to support selection, rather than a positive reason to support mixed ability teaching.

My ideal student is one who is willing to listen and take advice, but also not afraid to offer and backup their opinions even if they are against the majority.

I fundamentally see the benefits of mixed ability teaching, but I am certain that in my teaching I have let down the higher ability students in my class. This is without doubt. I don't see setting as a necessary evil or desirable. I see practical solutions to help students achieve to their highest potential, no matter who they are. If a student is able to succeed to their highest potential in a mixed ability set, that is the best option for them, if they are able to succeed in a banded set, this that is the best option for them.

This isn't a two Ronnies 'I know my place' sketch - this is practical reality in school. I am fundamentally opposed to anything which prevents students from succeeding to their potential. That should be the focus here.

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#14 Helen Evans

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Posted 05 June 2003 - 08:18 PM

Please allow me to clarify my position. I am absolutely opposed to selective schools that pigeon hole pupils from the age of 11 - this is not in the interests of the many young people or society at large. Having grown up in Doncaster where there is nothing but comprehensive schools in the state sector, my beliefs were reinforced by moving to Birmingham, with the most bizarre education system, including many grammars. Very able and confident pupils can be shattered by failing to gain entry into the grammar.

Nevertheless I want the best for all the pupils that I teach within the Comprehensive school that I work in. I believe that their History education at least is best delivered in sets.

Andy, you seem to think very poorly of those of us that support setting. Supporting setting does not mean our ideal pupil is white and middle class and I feel that assumption is insulting. My ideal pupil is motivated, inquisitive and willing to argue - I have never experienced that one has to be white and middle class to have these qualities.

#15 Richard Drew

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Posted 05 June 2003 - 08:23 PM

i will soon be getting the opportunity to see the reality of the difference between MA and banding. my department teachesMA forms in y7, and then sets in y8 and y9. however this september we will (due to timetable constraints) be teaching the up and coming y8 in forms. i will be teaching the same SOW and probably sticking largely to the same lesson plans as this year with sets, so that will be a real life laboratory for this debate.

i feel that very often the 'personality' of the class dictates whether MA teaching is successful. My current y10 class is MA and the prevelance of high ability pupils and lower ability pupils with high aspirations means i can teach up and push the lower achievers' grades up. howeve rwith other classes where a number of low achievers (of varying natural abilities) are out to disrupt the learning other others MA teaching can hold pupils back in the way that Helen describes. With my y9 clases setting works - my top set get consistently stretched and challenged, while my bottom set are given support and also within their own needs are stretched. i am quite sure many of these y9 pupils would struggle in a MA class.

unfortunately i am unable to comjmit to one side or the other - different schools/year groups/classes may suit different merthods.

i thing i can safely say is that MA teaching requires more from the teacher, and that is why a number of teachers i know do not like it.
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