I wasn’t enthusiastic when the head of English told us that, last year, the Year 9 intake had been put in mixed-ability groups. I had reckoned that it was a big improvement when the totally comprehensive, treat ’em all alike regardless of intelligence or behaviour ideas had been relaxed, and schools had been able to put pupils into sets according to ability. However, what she said made sense and has made me look at the question from a different perspective.
The least able children, who would previously have been put in sets 4 & 5, were no longer labelled (in their own eyes) as ‘thick’. They no longer had low expectations of themselves and, she said, instead of regularly being marked at E or F, were handing in C and D grade work. It was a startling change.
The groupings were not done randomly, but they were (taking information from the Middle School) grouped according to aptitude, using these categories. Of course, we all use elements of all of them, but some people have strong preferences one way or another. Many, though not all, of the children who had previously not engaged with their schoolwork, were told they were kinaesthetic learners and that the lessons would be geared towards their most effective learnng style, with strategies worked out to help them with other learning methods. This encouragement transformed them. No longer were they bewildered by not understanding something their classmates picked up in a few minutes – there was a reason, and it wasn’t their fault. It would be worth putting in the effort and they need no longer be easily satisfied with mediocrity. A teaching assistant (a qualified English teacher, recently retired – what luck!) took small groups of slower pupils to help with their Shakespeare and they were able to engage with literature in a way they hadn’t managed before.
Some of the teachers found the kinaesthetic groups quite hard – it was going against their own inclinations – but they all remained enthusiastic, because it was so evidently working. It was necessary to have some extension activities for the quicker pupils – these were not just to fill in the time, but were geared to the syllabus and both interesting and useful, and were available for pupils to take and complete when they had finished the initial assignment. The lesson objectives, which are explained at the start of the lesson, were that “all of you will learn ***. Most of you will learn ****. Some of you will learn *****.”
The department also decided to follow a new syllabus last year. Each teacher researched a different one and did an evaluation, so that it could be agreed by all which was the best. The current one is much less prescriptive and gives each teacher more scope to follow his or her own preferences and those of the class being taught.
You may wonder, as I did, how the brighter children got on. Were they held back or given time to become bored? Apparently not, it was said. The more studious ones tended to be in the auditory or visual groups, for one thing, and because the teachers were so enthused, this was transmitted to the students. There was no slacking in their effort or results. The smartest 20 pupils were put in a class of their own and will be given the opportunity to take their English GCSE a year early and then take English Literature and Media Studies GCSE in Year 11, so enabling them to take two further GCSEs of their choice.
After she had left, we talked about it – the other people present were all teachers, two of them science staff at the school. They were not sure if it would work in all subjects – “You have to have a decent level of intelligence to access Physics”. We wonder if the effect will come across in the SATs that these pupils sat in May.
I noticed one of them had a booklet about learning Latin and asked him about it. It’s an online course, apparently, for schools that don’t have a Latin teacher. I brightened. I love Latin, but I’ve forgotten most of it. He said that if they offer it at GCSE, maybe I should go back to school…