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National Foundation for Educational Research Essay

Over the last century different techniques have been used to organise children within schools according to what the public and government asked for and needed. For example “after the Second World War the number and size of schools increased, the tripartite system of secondary education was introduced and there was increased competition for grammar school places” Sukhnandan and Lee (1998 pg. 13). There was a drive for excellence and the 11 plus exam leant itself easily to the administration of streaming.

However during the 1960’s research was carried out that suggested streaming had negative social consequences for pupils, which could have been the catalyst for the shift of emphasis from excellence to equality. This resulted in a shift from streaming to mixed ability teaching that continued throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. Ability grouping, in the form of setting and within class grouping, was sometimes used in higher year groups for linear subjects such as maths, science and modern languages but mixed ability was the main grouping method.

The essay question implies that again there has been a shift, this time to setting. Boaler et al (1998) seems to imply that pressures from the government are to blame for this move; suggesting research (Gewirtz, Ball & Bowe, 1993 cited in Boaler et al 1998) indicates some teachers regard the curriculum set out in the 1988 Education Reform Act as incompatible with mixed ability teaching implying that they have no choice. Today’s Governments seem to be increasingly interested in achieving goals and raising standards, even if this means children missing out on the social advantages of mixed ability grouping.

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Setting seems to reinforce social divisions, as there are a higher proportion of boys, children of lower socio-economic status, children born in the summer and those of ethnic minority backgrounds in the lower sets (Boaler, 1997a, 1997b. Oakes, 1982. Sutton, 1966. Cited in Sukhnandan and Lee, 1998. ) whereas children in mixed ability classes tend to come from a range of different backgrounds. I find this quite extraordinary, as the Scottish Parliament has recently spent millions on an anti-racism campaign.

Surely segregating the children, albeit unintentionally, will undermine the message sent out by this campaign? The essay will discuss the advantages and disadvantages research has told us concerning setting. It will begin with the discussion of the effect of teacher’s attitudes and expectations of the set that they are teaching. It will then discuss the limitations pupils face by being placed in sets. It will discuss the social gap created by teaching children in sets.

It will also discuss the advantages to the teacher of teaching children in sets and the advantages to the pupils. The essay compares setting to mixed ability teaching on several occasions this is because mixed ability teaching was the technique used before the recommendation to use setting also there seems to only be limited research on the other forms of grouping. Research has shown there to be both advantages and disadvantages to setting. Boaler et al (1998) demonstrated many disadvantages to setting.

In their paper they cited a worrying statistic Jackson (1963) “96% of teachers taught to streamed ability groups” meaning they taught all the children without consideration into their individual differences. Boaler et al (1998) made reference to some of the experiences of pupils in setted mathematics classes, they reported that their teachers consistently made comments such as “you’re in the top set, you should be able to do this” and “you’re in the bottom group your not going to learn anything”.

These attitudes are undoubtedly detrimental for the child. Boaler et al (1998) reported that children in higher sets were disadvantaged because their teachers had too high expectations of the children they were teaching, one third of the children taught in the highest sets felt they were being pushed to hard, that their lessons were paced too fast and they were under too much pressure to succeed because of their teachers expectations and the competitive ethos between pupils in higher sets.

This was discovered to really upset certain children, Boaler et al, (1998) “I mean I get really depressed – it really depressed me, the fact that everyone in the class is like really far ahead and I just don’t understand”. It was reported that girls were the most affected by this citing the fact that although girls have been reported to be overtaking boys in all subjects boys still get the highest grades in mathematics (where the use of setting is dominant). The complete reverse was reported for those in lower sets, who felt that their lessons were too slow; they weren’t being challenged so lost interest.

They believed that their teachers had no faith in them. This would then lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, they have no option but to perform to the set that they are allocated, if they are not encouraged then they will languish in the bottom sets their entire school life. This causes a self fulfilling prophecy, if they are told that they’re incapable of anything more they will begin to believe it, so they wont try to do anything more. Even if the children in the lower sets worked to be moved up into the higher sets they are unlikely to be successful.

Teachers teach the children in specific sets to different tiers of an exam, so those in lower groups will not learn the same things as those in higher groups so movement between the sets would be difficult. The idea that children are taught to specific tiers is generally problematic because children are allocated to sets up to three years before they sit the exam and as mobility is rare this can have detrimental effects on their attainment if they were aware that they could only get a low grade. Boaler et al (1998) reported that only some children actually knew the implications of this.

The teachers high expectations of those in higher sets and low expectations of those in lower sets causes a further social gap between the sets, those in the top sets will be called “boffins” and those in the lower sets will be seen as “stupid”. This is further intensified by the allocation of better qualified and more experienced teachers to higher sets even though research suggests (Black and Wiliam, 1998, p42 cited in Boaler et al 1998) that this type of high quality teaching is more beneficial to those children in lower sets who need more guidance as they are more easily distracted.

The lower ability children will recognise that the higher ability children are seen as better and again this will have detrimental effects on their self-esteem causing them to become interested in anti-educational activities where “it’s cool to be alienated” (Hallam article from TES website, Passmore 2002) and will heighten the rift between the ability groups. In a mixed ability class for example there is a reduced distinction between children’s ability, which is beneficial to the children. There is even the suggestion that children of lower ability use those of higher ability as role models.

A further problem could be caused because of a distinction made between academic and vocational subjects. Only subjects such as Maths, Science, English and Modern Languages are set while subjects such as Art and Music are mixed ability as a general rule. Children who are good at art and music may not feel as valued as those who are good at maths. The emphasis for teachers seems to be applied to children in higher sets because they get taught by the best teachers and get taught in the best classrooms. Also the children who aren’t interested may distract other children in these mixed ability groups.

Ultimately this will lower their self-esteem and have a negative effect on their attainment in and feelings for the subject. Of cause there must be advantages to setting otherwise the First Minister wouldn’t have recommended it. One major advantage is that, compared to mixed ability teaching, it’s easier for teachers to implement as they can pitch work at a level that is more appropriate for the level the children are at. In mixed ability teaching a large majority of the class are unsupervised while setting lends itself to whole class teaching.

This would appear to benefit those children in both higher and lower ability groups. Children in higher ability groups could be neglected and left to get on with their work in mixed ability classes while in sets these children will be given more attention, the children in with less ability will feel less inferior and more confident in groups of children with similar ability. Another benefit for high ability children is that low ability children who don’t want to learn will not distract them. The government is aiming to raise standards so it’s understandable to want to give children of higher ability a better chance.

Research (Kulik and Kulik, 1982. 1987. Cited in Sukhnandan and Lee, 1998. ) shows that gifted and high ability children achieve more when placed in sets than they do when placed in mixed ability groups. It’s believed by some that high ability pupils benefit in groups with similar ability because it increases motivation by providing appropriate challenges and competition. There is also the implication that the children will be like-minded, facilitating the opportunity for them to discuss and ‘bounce ideas’ between each other.

Possibly the main reason why the First Minister recommended this form of ability grouping is because all the research conducted in this area conflicts resulting in there being no truly consistent findings on the effect of ability grouping for pupil achievement. His recommendation could therefore be based on the fact that setting is easier for teachers so it is more likely children will be taught effectively. His main concern appears to be with raising standards and setting is easier to manage and improve than mixed ability teaching as set guidelines can be given for the attainment targets for each set.

The blame for these inconsistent findings has been given to the research methods used. There’s a suggestion made that the outcome of ability grouping isn’t the only thing being tested. The quality of teaching, the teacher’s expectations, the pupil’s expectations and the materials available will all effect the pupil’s achievement. The evidence seems to produce more disadvantages to setting than advantages. The main ones being social rather than necessarily academic. However a child will perform better if they are happy and confident.

Being labelled as “set 6” is not good for a child’s self esteem or confidence especially when teachers reinforce the idea that they are not as ‘good’ as those in higher sets. This ultimately leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy, which eventually causes the child to lose all interest. If the First Minister’s objective really is to raise standards then shouldn’t he be focussing on these low ability children and trying to raise their attainment levels? High ability groups also suffer because of the expectation that they are more capable than they actually there.

To improve this it might be necessary to re-teach teachers on pupil differences and explain that all the children within the set are not identical. For this to occur they’d have to be a reduction in the emphasis placed on meeting targets, teachers need the flexibility to return to areas that children are finding difficult. When all said and done isn’t education for the benefit child? The First Minister’s recommendation needs to be accompanied by guidelines for teachers on how they can avoid the negative effects of homogeneous grouping.

These guidelines should include careful planning, using well-defined targets and remaining aware of the negative effects of ability grouping (GB. Scottish Office. HMI, 1996. Cited in Sukhnandan and Lee, 1998. ) There could also be a move away from emphasis on academic achievement to more recognition of non-academic achievements to restore the self-esteem of children in lower ability groups (Elton Report, 1989. Taylor, 1993. Cited in Sukhnandan and Lee, 1998. ) His recommendation was probably the right one considering the drive to raise standards and make teachers lives easier.

Because of the lack of conclusive evidence for what type of grouping is more beneficial academically for the child he was right to choose the method that could be most easily implemented and controlled. However this lack of conclusive evidence means that more research needs to be carried out to discover what the best form of grouping is. To do this researchers will have to establish what is ultimately best for the child, possibly new ways of grouping could be developed or the old ways upgraded.

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