Why I Support Primary School Setting

Nancy Gedge wrote an interesting post this morning about setting and differentiation. What I liked about it was that it accounted for the experience both from the perspective of the parents and of the kids. I find it bizarre that any school who would see the benefits of setting would choose to stream the kids, so there would be a top stream who are in top set both for Maths and Literacy. It makes no sense, as everybody is fairly clear that kids might excel more at one than the other.

The reasons Nancy gives for placing her son into a special school – the fantastic facilities, the dedicated, knowledgeable staff, the high expectations of children living with the greatest of difficulties, the priority placed on learning for an independent life- are pretty close to the reasons why I think setting is effective and makes sense in primary school. With a sound knowledge of what the kids can do, and with a more narrow range of current attainment, I am able to make more challenging and more specific expectations for my pupils, and can tailor my teaching more easily to what they need.

To frame this post rhetorically then, let me be clear. I am pro-setting.

My school context is a key contributing factor. We are a primary school of close to a thousand kids, with 120 in each year group. 96.5% of our pupils speak English as an Additional Language. This has a levelling effect, in a way, as EAL is never used as a justification for misrepresenting a pupil’s ability by confusing it with a language barrier. The majority of our kids do not speak English when they enter the school, and by the time they leave, they are attaining nicely above the national average across all subjects. They do considerably better than kids in my primary school did.

We set from early on, and we set (I think) dynamically. Pupils are set from Year 2 onwards, and in addition to the four class teachers in each year group, we have additional teachers for literacy and maths. This means that despite a huge pupil roll, we are able to tailor our offer in terms of class sizes. The children who are struggling most can be taught in a class of 14 (ish). I teach top set Maths (32 kids) and Set 3 literacy (24) in Year 5. When I say dynamic, what I mean is that we are constantly willing to move pupils. These sets are not prisons or labels – they just represent which class is most suitable for ensuring the good progress of a pupil at a given time.

Let me give the example of a kid I will pseudonymise as Rafiq. Rafiq was in my top set maths class last year and was doing pretty well, but once the pace kicked in and I began roaring through the curriculum at the merry sprint that befits the majority of my top set kids, he was getting lost. I spoke to him about what we should do next. Did he feel he could do more at home? Did he want to spend a couple of lunchtimes with me tying up loose ends in his knowledge? Was he finding it just a bit too quick? He told me he was finding it hard to calculate because he kept on forgetting the methods that we all were taking for granted.

After speaking to the Set 2 teacher, who was still working on having the kids master the different written calculation methods, we decided Rafiq would drop down into Set 2. I explained why this was happening to him, and although he did look a bit sad, he knew why. Rafiq spent a term in Set 2 and quickly rose to the top of it – he had the time to tidy up his calculation.

By Easter, he was ready to return. When he did, far from being a struggler in the group, he was around the middle in terms of his attainment.

Setting works well when it is negotiable and when children are frequently assessed and moved about. This is a headache in terms of organisation, but when it is done properly, it means that kids end up being taught in the classroom that best suits their needs.

Another crucial thing is that setting should not ‘replace’ differentiation. If the bounteous merits of differentiation in a mixed ability class are that all kids are getting a personally appropriate scheme of work, then having differentiation within a class that has already by differentiated by setting is an opportunity for much more focused differentiation. If every class is split five ways and there are 4 mixed ability class, then this is like having five streams of work across the year group. To have five different sets, each of which is differentiated even just three ways, then this is like having fifteen different streams of tailored work across a year group.

With my kids in top set, I use a system that my mentor Michele encouraged in my first year. We have a system of ‘Snakes, Lions and Elephants’, and children self-identify the level of challenge that is suitable for them in a given lesson. They have been taught to use it, and are versatile – Wadjda (pseud) might start off feeling fairly confident and try the Lion questions, realise she is struggling, move onto Snake questions, pass through them, refine her understanding, then move back onto Lion, for example. It means that in a lesson, my very highest attainers, who are tiptoeing confidently towards the very top margins of Level 5 work in most topics, are engaged and are being challenged. Whilst they work independently, I can do small group teaching with those who are stuck, and can then set them off on Snake questions.

Differentiation within sets is, I think, the best way to ensure all the kids receive education that is perfectly pitched for them.

The often murky area of setting related to children’s morale and on the ethics of having all the ‘bright’ ones together, and all of the strugglers together. First up, I think it is wishful thinking that children who are finding something difficult will take solace in the role model of a capable learner sat beside them in a mixed ability class. In a mixed ability class, I would imagine it is all too easy to ‘outsource’ your teaching of the children who are struggling to the kids who are not. Paired work, across the ability divide in something like maths, is (I would say) less valuable for both participants than if each was working on a task better suited to challenging them, whether with a similar ability partner or even independently.

I am not so naive as to think that the kids don’t have an emotional response to the setting. The children are astutely clear about who is in which set, and they understand the prestige of ‘going up a set’ and of ‘dropping down a set’. There is an important divide to made in the way they conceive of this – what is important is that there is no judgement, and that children feel no shame about going down, and not get carried away about doing well.

One of the behaviours that I shoot down most vehemently in my pupils is arrogance about their ability – on the occasion that I have heard the high-attaining children speaking arrogantly or judgementally about those who struggle, I come down on them like a ton of bricks. Sometimes they need to reminded that there is a lot more in the world of maths and literacy that they do not  understand than there are things they do understand. They are marginally further in the learning journey than their classmates in the lower sets.

This is the problematic area, and I know this from experience. In terms of what is best for the pupils learning, I think that as long as class teachers are the ones doing the teaching – whether of the high attaining or low attaining pupils – setting is extremely helpful and effective. The dimension of difficulty is that of morale, self-esteem and self-identity, and this is not to be underestimated.

In a primary school that sets, children tend to view themselves as their set. The Set 1s befriend the Set 1s. The Set 3s befriend Set 3s. This is what will happen if they are left completely to their own devices. Teachers are uniquely placed to social engineer and this is the role of base classes as a pastoral unit. Children are refined enough to appreciate that they each work at different speeds and the children in the higher sets can be taught to celebrate the successes of pupils in other groups who are mastering now what they mastered three years ago. Similarly, rather than developing a sense of frustration, so long as the kids in the lower sets are supported and encouraged, these kids can develop an appreciation for the successes of the kids in higher groups without resentment or envy.

The volatile equilibrium of pupils emotions is the most challenging thing in the school that sets. It is something that I don’t think my school has got right yet, and I would love to see a school that has managed to do it right. Setting requires the supporting and diagnosis of pupils learning needs and pastoral needs, so that as well as developing their knowledge and skills, they develop a sense of confidence and responsibility for their own learning trajectory. 

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8 thoughts on “Why I Support Primary School Setting

  1. I rather suspect that you’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that differentiation hero’s everyone progress at right rate, rather than condemning those who start low to continue to progress slowly. If setting really works, why aren’t your low sets almost non-existent by the end of KS2?

    1. I think there does tend to be quite a lot of movement really Michael – the set still exists, but it has different kids in it. Whilst it is unheard of for kids at the top to go to the bottom, and vice versa, there is a lot of movement between neighbouring groups, and that reflects the fact that some kids accelerate and others don’t, and for a wide variety of reasons. The question would be more about the attainment of that lower group at the end of KS2, rather than whether or not that group exists. If pupils are starting low, that tends to be for a reason, and once they have been able to pick up what they need to know, then they can accelerate. This isn’t condemning them to progress slowly – it is allowing them to progress at all. If the work is too challenging, they will learn less than if it is just challenging enough, even if that is at a slower pace than other classes.

      1. So lower-attaining kids learning more slowly than others is an acceptable solution? Surely they are the children who need to be learning fastest?
        I know that’s not what you mean, but it’s what the system implies. Might not five mixed ability classes of 20 achieve similar effects? Or maybe even four larger classes and a highly skilled intervention teacher to support those who need real additional support?

      2. I agree that there is a danger that having sets could lead some teachers to expect less from their pupils if they have a low-attaining group, but I don’t think that that is a taken-for-granted element of setting itself. When we talk about the ‘speed’ of learning, we are presuming that being able to learn faster is preferable to learning slower, when it’s not really like that. My top set maths class, for example, might be able to learn ‘faster’ – be able to take in new information, synthesis it with what they know, apply it – but that does not mean that a class that is working slower (perhaps spending a week on something that would take us a couple of days) is learning less.
        I think the role of a highly skilled intervention teacher would be great, but I do think that pupils learning needs in a large school can be better catered to with set classes, as more of the teacher dialogue during a lesson will be pitched correctly in a set class than in a differentiated class.

      3. Well, it would seem that HM Government would agree with you. I’m not convinced that the evidence does, however.
        From my own anecdotal experience, it was getting rid of setting that boosted attainment for our previously lower-attainers
        But from there I rather suspect we’ll have to agree to differ.

  2. An interesting and thoughtful response Johnny, thanks.
    I see what you mean – and tinge situation you describe certainly has its merits. Extra teachers and extra, smaller classes for additional sets in Maths and English. Great. My own children’s school was/is similar. But, and here is the but, what about where this doesn’t happen? What about where there is streaming (the same sets for Maths and English)? (Done that.) Or where there isn’t the space for an additional class and yet there is still a group? (Done that.) Or where sets are made without much discussion with staff taking the sets? (Done that?) simply put, where the systems done quite mesh.
    And we still have the problem of the sets catering for lower ability in primary. When what it comes down to is behaviour, how do we sort that out? Send them to another set so everyone can get a break or keep them with their teacher, so that the prime relationship can ready them for learning?
    Setting younger and younger? I am yet to be convinced.
    You might be interested in this https://theconversation.com/streaming-six-year-olds-by-ability-only-benefits-the-brightest-32065 which is not a lonely piece of research, I think.
    Anyway, am excited that you wrote this, and we seem to have discovered a real debate in primary ed! Hurrah!

    1. I find the idea of streaming bizarre and I don’t understand why a school would do it. If they are moving towards putting them by ability, streaming just seems clunky and silly. Of course kids aren’t all exactly aligned in their lit and maths attainment. My school is not particularly bad on behaviour and as a teacher who had the lowest group for literacy and the highest for maths last year, behaviour itself was fairly similar: it was more about keeping daydreamers and chatterboxes on task, and that was equally true in both groups. In classes where there is more extreme or systematic poor behaviour, then I could imagine your situation of ‘differentiation by annoyingness’ happening, when kids are traded due to teachers’ frustration with their misbehaviour. I think the general rules on behaviour management apply.
      Interesting link to the research – I am not for streaming, especially in the way that research describes it, where a child is ‘streamed’ once and that is their permanent grouping. I think it hardly surprising that only the top kids excel in that situation. The difference with setting, certainly in the way we do it, is that it is dynamic. Kids can and do regularly move between groups once their needs have been identified, and this is a constant process. The way this is explained to kids is important, and the problem with streaming like in that research is that it presents the idea that intelligence is something that you either have or don’t have – setting, when it is made clear that it is effort that leads to results, can cement the idea that intelligence is something to be developed, and that goes for the ones in high groups as well as low groups.
      Interesting one. I should add that I have only ever worked in a setting school, so my views are probably entirely invalid. Hurhurhur.

      1. Not at all!
        I think you have the experience if working in an RWI school, which advocates the fluidity of setting…another interesting thing to think about is what you do with the children who circulate around the ‘less academic’ sets in RWI. At what point do we look again at what is going on, and how best we can serve the children who aren’t ready for phonics yet? (Did you get the growth mindset there, did ya? Did ya?)

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