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.