Unconventional and Risky
Despite the growing body of evidence that mixed attainment groupings are better for student outcomes that the traditional setting approach prevalent in English schools, a research group at UCL identify that schools are unwilling to make the transition away from rigid setting as it is seen as “unconventional and risky”.
This week I wrote an article on why we have ditched setting in science at Bedales for the Guardian, and already the comments are along the lines of 'this cannot possibly work', with one commentator suggesting that because their sibling was awful at maths and they were good, their family are a valid case study against mixed-attainment! Schools are paralysed by an array of fears, including parental perceptions, increased difficulty of teaching, and the ubiquitous issue of teacher workload.
All of these fears boil down to a fear of change: a lack of willingness to stand against orthodoxy, and a crippling aversion to risk taking in general, neither of which are sufficient, or even very good, reasons to bury educational leaders collective heads in the sand against the research.
Setting and streaming are now so deeply-rooted in the language and concept of education that the idea of teaching mixed attainment classes is considered extremely radical in subjects like English, Maths and Science in most English schools. Parents expect their children to be in rigidly set classes, because that was their own schooling experience, and they pass this expectation on to their children, asking “What set are you in for Maths this year?”, “How many students are in your English set?”, and “If you work a bit harder, will you be able to move into the top set next year?”. The fear of increasing parental power to chose their children’s schools, is a key aspect of school leaders' unwillingness to break with tradition.
The battle against orthodoxy
Just because it is traditional, however, that does not mean that rigid setting is the best way to ensure excellent student outcomes. Convention has never been a good, and certainly not a sufficient, reason for doing, or not doing, anything. If convention where a sufficient reason to leave things as they are, then we would be living in a society supported by slave labour, in which women are only permitted to be ‘seen and not heard’, and the poor do not have access to education. Conventional barriers have been broken in the name of equity, and we now live in a richer, better society because of people willing to try the ‘unconventional’ approach anyway. The same is true when it comes to paradigmatic changes in the way students are grouped for their subjects in schools. It may be unorthodox, and may raise an eyebrow or two, but if it leads to better, more equitable outcomes for students, then convention be damned. At the end of the day, parents are not the educational experts, teachers are. We read the educational literature, distil the evidence, and we should act accordingly, defying the status quo if necessary; and if we have to have a lot of difficult conversations explaining our decisions to parents, educating them in educational research, then let’s get on with it.
The beautiful risk of education
Given that setting is virtual orthodoxy in the English educational system, a move to mixed attainment grouping is perceived as extremely risky. This is also echoed up the management structure within schools, with Taylor's study finding examples in which “middle leaders or classroom teachers were enthusiastic” for a move away from setting, but a “fearful” leadership team prevented the transition.
The culture of school performance rankings, parental power over school choices (which is commonly linked to league tables), and the Ofsted focus on student attainment, ensure that senior leaders are (commonly) extremely cautious about making any changes, even with the vast bank of evidence that mixed attainment may well lead to a significant rise in student attainment.
But if we are unwilling to take informed risks as educators, how can we expect to cultivate an attitude of risk taking in our students? The 2010 NESTA report on risk taking emphasises that “risk taking is essential to innovation”; an essential skill for the twenty-first century in today’s climate of “uncertainty and insecurity”. As teachers, we do not want to stand in front of classes of mindless automatons; we all enjoy teaching the students who think for themselves, are willing to take educational risks and try solving problems on their own, independently sourcing the information they need, and not leaning on us to continually provide reassurance that they are using the ‘accepted’ approach for solving the particular problem.
And yet, even we know that learning how to take risks, and for them to sometimes not work out is an essential aspect of children developing into resilient, successful adults, this culture of risk taking is all too often absent from school management. By being willing to take a risk, and explain why that risk was taken to students and parents from an informed perspective, models the importance of risk taking in the pursuit of excellence to students. If we as teachers, middle leaders, and school leaders run from risk, our students will inevitably do the same.
Mixed attainment teaching is too hard
Many teachers in England have never had experience of teaching mixed attainment classes, and so they see mixed attainment teaching as “unfamiliar and intimidating”. They feel that it is significantly harder to do well, because it means that they need to differentiate the teaching and learning to stretch all the students at different levels all at the same time. They feel more confident in continuing to use the strategies that they have ‘perfected’ for their rigidly set classes.
In particular, with the pressure on teachers to perform, the introduction of performance related pay, and aggressive performance management in schools, teachers have become extremely risk averse. There is a clear perception around teaching staff that mixed attainment teaching requires lots of different resources for different groups of students, which increases their (already unsustainable) workload.
Becoming innovators in the classroom
However, differentiation can be better carried out “through carefully-designed, stimulating tasks that all students are able to make a start on [enabling] the teacher to offer rich feedback students and allows students at all levels of prior attainment to progress”, so lots of resources are not required, just better designed ones. Developing these kinds of resources, without increasing workload, requires teachers to plan and create collaboratively, taking the pressure of ‘risk’ away from individual teachers, as it is shared throughout the whole department. And as teachers become willing to innovate and change, students do too.
If we never did the things we fear then we would never push boundaries, become innovators, learn new things about ourselves or about the new ways we can teach and push ourselves to be better; we would become stale, and other schools who are willing to take risks would leave us behind. Equally, if we want students to be innovators and risk takers, the leaders of the future, beholden to evidence, rather than fear, we need to show them that such a future is possible.