A Cautionary Tale of Setting

This is about the power of belief. My friend has twins. One boy and one girl. By some miracle of time travel, they seem to have accelerated from babes in incubators to Year 10 pupils in the blink of an eye. One moment I was stroking them through a plastic porthole, the next I was discussing their GCSE options with them. Sigh.

Anyway, one twin, the girl, has always struggled with her literacy. She’s had some private tutoring and has worked really hard and come a long way, but it’s been a struggle. The other learned to read quickly, is fluent and has not struggled in that area at all. Nor has he had to try very hard. So imagine their surprise and different reactions when she is placed in Set One for English and he in Set Three.

A tale of growth mindsets we might conclude. Or of hard work paying off. But no. It was simply a case of mistaken identity. The school meant them to be placed the other way round.

The thing is, she’s thriving in Set One.

At parents’ evening, my friend asked why the children were in those sets and it wasn’t until then that anyone realised there had been an error. She held her own. He produced work consistent of that expected and asked of him in Set Three. The initial response was to simply swap them back. But what would that have done for the girl? She’s worked her socks off to keep up in Set One. She’s doing ok and understanding the content. Most of all, she thinks she deserves it – that she’s worked for it. And so, rightly in my opinion, Mum says no. It’s too late now. So they are now both in the same class and both doing well.

Why do we have sets at all? None of the evidence suggests it benefits children – in fact most studies show a detrimental impact on most. I think we do it because it makes it easier for us to ‘differentiate’. But differentiation is not hard – the answer to differentiation is to teach everyone to A* standard (and beyond) and put in safety nets and scaffolds for those who might not quite make it that far. They’ll have leaped further than if we had given them C grade content.

Many years ago, when I was a young teacher, a senior manager came to me and said “Your value added results are off the scale – would you be willing to come and talk to staff about what you’re doing in order to have that impact?” I told her that what I did contradicted their policy and they might not like it. I told her that I never looked at target grades – something we were supposed to do religiously. I assumed every student was capable of an A and I used the evidence of my own eyes to judge what kind of support they needed. I said that in my view target grades were the quickest way to demotivate and to put lids on learning. I didn’t get invited to speak to staff after all, but my students continued to thrive. They didn’t all get As. But almost all of them beat so called targets.

We cannot seriously claim to support the idea of growth mindsets as long as we set children and give them ‘target’ grades based on past performance. And the fact that there is a girl in Set One, pushing past her so called limits is evidence in my book.

13 thoughts on “A Cautionary Tale of Setting

  1. I whole heartedly agree with this! Have you seen the fleas in the jar visual? We used it at an inset at my school to show how the lid limits the progress. I’ve left the school now but we were just embarking on not having ability groups or seating of any kind because of these reasons. It’s limiting for both sides, scared of failure at one end, and feeling there’s no way out at the other. Doesn’t research say that these labels stick with you throughout school too?

  2. I’ve argued this point for a while now. When I was finally in a position to make the change to “mixed ability” we found the attitude of the pupils who had been difficult in lower sets improved dramatically.

    One big obstacle is parents. I currently teach in a school where parents DEMAND sets. And of course, their darlings always deserve to be in set 1…

    1. I think there’s a big job to be done here with parents. We had a similar situation when we moved to MA teaching in English. It was only the parents who were convinced their children should be in set 1 of course who made a noise, but they made a VERY loud noise. I sent them the research to explain our position and we stuck to our guns. They came round in the end because they could see that their children were making great progress, but it was a battle.

  3. I have loved reading your ‘Cautionary tale’ – so much in it which runs contrary to what happens in many (perhaps most and nearly all) schools with regard to wanting target grades and teaching in ability (settled) groups. As a former HoMaths who led our department to teach in mixed-attainment groups from Y7 to Y11, I know the benefits of not setting – I have experienced it as a teacher and so did my colleagues – though this was back in days or yore (1985-1995). With regard to ‘differentiation’, one reason why schools set children is because they believe it overcomes this issue of differentiation as a matter of course. As in the previous reply, I also worked with parents, though a little differently – we ran “Maths for parents evenings” where we invited them to work on typical tasks/puzzles/problems so they could see how their children were being taught and how the tasks we used could easily be extended to cater for different children’s engagement. Sorry I am rabbiting on a bit – most important thing to say is “Thanks for this piece”
    Mike Ollerton

  4. I’m going to have to start accepting the evidence against my ‘gut feeling’ (I NEVER trust that anyway). I’ve always been convinced that it was necessary to put pupils into different ability groups, but never been a fan of differentiation that limited where they were expected to be. So I always taught the group I had, to reach the highest level, sometimes having pupils exceeding the higher group, of course. My thinking was this: If I were learning to play guitar, how would I feel in the advanced group? I’d need to be with those who were also starting guitar. But this is a matter of what stage I’m at, not my ability. I call the kids’ bluff on ability (a proto growth mindset, perhaps). I’m struggling to abandon thoughts of the time wasted in a mixed ability group, trying to teach the class – boring those who ‘get it’ really quickly and losing those who struggle. It’s not simply a matter of, ‘well you have to be more creative in your teaching methods’. It’s another variable that impedes rapid information reception in the pupils. Nevertheless, I’m an empiricist at heart; evidence matters – as long as it’s valid and reliable. I do it for science and English. Perhaps it’s worth a go in maths too.

  5. For me a BIG issue about working with m-a groups is to fundamentally and perhaps radically change the notiion of what it means “to teach”. Shifting practice from the teacher being responsible for what students learn to one of how to cause students to become evermore responsible for their learning is a key principle. Thus instead of the teacher imparting their knowledge about any concept (l will take ‘Place value’ as an example) I believe the teacher’s key role is to find tasks which enable learners to explore place value and, having done so, the teacher can pose further questions. See http://mikeollerton.com/pubs/Place%20Value.pdf.
    As such m-a teaching demands a different form of classroom management. It is not about teaching to the ‘middle’it is about using accessible tasks which through further questions enable extension and progression. Every class has as many different ‘levels’ of cognition as there are children in a classroom.

    Apologies I could go on forever especially as developing m-teaching and learning was what my MPhil was about. Regards Mike

  6. Having insisted for 4 years that our middle child’s progress was exactly as expected and my concerns over the fact that she NEVER did any work at home were irrelevant, her school suddenly realised in year 11 that she was capable of straight A’s (which both her siblings got). I told them, too late – you should have heeded my warnings because now she has learnt (from your school) appalling study habits.

    The problem was that she was always doing the bare minimum, right back into primary school. So baselines and progress charts were completely meaningless.

    1. I think any parent should beware the words “oh he/she is doing fine”. Even in cases where you are dealing with parents with punishing expectations of their child, it encourages the view that you are complacent as a teacher. Instead of fine or not fine there should be a list of things that could be done to extend and develop from the current position. That’s what good teaching should be about – stretching.

  7. The story is true. Today pupils have a big schedule with large number of subjects. That is why, some of them do not have ebough time to learn information appropriately and as a result they get bad marks. Over the last 15 years the need in tutors has increased enormously as well as in online tutoring services. Here is a link to http://www.qualitytutoringservices.com/

    1. You’re right Juli – it has led to an opportunistic exploitation of young people by companies looking to profit from their misery.

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