The Perse School

Mixed ability classes are ‘a curse’ on bright pupils

So said the Daily Telegraph.  This is a fairly predictable headline for a right wing paper.  The ‘news’ in the story is that this is the view of Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools who has a refreshingly no nonsense approach to education.  Sir Michael is not to be messed with.  He has turned round more than his fair share of failing schools and he describes his management style as being modelled on Clint Eastwood (in his prime).

Sir Michael’s macho style is reminiscent of the Chris Woodhead approach, and both Chief Inspectors deserve praise for their bravery in pointing out unpopular truths to the educational establishment.  Like it or lump it, it is a simple fact that it is much more difficult to teach a class of mixed abilities than a class with a narrow ability range.  A few outstanding teachers may be able to differentiate their lessons so successfully that they cater for pupils of Oxbridge potential and those struggling to master the basics whilst also looking after all intervening points on the ability range, but they are few and far between.  More often in mixed ability classes, keen, compliant high achievers are left to get on with their own work whilst teacher time and resources are concentrated on children who are struggling.  This own work is often termed ‘independent study’, and it is important that children develop research skills and learn to work for themselves rather than the teacher or parent.  However, such independent study can mask a slower pace of learning which over time can mean that talented children in mixed ability classes fall behind talented children in setted or streamed groups where the focus is always on stretching the brightest.  The result is that students capable of A* grades end up with As; perhaps not a national disaster but unrealised potential nonetheless, and the difference between an A* and an A can be significant for university entry.

Schools like The Perse effectively stream by ability on entry with only high achieving students securing places.  Perse staff therefore teach high ability classes with a narrow academic range, and in some subjects this is refined further by setting.  This means that we are well placed to stretch bright students and realise their full potential.  Furthermore bright children spark off one another and create a classroom culture in which it is cool to succeed.

A good education system realises the potential of all its children.  In recent years there has been a tendency for the national educational debate to focus on raising standards for those in the lower ability range.   This is important as every school leaver who becomes a NEET (not in education, employment, or training) is a missed opportunity, an unrealised potential, and a cost to society.  However, we must also look after our brightest students – their talents must be developed in full too or potential will go unrealised.  Setting and streaming are steps in the right direction, provided they are flexible enough to allow ‘late developers’ to move up the academic ladder when justified by their merits.

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