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Chris McGovern: A Tory ban on mixed ability teaching? A power too far


Rumours have been circulating that the Tory general election manifesto will include a commitment to the banning of mixed-ability teaching. Apparently, the plan is for Ofsted to award the coveted status of “outstanding” only to schools that ‘set’ pupils according to ability. There are no rumours that the Government is going to ban its enforced mixed-ability exam, the GCSE.

The argument for ability ‘sets’ is well rehearsed and based on common sense. The essential message is that children are best taught in groups of similar ability. It allows pupils to progress at a pace broadly in line with their intelligence.

All children can cope with ‘dumbed down’ lesson content but not all children can cope with more difficult work. In mixed-ability classes, therefore, the temptation is always to ‘lower the bar’, on the basis that lesson content has to be ‘accessible’ to everyone.

The proponents of mixed-ability’ teaching will argue that in a mixed-ability class the work can be ‘differentiated’ to suit the needs of each child. Different groups of children, it is claimed, can be working on the same topic but at different levels. In practice, it usually means the teacher trying to teach three different lessons at the same time to three different groups of youngsters in the same classroom!

For all the protestations of the mixed ability fanatics this method of teaching does not work well for most children, most of the time. It cannot work. Pupils need a teacher’s attention and a teacher’s instruction to be available throughout a lesson. They need the ‘whole-class’ teaching methods that underpin so many of the most successful education systems around the world.

And this, of course, is the heart of the problem. Mixed ability teaching is not only problematic in itself, it comes with its required teaching method of so-called child-centred learning. This antithesis of ‘whole-class’ teaching, based on group work, is now the predominant teaching methodology in all our state schools and for all classes, including those where the children are set according to ability.

In its purest form, mixed ability teaching becomes ‘personalised learning’ in which each child is a group unto him/herself. It sounds perfect but the gap between the rhetoric and the reality is wide. ‘Personalised learning’ usually means that a child is stuck in front of a very impersonal computer screen with a teacher making the occasional appearance to sort out defects in the wiring or the software.

So, should we hope that the rumours about ‘setting’ are true and that schools should have to go along this path to be judged outstanding? No, not in my opinion!  Schools need be judged on how successful they are and not on their commitment to a particular teaching methodology. That is dangerous territory. Another government might decide to enforce the opposite.

Over the past half century it has been mixed-ability teaching, and its associated offshoot of ‘child-centred’ learning, that has been promoted and praised by inspectors. Indeed, mixed ability teaching remains the norm in primary schools, with children sat around tables, many with their backs to the teacher. Each table gets a morsel of teaching and of teacher-time in their turn, with whole-class teaching kept to a minimum. What a waste! Banning mixed ability teaching groups will not address the real problem – this fake ‘child-centred’ learning methodology that dictates teaching of all pupils.

Teachers need to have their eyes opened. They need to be learners, again. A ‘root and branch’ reform of teacher training and of in-service training is required; and it has been required for a very long time.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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