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Teacher Collaboration Supports Mixed-Attainment Classes (Secondary)

Created on 16 January 2017 by ncetm_administrator
Updated on 15 June 2018 by ncetm_administrator

Teacher Collaboration Supports Mixed-Attainment Classes

A London School Models One Possible Way to Make the Transition

Teaching for Mastery and how we group students

Teaching for mastery begins with the premise that every child can succeed at mathematics. This principle runs counter to a ubiquitous cultural belief in this country, that some people just can’t do maths. Every maths teacher has had to diplomatically respond to the parent at parents’ evening who explains unashamedly, “Well, it’s no wonder he can’t do maths – I never could”. But the pervasiveness of our national belief in ‘those that can’ and ‘those that can’t’ do maths is not mirrored around the world – and is particularly different in those jurisdictions that top the international league tables.  

If a school accepts that every child can succeed at mathematics, but that they will learn at different rates at different times, then the practice of placing children in ability sets may be called into question. Being in a lower set often results in pupils believing that they are no good at maths, having access only to a restricted curriculum, and being separated from their peers involved in higher-order thinking (exposure to which, can really bring on lower attaining children). Ability setting in schools does not occur in Shanghai, Singapore or many other high performing jurisdictions.  

However, the prospect of introducing all-attainment groupings is a daunting one in most English secondary schools. All-attainment teaching has been on the fringes of maths education for long enough now, that the large majority of secondary maths teachers have little or no experience of teaching all-attainment groups beyond the first few weeks of Y7.  

Many schools, beginning to be more familiar with practices in high-performing jurisdictions, are searching for models of successful transition to all-attainment grouping in the UK. Many primary schools have already taken the step into mixed groups though arguably, setting was far less entrenched at primary level. At secondary level, schools and teachers are beginning to wonder how it can be done – the model being developed at St Marylebone C of E School, (lead school for London Central and North West Maths Hub), is one example worthy of consideration.  

The St Marylebone Model…

St Marylebone’s first cohort to be taught maths in mixed attainment classes is now (2016/17 school year) in Y8: the Y7 cohort behind is also mixed.  Making such a radical change, with little in the way of structure, resources, or teacher experience to support it, proved very challenging and the department almost reverted to setting. Then they got together for some joint planning and sharing of ideas. What began as a one-off idea has developed into a weekly meeting of teachers to plan all their lessons together and has resulted in a department hugely enjoying and committed to teaching mixed groupings.  They have seen encouraging results in pupil progress, confidence and enjoyment.  

…And How They Got There…

Following participation in the Shanghai exchange in 2015, Maths Hub Lead and Head of Department, Dan Chandrakumar was confronted with the dilemma of how to meaningfully introduce teaching for mastery at St Marylebone. He began with a few of the methods that had impressed him whilst in China, but felt that these were just tinkering around the edges in individual classrooms, and that meaningful implementation would involve more structural change.  

In Shanghai, in non-setted classes, whole-class, teacher-led teaching is the norm. The entire class studies the same topic for a long period, so that no child is left behind.Those who grasp ideas quickly (and these are not the same pupils every time) are extended by being expected to explain their reasoning carefully and in depth, by tackling more difficult problems, and by an expectation that they must understand not only how  to do a procedure, but also the mathematical structure behind the procedure. Those who have had difficulty with a topic are given same-day intervention so that they are ready to access the next lesson.  

When Shanghai teachers visited and taught at St Marylebone last year (2015/2016), the maths department decided to mix up their previously setted classes in Y7 so that the visitors would have mixed attainment classes to teach. When the Chinese teachers left, a fortnight later, the department agreed that they wanted to continue where the Chinese teachers left off, to see how they got on. So in the run up to Christmas 2015, St Marylebone teachers had mixed attainment Y7 classes and the willingness to see if they could make it work. It was a rude awakening to the complexities of all attainment teaching. Dan Chandrakumar describes the experience:

We didn’t understand it enough when we started it, so a lot of it has been a learning journey, there have  been mistakes. The ideology is that you take everyone with you, no one gets left behind, so we thought ‘let’s have mixed ability classes, and teach everyone, raise the bar’ and…yeah, it didn’t work at all, it was terrible. The teaching just didn’t match what was needed for mixed ability classes. All the teachers were teaching to the middle. The top end were bored, the lower end were struggling, and bored. Only the kids in the middle were enjoying lessons or making real progress. At that point we very almost went back to setting but we decided to try one more thing.  

Reluctant to abandon the principle of having mixed classes too quickly, Dan suggested to his staff that they try joint planning on a regular basis and they agreed to give it a go. This idea is also modelled on standard practice in Shanghai where ‘Teacher Research Groups’ (TRGs) meet regularly to review and plan lessons. Y7 teachers at St Marylebone started to meet weekly, to discuss progress in the current week’s teaching, and to outline lessons for the week ahead.  Dan describes the revolutionary effect that this had on everybody’s teaching:

We started doing the TRGs and the teaching quality just rocketed – previously we had had all these teachers who are busy as it is, having to plan four mixed ability lessons a week with no experience of what was required. 

With the collaborative TRG work, teachers outline a plan together then divide up the detailed planning load so that they are only planning 1 or 2 lessons per fortnight in detail.

Once the TRGs started, everyone was like ‘yes, this is the way we want to continue doing this’.

By the end of the school year, staff felt confident that they were effectively meeting the needs of all students in the classes and that students were making good progress. When Dan consulted staff, they resoundingly opted not only to repeat what they had done with the new Y7, but to carry on into Y8 with the first cohort. So now the school has all-attainment groupings in Y7 and Y8 with weekly TRG meetings to review and plan lessons.  Whilst Dan has succeeded in getting the school to timetable teachers so that they all have a common non-contact period in which to attend the meetings, there is no extra time on timetables for the meeting. Effectively teachers are choosing to use their own PPA time to attend and are resoundingly positive about what a worthwhile use of this time it is. 

Committing two hours a week (for those that teach both year groups) is a big ask of a busy teacher – it’s intriguing to know how Dan has managed it. But the teachers appear all to agree how their colleague Andrew Dowle sums it up:

It seemed a lot at first, but it pays such huge dividends. It is actually a time-saver because you benefit so much from the joint planning. 

Add this to the fact that they share a busy office: it is evident that the conversation begun in the allotted TRG hour is one that continues all week over cups of tea.  

All-attainment grouping lends itself well to joint-planning. In a setted school, the teacher that teaches set 2 of 8 may be following the same curriculum as other sets (or may not be) but very probably at a different pace, or in a different order, making collaborative discussion more difficult and joint planning impossible. In this model, all teachers of the year group have comparable classes and move through the same curriculum at roughly the same rate.  It is easy to see that coming into the department office to let off steam about ‘that lesson’ (good or bad), is likely to get a more constructive response than just a sympathetic ear.  

Management Support

To effect such structural change, the department must, clearly, have the support of the school management. At St Marylebone, this reform extends beyond the maths department.  Following the successful implementation of maths TRGs, science and English departments have also started joint planning in a similar way. Removing sets has freed up timetable flexibility so that teachers can have the necessary common PPA period. Dan has also arranged for a cover teacher to be regularly timetabled for each year group.  This frees staff, in rotation, to spend the period visiting all their colleagues’ classes to share good practice.    

What Other Difficulties Were Encountered?

Because of the big curriculum changes that have been implemented at the school, it is impossible to compare the new cohort’s test results with data from previous years. Because the curriculum involves smaller steps and greater depth, with a slower pace and longer spent on each topic, the department have had to create different tests to reflect this.  

The following diagram shows how the marks from the end of year 7 tests spread out over the different classes. The letters in the left hand column are the classes, the numbers in the right hand column are the median (%) marks.

What teachers have noticed, is that students are more engaged, enjoying maths more, and making better progress. Dan says:

The kids that typically would have been in our support set, and by this stage hating maths and feeling bored and inadequate, just don’t feel like that now, because they are not in the support set.  So one day they can be really good, and one day they can struggle and they are supported by the class.

And what about the pupils who would previously have been in the top set?  How have they adapted to the changes?  Dan reports that winning these students over has not always been easy:

The trouble is, a lot of the stuff we do, looks like really easy maths – for example commutative law and distributive law.  The kids who’ve done well at primary school because they can carry out algorithms, often feel like they are learning nothing new because they are not necessarily embracing what they are supposed to be learning. So that’s been a bit of a struggle.  

He gives this example:  25 +132 +75 

a sum that pupils well-schooled in algorithms might thoughtlessly carry out from left to right, whereas the teaching point might be to look at the structure and use that understanding to recognise the possibility and efficiency of adding the 25+75 first.

The kids are starting to get used to the idea – where there was a little bit of resistance from some kids, they are starting to understand that yes, it does get hard very quickly. I’ve been in cover lessons where kids have looked in GCSE books and realised that yes, with the depth, it’s beyond GCSE.

The apparently easy questions have also caused problems with some parents, particularly those who wonder why their child is not in the top set. Better communication with parents has been effective in securing parental support:

This year we took the step of explaining to all Y7 parents the concept of mastery at the Y7 parents information evening: the setting, the ideology and how all that works.  At parents evening we had only around 3 parents who questioned what we are doing, so that was effective.

So where to next?  

Dan is unsure but not vague. He is clear that he is trying something out and listening carefully to what his teachers are saying. There is no grand plan – he anticipates consulting with the department and finding out what colleagues think will work and are prepared to try. He is also very aware of the need to reconcile ideology with reality.  Teaching for mastery approaches are patchy in primary schools so St. Marylebone receives Y7 pupils who already have huge spread of attainment when they arrive.

Last year was experimental so we retained a small support set. This year we have tried to manage it without a support set –in an ideal world there would be no need for one.  But we are beginning to accept that we may need to create one in Y7 now.  

Will the school carry the mixed attainment groups on into Y9?

I don’t know. We will evaluate as this year (2016/17) goes on. I’d be very happy if we did, but I will ask the teachers how they feel, how the students are doing. It was very obvious that they wanted to take it into Y8.  And from the data it seemed the best thing to do. Y9 may be more difficult, but let’s wait and see…


If you’d like to offer your views, or experiences, on any aspect of teaching for mastery, please contribute to the discussion threads in the NCETM’s Maths Café Community. NB: To access and make posts in the Maths Café Community, you need to be registered with the NCETM and logged in.

Read NCETM Director’s blogpost in which he suggests timetabling teachers to teach fewer year groups, a strategy that could enable the logistics of collaborative planning, and lighten teachers’ planning load.


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05 June 2018 12:21
Excellent ... very pleasing, though strong and challenging decision. I am from Pakistan and the same rule apply there in schools. I still remember how big chunks of excercises we use to complete in the class room and as home work - it was basically just about practise, practise and practise.
By mpervez21
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03 February 2018 16:08
If anyone wants to find out more just google “St Marylebone school eventbrite”. Lots of opportunities to see this and for CPD!
11 February 2017 17:48
In the few years before 2010 Els de Geest and I observed the work of three schools who changed to all-attainment grouping in KS3 and we published several papers about these changes, the successes and difficulties. These papers can be found at: www.pmtheta.com/publications.html​ and scroll down till you find the heading 'Mathematics departments'. We also had a website giviing detailed information about their work, but this has now been closed down. However, I have kept all the text that was on there and could send it to anyone who wants to read detail about their experiences. Anne Watson
By Anne_Watson
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10 February 2017 09:29
This is only one research paper, to be fair, and it's unlikely that the mixed-ability/streaming dichotomy is as straightforward as we would like. However, if the article is even vaguely correct then I guess the question becomes is it easier to modify mixed ability teaching to enable the more able to make good progress, or streaming to make the middle and lower ability bands make good progress? My own hunch is that streaming will continue as it is far easier for the teacher, and fits well with our cultural values that seem to make good mathematicians being excellent more important than all people feeling comfortable with mathematical reasoning. My understanding of how I see children learn leads me to suspect that doing mixed ability well would have the better results, but would require significant changes in teacher, school and family culture - not an easy win!
By trf197
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09 February 2017 13:32
So the evidence suggests that not streaming is harmful to the more able in the cohort and streaming is harmful to the less able. The article here seems to back that up.
By timthorn
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09 February 2017 12:08
In reply to perseus, I am not sure where you are looking to find evidence. There are a variety of papers in the educational research literature looking at mixed ability teaching. For example, a paper published in 2014 called "The impact of streaming on attainment at age seven: evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study" by Samantha Parson at the Institute of Education has the following abstract:

"This paper investigates the relationship between stream placement and the academic progress made by children in England in Year 2 of primary school, drawing on data from the longitudinal Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). The MCS is a sample of 19,000 children born across the UK around the turn of the century and their families. Academic progress was compared between children in England in the ‘top’, ‘middle’ or ‘bottom’ streams, and among the majority of non-streamed children. Multiple regressions took into account child, family and school characteristics and showed that stream placement significantly impacted on the academic progress made by children. Children in the ‘top’ stream achieved more and made significantly more academic progress than children attending schools that did not stream, while children in the ‘middle’ or ‘bottom’ streams achieved less and made significantly less academic progress. The reasons for this and the educational implications are discussed." [http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03054985.2014.959911]
By trf197
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09 February 2017 11:35
If a school accepts that every child can succeed at mathematics, but that they will learn at different rates at different times, then the practice of placing children in ability sets may be called into question.

On the contrary. I offer free help to people with educational problems, and moved into maths at the request of pupils and their parents - my main interests are in literacy and languages. My current pupil has suffered in mixed ability classes throughout his school career, as he was never allowed the additional time he needed to develop and consolidate his understanding of basic issues. He is not "bad at maths", but he had not learned maths at all from the teaching he'd been given - anything beyond counting was a mystery. I've begun with teaching calculation - he did not know the 2x table, having been taught to count in multiples instead - and do not teach horizontal addition, as I find that vertical methods are more effective in teaching place value. My pupil's parents agree, and have seen marked improvement in their son's confidence once he was shown reliable methods of calculation, which he could then extend to algebra.

There is no evidence to support mixed ability teaching in maths that I've been able to find, and the schools in Shanghai are highly selective, so that those who are unlikely to keep up are simply not admitted. Singapore operates a highly selective programme for pupils identified as gifted.
By perseus
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07 February 2017 16:37
What an honest, challenging and inspiring read all rolled in to one! Great to hear about the work of Dan and the team at St Marylebone.
By DebbieBarker
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