Teaching Mixed age/mixed ability classes

Mervyn Benford - Information Officer National Association for Small Schools

I write this paper from experience of starting my career in unstreamed primary classes (then rare,) for 8 years, followed by a 15 year headship of a small Oxfordshire primary school. Later I worked five years as a rural schools co-ordinator for two Local Authorities and then inspected some 20-25 small schools over six years as an Ofsted RGI..

The Challenge

Research has consistently shown and continues to show that streaming on the whole fails to achieve what the concept implies- namely children advancing at their own level and speed and therefore able to make appropriate progress. A major drawback has been that the great majority of pupils, once labelled, remain in the same streams. Transfer is rare. Setting is more sensitive, usually at secondary school, where more specialist subject teaching enables sorting by ability to be subject-based and pupils may be in sets for subjects in which they demonstrate ability or difficulty. The same low transfer outcome obtains. Moreover many in low sets do show in later life that they had far more, if latent ability than original assessment showed.

Research has also consistently shown that unstreamed teaching and learning has its own problems- namely the fact so much teaching has been ( and remains) directed by the teacher at the pupils, usually from the front of the class and with strictly prescribed learning goals. It proves difficult for the teacher to pitch the teaching at appropriate levels for all. It can be either too hard for many or too easy for many and research shows that invariably the eventual level set tends to be a little below average.

The small primary school across the UK has demonstrated high levels of achievement in modern test and inspection contexts despite a historical string of deficiencies alleged by detractors of small schools- lack of specialist teachers, old buildings, small peer groups and of course mixed age/ability classes. None of these is in fact a disadvantage. In good professional hands they can be very effective tools. There is hardly any evidence to sustain these criticisms but even so the fact of achieving comparable outcomes to larger schools always seems remarkable to outside observers and clearly owns certain strengths.

  1. The close partnership and relationship with parents and the local community. These have been well identified for their mutually enriching contribution to raising standards and setting positive values and attitudes. Small schools have been the only educational environment in which children from disadvantaged, difficult backgrounds have made progress.
  2. The model of education inevitably balances the need to respect individual level of development with shared, co-operative activity across the wider range of pupils involved. It is almost inevitable that children of different backgrounds and experiences work together and often by instinct more than professional study and learning teachers in small schools have evolved effective ways of working in such situations.

    In fact it is the model of learning most effective throughout life- the one used at home and to which the children daily return and the one used in working life where people of all kinds of abilities have to work together on routine or particular tasks. Both at home and at work the model succeeds because it provides both the opportunity for people to work at their own level and develop accordingly but then applies that to shared, cooperative activities. A company Sales Director is paid more because he knows more than his team. He mediates his qualities with the team to achieve required goals. He also attends conferences and courses where he works at his own level before returning to mediate his new competence within his or her team of different experience and abilities.

    This real-world, real-life model of learning simply does not exist in most schools across the world, even though in the UK, especially but not exclusively in small schools, it can be detected in best practice. We can refine it much further. Because it is more instinctive, or the result of observing effective outcomes, it can be practised in particular situations but it is rarely the focus of strategic curriculum and organisational planning and goals. More often developmental goals remain targeted at individual needs and this is well planned for in most small schools and classes. The strength of inspectors' remarks about the working interaction between school and community is that the world outside school becomes very much the focus for planned curriculum work as well as offering extended lifelong learning opportunities for the community.
  3. The Small Classes Myth

    Research has consistently shown that small classes do not well correlate with achievement, and there is little evidence that achievement is raised significantly by smaller classes. In fact inspectors have praised effective work undertaken at times in very large groups because teachers have judged that the particular experience can be better introduced or managed in the larger groups. Subsequent work may well then be individual or in smaller groups, overseen by a staff team. This greater organisational flexibility as to how work is planned and presented and how the work ms then undertaken is not yet well developed. The concept of work organisation reflecting the goals or tasks set was recognised in the 1967 Plowden Report which said, among many formative things too long ignored and forgotten, that groups can form and re-form for different purposes. The small school model almost inevitably creates more such situations than the larger ones but whether teachers fully appreciate this will be reflected in the extent to which they consciously value such activity enough to plan for it.
  4. Specialist or Integrated?

    Research has also shown that major curriculum goals such as competence in language and mathematics are often better developed from natural everyday situations or from work in other areas but demanding exploitation of those core skills. There is a mixed model of curriculum that schools have not sufficiently perceived and that has remained, therefore, similarly polarised between subject specialism and integration. Both are needed and both are normal in the real world and real life. A study of a local building, for example a windmill, may see children using art skills such as composition, perspective, texture and colour in doing such work. But those skills themselves can be well taught as specialist learning, for example lessons on line, form and using colour or practical skills such as using pencils and brushes. In science understanding electricity using batteries can be taught effectively as a specialist lesson to whole classes or groups but later strengthen work to build a windmill with moving parts. Teachers need consciously to plan for both types of learning and each demands different ways to organise time, space, people and materials.
  5. Teachers need to be aware of these real-world qualities and circumstances when planning their work and in such contexts they will then determine whether the class or group needs 'same ability' effects or provides opportunity for 'mixed ability' effects in which the more able, particularly, serve their individual developmental needs by using their higher abilities in leading work activity. Small group work does not resolve every learning challenge but small groups with the pupils carefully chosen, balanced for their respective abilities, are central to long-term effective teaching in any school. I saw a school in Gambia where teams of pupils of all abilities cut up old lorry tyres to make summer sandals which they then sold on the market for school funds.

    Group work allows teachers time to review what their pupils are doing and to use teacher time effectively to monitor progress choose when to stop everyone and share something observed, invite evaluative comments from the rest before returning to the activity. This on-going evaluation is central to achieving approving inspection judgements because it is ventral to achieving better results. Planning, therefore, should weigh very carefully the place and role of group work, along with consideration of time, space and materials necessary for the planned work. Time spent by the teacher directing learning from the front becomes unproductive at a particular point, usually rather earlier than most realise.
  6. Fundamentals for effective learning and teaching

    In all effective teaching, not just mixed age/ability and small schools, there are fundamentals research shows to be effective. Children come to school to learn things and get better in that. The brain is designed to analyse, compare and interpret evidence and then draw relevant conclusions that shape future activity and interest. Most school work fails to challenge these faculties. Most education is designed around absorption and memory of fact. Effective learning for any of us means reaching stages where we know what we next need and how to access it. Good schools recognise this. Teachers would become enablers rather than instructors but the opposite usually happens as school becomes subject specialised and exam-driven. In the ideal model the teachers find appropriate moments again to instruct.
    In ideal models work should challenge these built-in intellectual traits. It should exploit children's existing talents and experience, should open to their own ideas and evaluation of outcomes, enable interaction with other pupils, with teachers and other adults, not least parents. In a Gambian village a ten year old boy showed me a wooden truck made simply of sticks fixed together but with moving parts to turn the wheels, steered by him using a long stick. He had built this entirely at home and my interest encouraged him to share his achievement back at school the next day.

    There should be time to process intellectually the various learning inputs that come their way by instruction, example, or other input both planned (for example curriculum values and goals) and chance. It is within that planned provision of process time that all the other developmental experiences are best expressed and it is the single failure of most school systems and organisation that this time is not provided. As a result, the conventional school is almost the opposite of what research shows to be effective, especially as pupils pass through to later stages.

    The small school with mixed ages and abilities is well-placed to use this very flexible and sophisticated mode of working. The key remains, however, to ensure that all children have working practice that exploits their own given experience and knowledge, able to inject this collectively into shared tasks, while also benefiting from experience and activities that stretch them at their own levels. Even in this last respect group work, teamwork, remain rich ways for all ability levels to offer, practise and develop their own particular levels of skill and experience.

I conclude by adding the findings of the National College of Leadership's 2009 study of what 500 primary children told them they wanted from their primary schooling. Again it demonstrates how little school matches reality. Teachers and education departments in other countries less developed in public education have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, short-cut the process and overtake us as we are still stuck in yesterday's debates such as streaming which should have been resolved half a century ago when they were first current.

We want to learn about real things
We want to break down subject barriers.
We want to choose our curriculum.

We want more time for our work, to learn better.
We want to learn about the world and world events.
We want more work with different age groups.
We want to learn about parents and adults.

We want to use different technology.
We want more doing and making.
We want experts to inspire us.
We want more work in teams.
We want other country contacts.
We want to work more outside.

We want to laugh together

Our task is to identify how much of this they are given, to make good the deficiencies,
and so to empower their vision.

Mervyn Benford


Small Schools in Finland

A recent Scottish school report compares PISA results and Finland comes out top in these year on year. Finland has an average school size of 50 pupils and has an edict that each school should be community based - much the same as occurs in the rural areas of Scotland. It would be interesting to compare the results from rural Scotland with those of Finland.