Tops and Bottoms

A fair bit of my career has been spent in sixth form colleges, and I started out in selective schools. In both cases, once the kids were in, even where there was setting, I never felt that the students were defined by their current level of performance. By contrast, I spent a few days recently in a well-regarded local comprehensive school and was a little shocked by just how ingrained notions of fixed ability seemed to be to the culture of the school. “These are the top set that aren’t doing triple science so they’re not  a bad class, really” was the low-down on one class I observed – it wasn’t just a rather sloppy objective assessment of their current academic level: it was a value judgement.

Now, I’m not going to get on my high-horse here because if you’ve already done a significant amount of filtering on GCSE grades, 11+, or – in my present incarnation – the acquisition of a degree, then you’ve no right to lecture those who haven’t on a crudeness you might perceive in their approach to differentiation. On the other hand, this is a school that my own son might attend one day, and I would be horrified if I heard him consigned to a particular caste in this way. I’m not against setting; my impression is that there is a fair accumulation of evidence that setting confers some benefits on those in the top sets to the mild detriment of everyone else but the onus is on anyone promoting a fully mixed-ability approach to show how ordinary teachers, with an ordinary cohort, can make this work for all pupils, without a significant increase in workload – I just don’t think we’ve got that good at differentiation, yet. Meanwhile, as I hear my trainees only a few weeks into their first placement referring to their classes in the same way, my question is, “accepting that classes are differentiated on academic performance, how do I work with my trainees to ensure that they don’t fall into this labelling trap?”

I think my own answer to this is the same as the approach I took with my A-Level students – a bit of neuroscience, a bit of Dweck, a bit of Pygmalion in the Classroom (yes, I’m aware of the short-comings of the original research), a few examples of students that transformed their academic performance, and a relentless effort to focus feedback on the work and not on the person. Next year, I think this needs to be given higher priority, appear earlier in the PGCE course, and I need to be quicker to question anyone I hear labelling in this way.

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