Over the last few years, the school Leadership Team has been weighing the pros and cons of teaching Maths and English as a whole class, or in differentiated ability groupings (Sets). Though Coleridge has operated a Sets systems in Year 3, 4, 5 and 6 for many years, recent research findings, have prompted us to examine this model carefully, and to trial Whole Class Teaching in some Year groups.
Setting vs Whole Class Teaching
Setting is the process of grouping children according to their ability in specific subjects; in theory, it allows for more effective teaching by narrowing the range of pupil attainment in the class.
For many years, Coleridge has operated a system of setting children for maths and English in Years 3, 4, 5, 6. However, in September 2017, the school Leadership Team decided to trial the removal of sets in Year 3 for the first time. The decision to do this was based on the factors outlined below:
- Growing evidence from research suggests that setting has a detrimental impact on attainment outcomes for the majority of children.
- When taught in sets, children’s perception of their own ability can become fixed over time.
- Many other primary schools across the UK have abandoned setting and have reported positive impacts on progress, attainment and student engagement.
- Lower attaining sets often contain a disproportionately high number of children with SEND and/or children from disadvantaged backgrounds (those in receipt of the Pupil Premium grant), when compared with other sets. In this regard, it could be reasonably argued that a sets system is socially divisive.
- Children in lower attaining sets do not get exposure to the language, reasoning and ideas often demonstrated by higher achieving children.
- Moving a child from one set to another often creates gaps in learning. Different sets cover the curriculum at different speeds, so moving a child up or down means that they are likely to miss out on some objectives and topics that have already been covered by their new set
Following positive feedback from Year 3 teachers at the end of 2017, and small increases in the overall attainment and progress of learners when compared to a setted system, the Leadership Team continued rolling out whole class teaching in Years 3, 4 & 5 for English, and in Years 3 & 4 for mathematics.
Comprehensive analysis of children’s progress and attainment data, and of feedback from staff and pupils, has been undertaken at various points over the last two years. What follows is a summary of key findings from our own research here at Coleridge, and from wider academic studies on the issue:
- A large sample of children in KS2 (140) were asked to rate their enjoyment of English and maths lessons, and to rate how challenging they found them. They were also asked to choose from a selection of words that best describe the lessons. Results of the survey showed that there was almost no difference in how much children enjoyed the subjects whether they were taught in classes or in sets. The scores attributed to the level of challenge were almost identical between the two groups as well. However, there was one notable exception: high ability children in maths enjoy it more if they are taught in sets, whilst in English, high ability children prefer the subject if they are taught in class.
- All teachers in Years 3, 4 & 5 feel that teaching English as a whole class has been a success. Struggling writers are being exposed to richer language and ideas, and are becoming more independent in their thinking and in their work. Teachers reported fewer reluctant writers than in previous years, and that higher attaining children are also still getting as much out of lessons taught as a whole class. Furthermore, a recent Year 4 Lesson Study, which focused on developing children’s writing skills, observed that successful, practical strategies are being used well to ensure appropriate support and challenge for children of all abilities.
- Year 3 & 4 teachers have found whole class maths more challenging, due to the wide range of abilities in the class, and the number of skills based objectives that they are expected to cover within the National Curriculum. However, all teachers have expressed a desire to develop their practice of mixed ability teaching in maths through the Lesson Study model, rather than revert to a sets system. Year 5 & 6 teachers feel that a 5-set model for maths continues to work well and enables them to cope with the volume of objectives demanded by the Upper Key Stage 2 maths curriculum.
- Evidence from international studies suggests that whole class teaching has a very small, positive impact for low and middle attaining learners, and a very small negative impact for higher attaining pupils, when compared to a sets system. There are exceptions to this pattern, with some research studies demonstrating benefits for all learners across the attainment range. At Coleridge, we have observed slightly better progress measures for middle and low attaining children, and no discernible change in the rate of progress for high achieving children.
- Following the removal of sets, teachers at Coleridge have observed improvements in the creative and linguistic skills of low and middle attaining children (in particular, composition and vocabulary in English, and problem solving and reasoning in mathematics). However, technical skills such as grammar and punctuation, and fluency with calculation and number, are perhaps better developed through a sets model – particularly in Upper Key Stage 2 where there are a greater volume of these types of objectives.
The removal of sets in Years 3 & 4 has had a small positive impact on the attainment and progress of learners when taken as a whole. Most notably, low and middle attaining children have improved linguistic and creative skills, through exposure to high quality reasoning, vocabulary and ideas. Children continue to enjoy English and maths, and view lessons to be appropriately challenging.
However, issues still remain in trying to ensure that all learners make excellent progress in the areas of grammar and punctuation in English, and in fluency with calculation and number in Mathematics, particularly in Years 5 and 6, where there is a greater number of objectives of this nature, and a wider disparity in children’s ability. For this reason, a system of setting still remains in place in Years 5 and 6 for mathematics, and in Year 6 alone for English.
Lesson studies and Continued Professional Development is being undertaken in the school, in order to further improve teacher’s ability to differentiate successfully.