HMI: Matters for Discussion

Background notes

1 Ten Good Schools
2 Classics in Comprehensive Schools
3 Modern Languages in Comprehensive Schools
4 Gifted Children in Middle and Comprehensive Secondary Schools
5 The Teaching of Ideas in Geography
6 Mixed Ability Work in Comprehensive Schools
7 The Education of Children in Hospitals for the Mentally Handicapped
8 Developments in the BEd Degree Course
9 Mathematics 5 to 11
10 Community Homes with Education
11 A View of the Curriculum
12 Modern Languages in Further Education
13 Girls and Science
14 Mathematics in the Sixth Form
15 The New Teacher in School

Mixed Ability Work in Comprehensive Schools

The complete document is presented in this single web page. You can scroll through it or use the following links to go straight to the various sections:

Foreword (page 1)
Introduction (3)

Part I Working Party Report
    1 Procedures of the working party (9)
    2 Schools' reasons for adopting mixed ability organisation (15)
    3 Suitability of premises and resources (23)
    4 Planning and preparing for mixed ability work (27)
    5 Reviewing progress and effects (29)
    6 Staff (31)
    7 The organisation of teaching (33)
    8 Curriculum and teaching methods (35)
    9 Assessment and recording (39)
    10 Attitudes and behaviour of pupils (43)
    11 Quality of work (49)
    12 Effects and implications of mixed ability grouping (57)
    Appendix: Children with disabilities (63)
    Glossary (67)

Part II Mixed ability teaching in comprehensive schools in Wales (71)

Part III Papers on mixed ability work from specialist committees of HMI
    1 Introduction (85)
    2 Classics (87)
    3 Craft, design and technology (91)
    4 English (95)
    5 Geography (101)
    6 History (107)
    7 Mathematics (111)
    8 Modern foreign languages (117)
    9 Music (121)
    10 Physical education (127)
    11 Religious education (131)
    12 Science (135)

The text of Mixed Ability Work in Comprehensive Schools was prepared by Derek Gillard and upoaded on 16 Aug 2011.

Mixed Ability Work in Comprehensive Schools
HMI Series: Matters for Discussion No. 6

London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office 1978
Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen's Printer for Scotland.

[title page]

Department of Education and Science

HMI Series: Matters for Discussion 6

Mixed Ability Work
in Comprehensive

A discussion paper by a working party of
Her Majesty's Inspectorate

London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office

[page ii]

The publications in this series are intended to stimulate professional discussion. They are based on HM Inspectors' observations of work in educational institutions and present their thoughts on some of the issues involved. The views expressed are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Inspectorate as a whole or of the Department of Education and Science. It is hoped that they will promote debate at all levels so that they can be given due weight when educational developments are being assessed or planned. In particular, the purpose of this publication is to help heads and heads of departments to consider the range of issues involved in taking on a mixed ability organisation, and to enable those that decide to adopt this organisation to use it effectively. The present title (No. 6 in the series) is the outcome of the work of a team of HM Inspectors led by a Divisional Inspector. Nothing said is to be construed as implying Government commitment to the provision of additional resources.

Crown copyright 1978
First published 1978

ISBN 0 11 270446 8

[page iii]




Part I Working Party Report
1 The procedures of the working party9
2 Schools' reasons for adopting mixed ability organisation15
3 Suitability of premises and resources23
4 Planning and preparing for mixed ability work27
5 Reviewing progress and effects29
6 Staff31
7 The organisation of teaching33
8 Curriculum and teaching methods35
9 Assessment and recording39
10 Attitudes and behaviour of pupils43
11 Quality of work49
12 The effects and implications of mixed ability grouping57
Appendix: Children with disabilities63

Part II Mixed ability teaching in comprehensive schools in Wales

[page iv]

Part III Papers on mixed ability work contributed by specialist committees of HM Inspectorate
1 Introduction85
2 Classics87
3 Craft, design and technology91
4 English95
5 Geography101
6 History107
7 Mathematics111
8 Modern foreign languages117
9 Music121
10 Physical education127
11 Religious education131
12 Science135

[page 1]


Mixed ability organisation in one form or another has in recent years become an important feature of many comprehensive schools. It was therefore natural for HM Inspectorate to study it carefully and to discuss it with teachers during inspection visits and on short courses. This document invites wider discussion.

To use the words 'mixed ability' has almost become an invitation to people to take sides, often with the emotions flying, the definitions widely different, and the evidence selective. This paper tries to minimise those risks: it does not take sides; it records what HM Inspectors found in visits between 1970 and 1977 and it concentrates on a single definition of mixed ability organisation, namely one in which, at least up to the end of the third year of the normal secondary course, the curriculum was taught wholly or mainly (ie with not more than two subjects excluded) in classes in which the span of ability ranged from significantly below to significantly above the average.

The findings recorded in this paper are fully applicable only to that context. This paper is not concerned with the widespread practice of a diagnostic period, often of a year or less, for which many schools adopt a mixed ability organisation and by which they seek to ensure the most suitable educational context for each pupil. Nor, since it is mainly concerned with mixed ability organisation in the first three years of secondary education, should its comments be taken to apply to the crucial examination years when schools seek particularly, within whatever organisation of learning, to develop each pupil's talents to the full and to match them, where appropriate, with a suitable examination target.

The paper is designed to be read closely and to be read as a whole. Nothing can stop selective quotation by any reader for his own purposes but against that must be set HM Inspectors' intention in writing. They wish to help schools and teachers who are considering the introduction of a mixed ability organisation to look all round the question before taking a decision and to prepare well if they decide in favour; and to offer suggestions based on existing good practice to those already working within such a framework.

It is true that, despite the good work seen, HM Inspectors' main impression was that schools had often underestimated the complexity and difficulty of what they were taking on. It is true, too, that HM Inspectors found that the more able pupils were the most likely to be put at a disadvantage in terms of academic learning. The paper is therefore, in parts, necessarily critical although its main theme remains constructive. Some schools have adopted mixed ability organisation with broad success; the grounds of this achievement are described on page 56. Others point to specific benefits deriving from the approach for all or some of their pupils. The section of this paper on the implications of what HM Inspectors found (pages 12 to 14) draws on the best practice observed; it sets out at some length both what schools may need to consider and do, and the range of support that needs to be provided for them, in order that their use of a mixed ability organisation may be successful in such a way that the balance is kept between academic and more broadly educational aims.

[page 3]


The grouping of pupils

In the organisation of secondary schools, a number of decisions need to be made - for example, on staffing, resources and timetabling. All of these contribute in one way or another to the total effectiveness and well-being of a school. The result of such decisions can influence the quality of the education provided for the pupils of the school. It is necessary to divide pupils for their daily work into groups of a manageable size, and the decision as to how these groups should be composed is one of the most important that has to be made; for pupils may learn and behave differently in different kinds of groupings, and the approaches and altitudes of teachers towards them may depend to some extent upon the nature of the groups with which they are dealing.

The methods of grouping in common use in comprehensive schools are streaming by ability, broad banding by ability, setting by ability, and mixed ability grouping. To illustrate what these mean, let us consider an example. In an eight-form entry comprehensive school, there are approximately 240 pupils, drawn from the school's whole range of ability, in each year-group. If it were decided to stream them, they would be assessed on general ability and divided into eight different forms representing eight segments of the ability range: to use a common mode of designation, the 30 most able would be put in the A-stream, the next 30 in the B-stream, and so on to the H-stream, which would contain the least able. If broad banding were adopted, the school might decide on three ability bands: the 60 pupils assessed on general ability as being the most able might be put in the top band, divided into two forms of parallel ability (that is, each form containing the full range of ability within the band); the 120 pupils deemed to possess roughly average ability might be put in a middle band of four forms of parallel ability; and the 60 pupils of below average ability might be placed in two parallel forms in the lowest band. Obviously, there are a number of possible variations within such a banding arrangement. Setting by ability is a fundamentally different procedure from streaming or banding (though often used in conjunction with them). It involves forming graded classes of pupils for particular subjects according to their ability in the subject. This may be done for all subjects of the curriculum, or for only some of them. In a streamed school, pupils may take all subjects in their basic form groups; but it is not uncommon to regroup them into ability sets for, say, mathematics. In banded schools, a common pattern is to form ability sets within each band for, say, mathematics, modern languages, science and English, while other subjects are taken in the form group, at least for the first two or three years of the secondary

[page 4]

course (setting for most subjects is likely in the fourth and fifth years as public examinations are approached).

Mixed ability grouping

However, the school may decide not to use streaming or banding as its basic organisational approach. Instead, the 240 pupils may be divided into eight forms each of which contains pupils representative of the whole ability range (the extent to which the forms are really parallel depends on the system of allocation and will be touched on later in this report). We thus have form groups of mixed ability. Within this basic mixed ability framework, however, it may be that pupils are setted by ability for some or even all subjects (in the latter case the mixed ability form will exist as a unit only for pastoral and administrative purposes). Conversely, pupils may be taught all or some subjects in their mixed ability groups.

Learning in mixed ability classes has been common in the smaller primary schools for decades. In secondary schools, however, it is a more recent practice which has developed as comprehensive reorganisation has spread. In the last ten years, a growing number of secondary schools have been attracted to the use of mixed ability organisation not just for pastoral groups but for work in the subjects of the curriculum. In many secondary schools, mixed ability organisation is limited to the first year or two of the course, and may or may not apply to all subjects within those years: a common pattern is to have basic mixed ability forms in which most subjects are learned, but to regroup into ability sets for mathematics and modern languages. Other schools, far fewer in number, maintain mixed ability grouping for all or most subjects for three, four or five years.

It must, of course, be recognised that even though schools may adopt nominally similar grouping arrangements, the actual composition of teaching groups may reflect substantial differences in the nature of the schools' recruitment. The distribution of general 'ability' among the pupils, and the presence or absence of heavy representation of extremes at either end of the scale, may significantly alter the nature of the demands on the teacher and determine the methods of working within the class.

The Working Party

In view of the increasing use of mixed ability grouping in secondary schools, it was felt that HM Inspectorate should make a study of this mode of working and attempt to assess its effects and implications. Consequently, a Working Party of 15 Inspectors was set up in September 1975 to examine existing evidence and make the necessary visits to schools. Although the survey was conducted exclusively in England, the Working Party included one member each from the Scottish and Welsh Inspectorates. Visits to schools were completed by the end of the spring term 1977, and a draft report was submitted in November 1977. Part I of this discussion paper is the report of the Working Party.

A survey in Wales

During 1976-1977, members of HM Inspectorate (Wales) independently carried a series of inspections of schools in Wales

[page 5]

which were practising mixed ability work. The scope and method of the Welsh survey differed somewhat from the English one, though there were considerable elements in common. The findings of this survey are published as Part II of this discussion paper.

Papers by specialist committees of HM Inspectorate

Part III consists of a series of papers contributed by specialist committees of HM Inspectorate, each dealing with work in mixed ability groups in relation to the specialist concern of the particular committee. Whereas Parts I and II describe what was observed in the schools visited, give HM Inspectors' judgment of it, and set out the issues that emerged, the purpose of Part III is to provide advice to teachers of particular subjects who are presently practising mixed ability work or considering doing so.

[page 7]

Part I Working Party Report

[page 9]

1 The procedures of the Working Party

Identification of the task

Schools employing mixed ability grouping for all or part of the first two years of the secondary course often do so for largely diagnostic reasons, so that staff may get to know the pupils, observe them and assess their individual needs and potentialities before grouping them by ability; many such schools may not have made a commitment to this form of organisation in principle. The Working Party therefore decided to concentrate on comprehensive schools in which at least up to the end of the third year of the normal secondary course the curriculum was taught wholly or mainly* in classes in which the span of ability ranged from significantly below to significantly above the average. The organisation of schools included in this category might permit the occasional withdrawal of children for remedial work or other purposes, but would not entail the permanent segregation of a particular section of its pupils for teaching purposes.

The collection of evidence

As the first stage of its proceedings the Working Party examined the evidence on the effects and implications of mixed ability organisation afforded by reports following inspections carried out since 1970. At the same time members of HM Inspectorate were invited to submit general observations upon the matter based on their recent visits to schools. and these were considered. All HM Inspectors were also asked to submit during the course of the survey notes relating to visits made alone or in groups to schools which had adopted a mixed ability system of organisation. Specialist committees of the Inspectorate were also invited to offer comments. Next, operating in groups of three or four, members of the Working Party made a series of visits to 18 schools in various parts of the country as part of the process of identifying the major issues to be considered. In the second year of the Working Party's existence, four of these 18 schools and four additional schools were visited by larger panels of Inspectors, five days being spent on each inspection. For these eight visits schools were chosen where mixed ability organisation was well established and where there was reason to believe that good practice in the implementation of its principles would be found.

The Working Party's objectives in gathering evidence in all these ways were two-fold. They were anxious to judge whether pupils in the schools which had adopted mixed ability grouping were working at levels which, according to their abilities and potentials, stimulated and extended them; whether children throughout the ability range were achieving appropriate levels of work; and whether the system in any way favoured or handicapped particular groups of pupils. They were concerned also to assess the social effects of this way of working: whether or not it assisted personal

*For the purposes of the exercise, 'mainly' meant that not more than two subjects were excluded from mixed ability organisation in the curriculum of any one year group.

[page 10]

development, improved self-confidence, raised or broadened aspirations, and promoted a better sense of community amongst the pupils. Throughout the exercise, the criteria and practices used were those traditional in the work of HM Inspectors: work and behaviour in the classroom were observed and discussed with both staff and pupils; policy and organisation were discussed with heads and staff; corporate, extra-curricular and recreational activities were attended where possible; the circumstances of the individual school were taken into account; and what was seen was assessed by reference to HM Inspectors' experience of other comprehensive schools in similar circumstances but with different organisational arrangements.

The quality of life and work found in a school can never be wholly attributable to the organisation of learning groups and the methods of teaching and learning adopted as a consequence of that organisation. Other factors inevitably contribute, such as the expectations of parents and children in the area, the social characteristics of the catchment area, the quality, experience and stability of the staff, the age of transfer to the secondary school, the characteristics of the curriculum, and other less easily definable factors which contribute to the atmosphere and ethos of the school. Nevertheless, HM Inspectors endeavoured, taking such factors into account, to gauge as far as possible the particular effects of mixed ability grouping within the wider context.

Some subjects or areas of the curriculum, constituting important and substantial parts of a pupil's school experience, have traditionally been organised in mixed ability groups in so far as the specific skills and attitudes relating to the subject are concerned. Classes for physical education and those for creative and practical subjects (at any rate below the level of public examination options) have not usually been formed on the basis of ability or attainment in those subjects, but have been taken in groups derived from the form or tutor-set; these may or may not have been streamed or banded, but any ability grouping will probably have been based predominantly on performance in academic subjects. The approaches commonly used in these subjects, and the premises and resources generally available, are readily adaptable to mixed ability grouping. In art, apart from introductory lessons and class demonstrations, most of the teaching, comment, help and criticism is on an individual basis - the teacher talking with the pupil about his work. Home economics teachers are accustomed to working with small groups or on an individual assignment basis, and are thus used to the mechanics of class organisation, appropriate to mixed ability teaching. Consequently, any effect of a change to mixed ability grouping is likely to be most apparent in the 'academic' subjects such as English, mathematics, science,modern languages and the humanities. Nevertheless, the Working Party observed and considered mixed ability work across the whole of the curriculum.

The effects of mixed ability work and perhaps the reasons for pursuing it can vary with the age of the pupils and the subject being

[page 11]

studied. In different subjects pupils are likely to progress at different rates as a result of variations in ability and attainment. The point at which differences become critical varies according to the nature of the subject and the stage of development and may affect all or only part of the activities proper to the subject. The Working Party attempted to give attention to these considerations.

Incidence of mixed ability organisation

The Working Party considered it important to try to establish to what extent mixed ability organisation actually existed in comprehensive schools in England. To this end, an enquiry concerning its incidence was made in 1976 to members of HM Inspectorate working in each local education authority district throughout England, the main conclusions of which are summarised below. It is important to remember, however, that definitions vary so considerably and changes in school organisation occur with such frequency that these findings can only be taken to give an approximation of the position at that time.

The findings cover only comprehensive schools with an age range of 11/12-16/18. Four categories of schools with a significant degree of mixed ability working emerged from the enquiry:

i Those with mixed ability working in most subjects* from the age of entry up to the end of Year 5 of the secondary course. There were 47 such schools, about 2 per cent of comprehensive schools in England with the appropriate age ranges.

ii Those with mixed ability working in most subjects in the first three years of the secondary course. This category contained 214 schools (excluding, of course, those in Category A), some 9 per cent of all 11/12-16/18 comprehensives.

iii Those with mixed ability working in most subjects in Years 1 and 2 (or in the 12+ year only for schools with entry at 12+) of the secondary course. There were 284 such schools (excluding those in categories A and B), 12 per cent of all 11/12-16/18 comprehensives.

iv Those schools with mixed ability working in most subjects only in the first year. This category covered 261 schools, 12 per cent of all 11-16/18 comprehensive schools.

The size of a school did not seem to have any bearing on the decision to adopt mixed ability organisation. Schools which had done so included large and small; and the organisation was retained in cases where the school changed in size. In a number of cases mixed ability grouping had been thought appropriate because the school served a socially deprived area. However, it was by no means limited to schools in such a situation; and there was no clear relationship between its incidence and the social characteristics of the areas served.

The Working Party's aim

At the time of the enquiry to discover the incidence of mixed ability organisation, some 70 per cent of secondary pupils were being educated in comprehensive schools. The figures show that a small but significant proportion of them were being taught for a greater

*For the purposes of the exercise, 'most subjects' meant that not more than two subjects were excluded from mixed ability organisation in the curriculum of any one year group.

[page 12]

part of each week in groups comprising the full range of ability. HM Inspectors consider it important to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of this system of organisation. An attempt has been made in this publication to present the evidence assembled by the Working Party in such a way that the effects and implications of teaching in mixed ability groups may be seen against a background of recent observation and interpretation. The report seeks to highlight valuable aspects of the work being done by many teachers who have adopted this form of organisation. It also draws attention to the problems that have to be solved if this way of working is to be successful. The implications which emerged are set out at the end of this section to provide the reader with a frame of reference to which sections 2 to 11 relate. They are repeated in section 12.

The cooperation of schools

HM inspectors wish to place on record their appreciation of the welcome and the cooperation which members of the Working Party received in the schools they visited during the course of this survey. Their task was made easier by the helpful way in which the extensive documentation necessary was provided by the schools - often at short notice and sometimes entailing the writing of additional papers for the exercise.


The following implications relating to the adoption and practice of mixed ability working were identified by the Working Party:

1 A decision on the adoption of mixed ability grouping (or any other organisational pattern) needs to be preceded by detailed consideration of aims and consequences in both the educational and social dimensions, and adequate lime should be given to this consideration (pp 15, 16).

2 It is unwise for a school to make a blanket decision on the introduction of mixed ability organisation. For each subject and for each year-group the reasons for adopting it should be most carefully weighed, and the likely consequences considered (p 20).

3 The decision to adopt mixed ability organisation should be taken for positive rather than negative reasons, and not merely in the hope that a new situation will produce new thinking (pp 15, 16, 17, 19).

4 Social and educational considerations should be kept in proper balance (pp 15, 20, 21).

5 Careful consideration should be given not only to whether a mixed ability organisation is desirable, but to whether the teachers in the school or department are capable of coping with it without detriment to the interests of the pupils (p 52-3).

6 Schools, and departments within them; should carefully consider whether their accommodation and resources are suitable for mixed ability work, or can be made so (p 23).

[page 13]

7 Adequate time should be allowed to prepare thoroughly for a change to mixed ability methods (pp 15, 27, 28).

8 For the whole school and for individual subject departments, clear written statements should be made of the aims and objectives to be worked for through mixed ability organisation, and of the methods by which these may be achieved (p 28).

9 The adoption of mixed ability grouping imposes a need to adopt teaching methods and modes of class management which are compatible with it. Appropriate teaching strategies should be developed to meet the needs of the wide ability range within each mixed ability group. Programmes for the various levels of ability should be adequately differentiated, and, for all categories of pupil, should have both quality and variety. The amount of time to be devoted to individual working merits special consideration (pp 36, 44, 46, 54).

10 Preparation for teaching mixed ability groups demands substantially more of the teacher's time than preparation for teaching more homogeneous groups (p 32).

11 Schools should consider whether their staffing situation and their overall curricular policies are such that mixed ability groups can be kept to a manageable size without imposing undue strains on reachers or on other aspects of provision (pp 33-4).

12 The adoption of mixed ability methods has implications for the whole five year course, at the end of which most pupils lake public examinations. The pace and content of the first two years should be carefully monitored. and the transition from work in the earlier years to work for public examinations carefully considered (pp 28, 52).

13 Particular attention has to be paid to the assessing and recording of pupils' progress. Assessment is more difficult where mixed ability grouping is used; but it is essential in order to ensure that the programme for each pupil is appropriate (pp 19, 39-41, 41-42).

14 At whole school and at departmental level, teachers should regularly question the results of their work. Programme content and methods of working should be frequently reviewed to assess their effectiveness (pp 29-30).

15 For a system of individual working to be fully effective. a plentiful supply and a wide variety of appropriate resources are needed. The production and evaluation of these, their use, and storage and retrieval arrangements have all to be thoughtfully organised (pp 23-4).

[page 14]

16 Institutions for the initial training of teachers should take account of the possibility that their students may subsequently find themselves teaching mixed ability groups (p 31).

17 If teachers are to meet the complex demands of mixed ability teaching, appropriate in-service training should be provided (pp 31-2).

18 Sufficient ancillary help is necessary so that the production and preparation of resources for mixed ability teaching does not unduly consume the time and energy of teachers (p 32).

19 LEA advisory services have a significant part to play in helping schools to review the results of mixed ability work and in in-service training (pp 30, 31).

20 Mixed ability teaching requires special qualities in the teachers involved. Catering adequately for the full ability range within each mixed ability group calls for more sophisticated professional skills than does teaching in more traditional forms of organisation (pp 20, 52-3, 55).

[page 15]

2 Schools' reasons for adopting mixed ability organisation

The Working Party felt it important to try to establish why schools had committed themselves to the principle of mixed ability work. This was done by considering any written statements schools made available, and by discussions with heads and other members of staff.

'Social' and 'educational'

Schools generally see themselves as performing two interdependent and simultaneous roles. One role is concerned with the social development of the pupils in the school and in the community of which the school is a part. The other is concerned with what pupils learn through the subjects of the curriculum. There are subtle and complex interrelationships between these two aspects of a pupil's education: for example, much of the experience which leads to social development takes place as part of the classroom activities of learning; and the subjects of the curriculum are often greatly concerned with matters which contribute to the pupil's social development (for example, in the study of religious education, literature and history). In this report we use the term 'social' to refer to the first role and 'educational' to refer to the second. This is not to imply that education does not include social development, but to make a terminological distinction which is necessary for the purposes of discussion.

In many of the schools dealt with in the survey, it appeared that the decision to adopt mixed ability grouping had been taken in principle for one or two general reasons, but with little detailed consideration of aims or of consequences. Mixed ability organisation was very often adopted as a means to the solution of urgent problems - largely of discipline, morale or motivation - seen as arising from the organisation of classes by ability. Where schools went beyond this to offer positive arguments in favour of non-selective grouping, the main focus of their thinking was usually on the aims of the school in its social role. Aspirations such as improvement in human relationships or social integration were more frequently cited than, for example, such aims as improving the attainment of the less able pupils.

In some cases a lack of definition in what schools aimed to achieve through mixed ability grouping may have been caused by undue haste in deciding to adopt it. In such examples, it was often found that the head had taken the initiative and, whether or not the decision had involved consultation with staff, there had been only a brief period of preparation before the change took place; and staff had found themselves deeply involved in teaching mixed ability groups with little time for careful and far-ranging thought about where the process might lead.

[page 16]

In the schools surveyed, there were individual teachers and subject department teams who expressed misgivings related to the difficulty or practicability of mixed ability grouping in their particular subjects; but there were rarely any reports of general discussions of such grouping as an arrangement that might have undesired as well as desired consequences. Schools had certainly thought about the unwanted effects of grouping by ability, but had not generally considered what might be the unwanted effects of mixed ability grouping. Consequently there was little general thinking which included planning to offset or avoid possible disadvantages.

However, there were three sorts of circumstances which had led staffs of schools to more fully articulated aims. One was where the head and the staff, in committees and staff meetings, had analysed the school's problems and ultimately proposed the new form of grouping as a means of making a new beginning. Another was the situation where the organisation of the school had enabled individual departments to decide their own grouping policy and the move towards mixed ability grouping had been made gradually, accompanied by regular discussions of the pros and cons. The third circumstance was that of newly founded schools where the head and some senior staff had had the opportunity to develop some policies in detail before the school opened: the decision having been taken to adopt mixed ability grouping, staff subsequently appointed came already committed to the policy and prepared to contribute to its implementation and development.

Another very important factor - particularly where there had been staff changes since mixed ability grouping was adopted - was that in some schools departments and individuals felt free to differ from the mainstream of thought in the school: the effort involved in justifying or countering divergent views often produced more far-reaching thinking than simple conformity to a general policy did. In other schools, teachers did not feel free to differ because of the pressure of majority opinion among the staff.

The arguments put forward for mixed ability working

There were only a very few schools where overall aims related to mixed ability grouping had been explicitly stated on paper, but in many schools a good number of arguments were put forward and discussed with HM Inspectors during the course of the survey. It is interesting to gather together and review these arguments as a whole, retaining as much as possible the tone of the teachers' thoughts as they were expressed in conversation and occasionally on paper. In setting out the arguments here, it is not suggested that anyone school would assent to all of them. Nor is it implied that HM Inspectors would endorse them or the assumptions on which they are based, singly or collectively.

There were two broad categories of argument: those relating to social development and those relating to teaching and learning (ie 'educational', in the sense defined above). In practice, as has been

[page 17]

said, the two are interdependent in many ways: the arguments represent, however, two focal points. There were also usually two aspects to each type of argument: a positive aspect, which represented mixed ability grouping as a means towards achieving certain benefits; and a negative aspect, which consisted of the rejection of defects seen as arising from other forms of grouping.

Arguments concerned with social development were:

On individuals: Mixed ability grouping would prevent the rejection of the less able implied in streaming, setting or banding; would tend to avoid putting pupils into rank order; or would even enable the avoidance of any classification of pupils at all. The equal value of all individuals would thereby be demonstrated, and there would be equality of opportunity, or equality as such, for all.

On groups: A hierarchy of groups, with consequent poor morale of the lower groups, would be avoided.

On discipline and personal development: Pupils difficult to handle would be dispersed instead of being kept together to form anti-social groups. Undesirable feelings such as inferiority, superiority or aggression, and undesirable attitudes such as competitiveness, would tend to diminish, as would tensions between pupils and teachers. More cooperative behaviour would be developed, and good order maintained. Self-esteem, security and self-reliance would be encouraged, as would good relationships among pupils and between pupils and teachers.

On the relationships between school and society: Mixed ability grouping would help to counteract class differences, and would work against the continuance of a competitive, elitist and divided society. This form of grouping would represent justice for all, and would encourage social integration and a sense of community. School is a part of the life of a community as a whole; since pupils are no longer segregated in different types of school, segregation should not be recreated within the school itself.

Educational arguments were:
On attitudes: The poor motivation of lower streams would be improved, and competitiveness (seen as a poor learning tool) would be reduced. When pupils were freed from the constraints of streamed groups, their attitudes would improve, and cooperative learning would be encouraged. Pupils would become, as one headmaster said, 'the primary agents in their own learning'.

On expectations: The early predictive judgments formerly made by 11+ testing and selection, now believed to be not only inaccurate but damaging in their effects, would be finally abandoned. The expectations teachers had of their pupils and pupils had of themselves would be improved and educational opportunities would be kept open for longer. Since streaming was thought to

[page 18]

tend to increase differences in attainment, mixed ability grouping would tend to show that differences in ability are not as great as had been imagined.

On the curriculum: Curricula differentiated by ability would be avoided; also avoided would be the uniformity of treatment accorded to pupils within more homogeneous groups. Equal access for all to a common curriculum would be more easily arranged, as would be access to a greater variety of experience for all pupils, from the least to the most able. Mixed ability grouping would promote the matching of individual programmes to individual needs.

On teachers and classroom methods: The allocation of the ablest teachers to the ablest pupils (described in one school as the 'streaming' of staff) would be avoided, when all shared equally in the teaching of pupils of all abilities. Teachers would be discouraged from performing the traditional, dominant, didactic role of instructor and encouraged to become consultants. They would be obliged to avoid uniform, whole-class teaching and to produce programmes for pupils as individuals. New styles of learning, including small group and individual learning techniques, would be encouraged. Resources for learning would have to be more diverse, and be more fairly shared. Continuity with primary school styles of learning would be ensured.

On assessment: The assessment of pupils in rank order, thought to have negative effects, would be discouraged; indeed, at the extreme, mixed ability grouping would be consistent with no assessment at all, since any assessment was thought to be liable to inhibit the pupil's potential achievement. A more moderate view was that the assessment of each pupil against his own potential would be encouraged.

On pupils' work and achievement: Underachievement, in particular by the less able pupils, would be avoided. The potential of all pupils would be developed, as all would be enabled to work at their best pace and level. Pupils would learn to help each other; in particular the more able would help the less able, but all would benefit from working with each other in groups.

The arguments considered

Many of the aspirations expressed in the foregoing would command wide support. Others are more controversial, and raise issues which go beyond educational ones and derive from views about society as it is or should be. Of course, no one school put forward more than a few of the arguments summarised here; even so, individual schools, heads and teachers did not always see, or found it difficult to avoid, certain unresolved incongruities or contradictions of view.

One fundamental difficulty seems to be how to marry concern for individuality with concern for equality. The notion of equality tends to be associated with a common curriculum and common provision, to which all must have equal access; that of individuality

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is associated with variety and divergence. It is not suggested that it is impossible to reconcile these two concerns, by a careful analysis of what is meant by 'equality', and the notions of 'equal access to a common curriculum' on the one hand, and 'individuality', 'variety', 'divergence' on the other. What was noticed was that sometimes schools, and in particular individual teachers in the classroom, found it difficult to be sure whether differentiation of work in order to meet the needs of individuals might not re-create inequalities of opportunity which the form of grouping was designed to avoid. There were a few examples of teachers saying that 'the children like to think they are all doing the same thing', thus abandoning the ideal of individual treatment.

Another dilemma is that of combining the aim of social and to some extent intellectual integration with that of each child pursuing his own goals. It was often said by schools that mixed ability groups with new learning techniques would enable pupils to help each other by working together; but another aspiration was to enable the individual pupil to work at his own level. The problem arose of how much group activity was consistent with pupils working individually.

Perhaps the most difficult problem is that of the attitude towards assessment. To argue against assessment of any kind would appear to conflict with the intention implicit in mixed ability grouping to provide for the needs of pupils as individuals: for this would appear to necessitate the identification of these needs, not just initially, but continuously, in order to meet them; and the process of identification must presumably be some form of assessment.

A not uncommon tendency was to argue, or to assume, that the adoption of the mixed ability approach was necessary in order to achieve certain developments (for example concern for individuals, new learning styles with variation in pace and level, pupils helping each other, a common curriculum) which in fact are compatible with other organisational modes. Indeed, one of the arguments quite frequently used, that the adoption of mixed ability grouping "obliged teachers to rethink", appeared to use mixed ability grouping more as a provocation to change than as a form of organisation deliberately chosen as the best means of achieving defined and positive aims. One assertion several times met with perhaps deserves particular examination in this regard. This was that mixed ability grouping avoids the situation where pupils in low ability streams or sets feel themselves poorly esteemed and are taught by the least able teachers. It may reasonably be argued that if such pupils are, or feel themselves to be, poorly esteemed, this is likely to reflect the value system of the school, which is a matter of the attitudes held by and communicated by the head and staff; and if they are taught by the least able teachers, this is because those responsible for staff deployment have so arranged matters. In such cases a change of attitudes is what is most needed; and while a change of organisation may help to change attitudes, it is not the only way to do so or necessarily the best.

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In the arguments and aspirations most commonly put forward, concern for the less able appeared more frequently to be uppermost than concern for the more able pupils. Many of the social and educational arguments summarised above refer to the expectation of improving the morale, attitudes and achievement of less able children. This is by no means to say that schools were intending to neglect the more able; but that they found it more difficult to see specific ways in which more able children would benefit - they had after all been used as the models against which the experience of the less able had been seen as unsatisfactory.

Underlying the policy decision to adopt mixed ability grouping for all or most subjects of the curriculum for the first three secondary years or longer were two assumptions of which the schools were perhaps not always fully aware.

One was that all teachers could competently teach not merely all levels of ability, but all levels of ability together. Most schools, whether or not they recognised and questioned this assumption, recognised that teamwork among teachers was essential as a means of sharing ideas and expertise in order to try to provide equivalent treatment for all the groups. However, special skills and training were usually thought necessary only for teaching the very least able who had marked learning difficulties.

The other assumption was that all or most subjects of the curriculum can be effectively taught in mixed ability groups. This amounts to an assumption that all types of learning are equally well accomplished in one form of organisation, despite differences in the nature of the objectives, the resources used, the characteristic activities undertaken and the kind of sequencing of learning required. In schools where there was a very strong commitment of principle to mixed ability grouping, this assumption led sometimes to the view that teachers who found great difficulties in fulfilling the objectives of their subject in this form of grouping were simply not trying hard enough.

The need to clarify aims and objectives

Underlying all consideration of what form of organisation to adopt lies a fundamental issue: whether there is an overall curriculum policy in relation to which the choices of grouping, learning methods and resources are made. For unless the educational objectives of the school are first of all clarified, and detailed consideration is given to the nature of the task and to the form of organisation best suited for each separate subject or area of work, any form of grouping may tend to become an end in itself rather than a means. Since, as previously noted, the social aims related to the mode of grouping were, in the schools visited, sometimes seen more clearly than the educational aims, this tendency may result in a lack of balance between the social and the educational achievements of the school. Indeed, in a few schools staff were concerned to work for aims which went beyond the broad aim of social integration into what might be called a desire to implement particular social philosophies; some of the principles occasionally put forward -

[page 21]

for example, those of eliminating competitiveness or eschewing assessment of pupils - may, if implemented, have important educational consequences for the children involved which are extremely difficult to foresee.

In contrast, it is of interest to record that one headmaster explained that he and his staff, having considered their educational aims and the methods by which they were to be implemented, concluded that these did not require any form of grouping by ability; they therefore adopted mixed ability grouping because they saw no advantage in grouping by ability and felt that the mixed ability approach offered positive social benefits in addition.

It will be evident from this section that the Working Party felt that most schools had not thought through with sufficient clarity and objectivity their reasons for adopting mixed ability organisation. Those which had, and which had also thoroughly thought out the means of implementing their aims, were also the schools which showed the best results in the quality of the work and the social standards they achieved.

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3 Suitability of premises and resources

Having decided in principle that they wish to adopt mixed ability organisation, it would seem desirable that the head and staff of a school should consider whether this method of working requires any particular facilities in terms of premises and material resources and then consider whether the school possesses these or can acquire them. With this in mind, the Working Party took note of the physical conditions in which schools were operating.

With all forms of organisation it is obviously desirable to have premises that do not narrowly constrain the teaching methods possible, and resources of equipment and materials suited to the kind of work that goes on. Effective mixed ability work, however, appears to make some facilities especially desirable, if not essential. Premises need to be capable of accommodating working groups of varying sizes and purposes. They should provide for easy access to shared resources. They should allow staff to work closely together. Material resources for teaching and learning need to be extensive and varied in order to provide in each class for the needs of the wide range of pupils.


Though some schools visited were of recent construction, in most cases the introduction of a mixed ability form of organisation had been in pre-existing buildings and accommodation. There was consequently wide variation in suitability for mixed ability organisation, ranging from a few schools which were purpose-built for resource-based learning and flexible grouping to schools which contained a series of traditional classrooms of uniform shape and size with limited facilities for housing and using resources. Most of the schools had premises which permitted some, but not enough, flexibility of use. In many cases adaptations to the premises to improve their use in a mixed ability organisation would have been possible, but, perhaps because of financial constraints, they had not been carried out before that organisation had been adopted.

Not all schools had suites of contiguous rooms for those departments operating a mixed ability organisation. Where the rooms used for teaching by departments were scattered or widely separate from each other, it was difficult to deploy their equipment, books and other materials so that they were easily accessible to all teaching groups; the possibility of cooperative teaching methods was reduced, and so were the opportunities for experienced teachers to support inexperienced colleagues; and it was difficult or impossible to vary the size of teaching groups for different aspects of the work.

But even where rooms were arranged en suite it was usually found that little attempt was made to use the accommodation

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flexibly. In schools with areas planned for varying group sizes some flexibility of use was seen, but even here teachers tended not to exploit the possibilities as much as might have been hoped; for example in some lessons it could have been an advantage for groups of pupils to move to different work areas for specific purposes, but this was rarely seen. In planning for a mixed ability organisation it is important to ensure that the possibilities offered by the accommodation are used to suit the nature of the work in progress.


Whatever the form of organisation of classes, the learning of the pupils is likely to benefit from the availability of a wide range of resources such as text-books, reference books, films, film-strips, video-tapes, audio-tapes, slides, projectors, video and audio tape-recorders, worksheets, and other materials including equipment and apparatus for practical subjects. The use of worksheets and other school-produced materials also implies the need for good reprographic facilities. For mixed ability classes, these resources are the more important because of the need within any one class to provide materials suitable for pupils at widely different stages of development and levels of attainment.

Large variations in the quality and quantity of resources available were found between schools. One school had excellent storage and retrieval facilities, a well equipped television studio with videotape and video-cassette recorders, and good reprographic facilities, all available in a resources centre; but the supply of library books was poor. Another school had poor provision of audio-visual aids, a restricted library and only rudimentary facilities for reprography. In general, however, the schools visited possessed a range of resources no different from that found in an average comprehensive school irrespective of its kind of organisation. Most had reprographic facilities able to provide a sufficient number of worksheets, but there was often a lack of quantity and variety of other materials to provide for the wide range of abilities in the mixed ability classes. In particular, many schools were short of books, sometimes because they had chosen to spend their available funds on school-produced materials such as worksheets. While at best these materials were well-produced and closely related to the learning objectives decided upon, many were not, and where this was so the pupils might have been better served by the use of books and other commercially produced materials. Apart from the issue of educational effectiveness, it is by no means certain that, in the long term at any rate, school-produced materials are necessarily cheaper; and any calculation of cost-effectiveness might well take into consideration the cost or teachers' time involved in the production of the school-made materials.

In the majority of schools visited by the Working Party there had been little centralisation of teaching and learning resources other than library provision. Whether resources were centralised or whether they were held within subject departments, access to them varied considerably from school to school; in one case, for example,

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a purpose-built resource centre located some distance from the teaching areas was markedly under-used. It seemed to HM Inspectors that in preparing for mixed ability work it is important to consider the accessibility of resources. This will involve deciding what resources should be available from some central source, and what resources would best be held within the accommodation of subject departments.

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4 Planning and preparing for mixed ability work

When a school has defined its aims in choosing to adopt a particular form of organisation and made certain that its premises and its human and material resources are appropriate, the obvious next step would seem to be to plan and prepare for the implementation of the decision. The Working Party attempted to discover how much planning and preparation had taken place before the mixed ability approach came into operation in the schools surveyed.

In a few schools, mixed ability grouping had been established so long that it was difficult to discover how much planning had preceded its adoption, particularly as staff changes had since taken place. In the rest, it was clear that the extent and level of planning by head and staff had varied considerably from school to school. Two of the schools visited by the Working Party had instituted an extensive programme of planning meetings (between the head and senior staff) on the subject of mixed ability organisation before the schools had opened. In both cases most departments had set out clear aims and objectives in their schemes of work. In another school, the introduction of mixed ability grouping was found to have been a gradual process; streaming had given way to banding and then individual departments had taken the initiative in adopting a mixed ability organisation. In this case the head had facilitated development through the grouping of departmental rooms and by introducing block timetabling. In general the decision to move to a mixed ability organisation had been accompanied by some planning and discussion at senior staff level; but in only a few schools did these appear to have been sufficient to be fully effective.

Schemes of work

Where the schools' aims had been clearly set out by the head there had, however, usually been little translation of these into stated classroom objectives and indication of how these could be achieved. Schemes of work had been devised with mixed ability grouping in mind but they rarely referred to the methods of attainment in classroom practice of the educational and social objectives. Most schemes were concerned mainly with the factual content of what was to be taught, rather than with the concepts, insights and skills to be developed and ways of developing them. Few schemes catered sufficiently, if at all, for the needs of the full range of ability.

LEA involvement

There appeared in most cases to have been little or no involvement of LEA advisory staff during the planning stages.

Departmental planning

At departmental level, HM Inspectors found considerable variation in both preparation for and commitment to mixed ability. In one school, the English department had taken a year to prepare

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for the introduction of mixed ability work, during which a new syllabus was prepared, materials were collected, worksheets were devised, and methodology was discussed and determined. In another school a great deal had been done by the head of the modern languages department to provide suitable facilities in terms of accommodation, equipment and course materials; but in the case of the science department in the same school planning had been very superficial, a commercially produced course having been adopted without the production of an actual scheme of work.

The head's leadership

In those schools where most or all departments had taken planning seriously and produced dearly stated aims and objectives it was apparent that the head had exercised positive leadership in this respect. Indeed, it seemed clear that the role of the head was crucial in encouraging an adequate level of thinking, in foreseeing the consequences of decisions taken, and, not least, in timetabling regular staff meetings at all levels with purposeful agendas.

The transition to work for public examinations

A particular problem which seemed not to have been taken account of in the planning of many schools was the effect on pupils of a change from work in mixed ability groups to work in ability sets to prepare for public examinations. Examples were found of individual subject departments making a planned transition to a different pace and style of work; but only in a few schools had the collective impact on the pupils of such changes been considered in the formulation of overall policy.

The need for planning

Planning did not of itself guarantee success, as much was seen to depend upon the quality of leadership at all levels in the school and on the skill of the individual teacher. Where there was little or no planning the progress of pupils depended more than ever upon the expertise of the individual teacher. There were cases in which resourceful teachers had adopted a pragmatic approach, had responded rapidly to circumstances as they arose and were providing teaching of considerable value to the pupils. For example, despite shortage of resources, one gifted teacher of music exhibited noteworthy skill in catering for varying musical abilities in a full class situation, and was also able to reinforce language skills for slower pupils in the course of a lively singing lesson without causing embarrassment or interrupting the pace of the lesson. But adequate planning and preparation were found to be important factors in supporting the average teacher, and particularly the inexperienced teacher; and the Working Party concluded that a clear statement of appropriate aims and objectives, backed by reference to suitable methods and resources, should be set down for the whole school and for individual departments before the introduction of a mixed ability form of organisation, and should be kept under review.

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5 Reviewing progress and effects

The Working Party investigated the extent to which schools reviewed the effects of adopting mixed ability organisation.

By the school

It was rare to find any review of the effects of mixed ability organisation undertaken by a school as a whole. Staffs as a body did not usually meet for periodic consideration of whether common aims and objectives were being achieved.

By departments

Most subject departments tended to review fairly regularly (commonly at fortnightly or half termly intervals) the content of their teaching materials, modifying it in the light of experience and adding new material where necessary. Rarely, however, did they review the effectiveness of their provision. Nevertheless, in most schools there were one or two departments which went beyond a short term approach. One English department held fortnightly meetings in which content and methods of work and methods or assessment were reviewed. A social studies department constantly reviewed current materials for mixed ability teaching, and also discussed longer term issues concerned with the organisation of mixed ability work. These included ways of structuring experiences, the development of new methods of work and resources, and how best to provide support for its members. Such an approach provided a stimulus for useful department-based in-service training.

Action following review

Whatever time had been spent by staff in reviewing their work, this was no guarantee that appropriate action resulted. For example, one science department had recognised the need to revise some teaching methods, particularly for able pupils, and to improve methods of assessment. Regular and frequent meetings had been held over a period of two years to consider these matters, but no action had taken place; differences between the views of those teachers who considered that the attitudes of pupils were all that mattered in the early stages and those who thought that the course content was very important had not been reconciled. In contrast, however, some departments had taken action as a result of review. In one school, the mathematics department continually revised its work in the light of experience and updated its resources; the English department, after reviewing its work, decided to teach GCE O-Ievel candidates separately from the rest, but after careful re-consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of this later decided to give separate teaching only to O-level English literature candidates; the modern languages department became concerned about the lack of progress of able children and decided to begin setting in the second year; the social studies department spent

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much time revising the content of the courses, the methods of work and resources. In another school, some departments, as a result of reviews, not only revised their methods of work and resources but instituted their own in-service training to meet the needs the teachers had themselves identified.

LEA involvement

In most of the schools visited, local education authority advisers or inspectors seemed to have taken little part in guiding and assisting the staff in implementing and carrying out mixed ability work and in monitoring the results of adopting this form of organisation. In the case of one school, however, the LEA inspectorate had devised mixed ability materials in several subjects, and in this instance the authority was well aware of the problems associated with mixed ability and the need to monitor progress.

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6 Staff

Qualities and experience of teachers

It was a common characteristic of those teachers who had chosen to adopt mixed ability grouping or to join a department already practising it that they stressed the importance of valuing all pupils equally as human beings. This seemed to be central to their philosophies as teachers. Tolerance, patience and friendliness towards their pupils were qualities witnessed in abundance among them.

Many of the teachers in the schools visited, and a high proportion of the heads of department, were well qualified, highly competent, and firmly committed to the principle of mixed ability grouping. Some had been attracted to their present posts by the opportunity of working in this way. In the same schools there were also inexperienced teachers (committed and uncommitted) to whom the practice of mixed ability teaching was new: where there had been much turnover of teachers or where the school was expanding rapidly, they sometimes formed a large part of the staff. In some schools a substantial proportion of the teachers had taught in no other school and had had little, if any, experience of teaching groups other than mixed ability groups.

Training of teachers

The successful practice of any educational approach depends heavily on the skill and knowledge of the teachers, and a major contributory factor is the training they have received. Very few teachers (seldom more than 5 per cent of the staff in any school) said that they had been given guidance on mixed ability teaching during their initial training. Many of those who had had such guidance had received it during training for junior or middle school rather than secondary school work. Although there were regional variations, HM Inspectors' enquiries led to the conclusion that there had been relatively few externally provided courses of in-service training in which consideration of mixed ability work played a prominent part. In a few areas, the LEA advisers had initiated courses and offered direct help to schools, but this was rare. Consequently, the majority of teachers had had no formal training in mixed ability teaching.

It was very much to the credit of many teachers that they had recognised the need to improve their expertise; and in a few of the schools visited some departments had organised their own in-service training. Where it occurred, this was usually of good quality. Teachers faced with mixed ability classes for the first time and those in their probationary year with little or no previous teaching experience have a particular need for help. In one school, the English department had organised regular departmental meetings

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and 'workshops'. Probationary teachers were given a light timetable and the head of department regularly worked with them. One science department used external in-service training when possible, but the situation developed into one where the department itself became a source of training, with enthusiastic young teachers joining it to get experience of mixed ability teaching.

Regrettably, however, there remained a large proportion of schools and of departments within schools where no training was undertaken either externally or internally.

Ancillary support

It was clear that the preparation of learning materials for the mixed ability classroom was imposing a burden on teachers far greater than that imposed by other forms of organisation. There was some evidence that, in some subject areas, this burden decreased as the pattern of work became established; but it was likely to remain substantial, and to require considerable ancillary support from clerical staff, librarians, technicians and stewards in charge of resources. Schools were seen in which such help was provided on a more generous scale than usual; but very seldom did it meet the needs of a form of learning that requires a wide range and a ready supply of materials.*

Attitudes to mixed ability work

The majority of teachers were prepared to give support - in many cases very strong support - to the principle of mixed ability teaching. There were certainly very few expressions of outright objection to it. There were, however, strong reservations expressed by teachers of certain subjects, in particular modern languages; these were generally concerned with the difficulty of achieving suitable progression, and with establishing that there were limitations in what could be achieved. Experience of mixed ability teaching had caused some teachers to be more favourably inclined to it; while others, particularly in modern languages, mathematics and science, had found their initial enthusiasm dampened by the experience. There were cases where attitudes appeared to be determined more by the pressure to conform than by a careful evaluation of achievements.

The need for leadership

A crucial element in the success achieved by teachers and pupils was found to be the quality of leadership given not only by the head but also by the heads of faculties or subject departments, who were responsible for defining programmes of work and evaluating their success. When enthusiasm was tempered by clear thinking, with patterns of good communications ensuring that staff understood aims and objectives and were involved in their formulation, and when the teachers had a sufficiently high level of expertise, success was achieved. Serious problems arose when staff had failed to receive proper support and encouragement. Where there was positive guidance, the effect on teachers' attitudes was very clear. Where little more was done than to encourage and broadly enable the adoption of mixed ability work, and there was an absence of the serious thought that should be a guide to action, teachers remained baffled.

*But see Resources produced by the schools, p 37.

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7 The organisation of teaching


The majority of schools divided the week, in conventional fashion, into between 35 and 40 timetabled periods. Roughly half of them arranged that much of the mixed ability teaching should take place in double periods of up to one hour and twenty minutes; or even in triple periods. Such multiple periods are often needed in order to facilitate the marshalling of materials for learning, or to provide opportunities for practical field work; but they were found to make great demands on the skill and energy of teachers of the more strictly academic subjects.

Size of teaching groups

Almost all the schools followed the normal practice of arranging smaller groups for practical subjects. Apart from this, within the first three years, groups were likely to be of comparable size, whether covering the full range of ability or regrouped by ability for selected subjects. In the fourth and fifth years, when a larger number of optional subjects were available to pupils, groups were frequently smaller than in Years 1 to 3, but were less likely to be covering the full ability range.

In a small number of schools the basic mixed ability groups in the first five years were no bigger than 25; this was achieved by various organisational strategies. Some generously staffed 11-18 schools had achieved teaching groups of manageable size without overloading teachers; less fortunate schools had done so by reducing the number of hours available to teachers for organisation, marking and preparation. In most schools the staff were not subject to an excessive timetable loading and provision was made for smaller option groups in the Sixth Form and fourth and fifth years: in such cases, the price paid was that a large number of mixed ability classes were of 30 or more in the first three years and, more rarely, in the fourth and fifth years. Class size is, of course, not the only determinant of success; nevertheless HM Inspectors found many cases where a school's deployment of its staff made effective learning in mixed ability groups particularly difficult, and this was especially the case when the number of teachers involved with the younger pupils was reduced in order to provide additional optional courses for their elders.

In a minority of instances the number of teachers used in the teaching of a particular subject within a year group was larger than the number of basic teaching groups. In such cases, an additional group was formed with consequent reduction in numbers; or an additional teacher - perhaps a remedial specialist - worked with one of the groups; or one teacher was released to prepare materials. It was found that any of these arrangements could be an effective way of helping pupils in their learning and of meeting specific needs.

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Another way of making economic use of staff was the organisation of a large group for a lead-lesson with a single teacher. This, often a feature of a team approach to teaching, would release teachers to meet the individual needs of pupils in other groups. However. the success of the approach depended on the extent to which it was possible to support it by subsequent work with relatively small groups.

In one school it was normal practice to timetable half a year group for the same subject at the same time. This gave the opportunity to restructure groups for specific purposes, such as lead lessons, team teaching, and supportive work by members of the remedial department who were specifically allocated to work with particular subject departments or faculties.

How the mixed ability groups were formed

Schools varied in the way in which they formed the mixed ability groups. Some did not aim at classes which were completely parallel, wishing only for a reasonable mix of ability, and bearing in mind friendship groups or other social criteria. Others aimed at some sort of parity, which was not always clearly conceived, and found some difficulty in reconciling social, pastoral and academic aims. Yet others used scores achieved in objective tests by pupils of a given age-level to create groups as strictly comparable as possible. Most, but not all, schools realised that a random process of selection would not ensure that groups were parallel in either educational or social terms.

Sometimes, particularly in larger schools, the range and distribution of ability of the pupils appeared to differ considerably between the year groups. By no means all the schools had made a close study of the distribution of ability among their pupils, and those that had done so had not always used the information to best effect. In relatively few schools had this important evidence been used in planning the organisation and content of the work to be done by year groups, classes or individuals.

Provision for special needs of pupils

Small groups of pupils - normally the least able - were sometimes withdrawn from the mixed ability groups for special help. No school had adopted any specific organisational approach to the needs of the ablest pupils.

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8 Curriculum and teaching methods


In each school seen there was in Years 1 to 3 a common curriculum for all pupils, with a reasonable range of subjects and experiences. The only field in which any options were likely to be generally offered was that of the aesthetic and practical subjects - art, craft, music and home economics. Sometimes a second foreign language was introduced in the third year and limited to pupils of linguistic ability; this had the effect of introducing an element of ability grouping into the organisation of that year. Some schools offered pupils, on entry, a choice between two alternative foreign languages, and constituted their groups accordingly; it was noticed that one or other of the languages might attract more able pupils.

Almost all the schools organised the work in the fourth and fifth years on lines that are common in secondary schools of all types. There was a common core of two or three subjects - usually including English and mathematics - studied by all pupils; in addition to these, pupils chose four or five optional subjects, with varying degrees of guidance and constraint. At this stage, the range of ability within some groups was likely to be less wide, as different subjects attracted pupils of particular abilities. While there was seldom a statement that mixed ability teaching formally ended after the third year, greater discretion was often given to subject departments to group pupils by ability at that stage if it seemed desirable in the pursuit of public examination objectives; and this was more likely to occur in the fifth year. Nevertheless, in English, humanities subjects, design and drama, mixed ability grouping continued for the full five years in a number of schools. This was rarer in mathematics, and very rare in science.

Syllabus content

There was a tendency for the same basic content to be offered to all pupils in mixed ability groups, the choice of material being determined by the needs of the large middle range of pupils. As a result there was often inadequate differentiation to meet the requirements of pupils of markedly differing abilities. In some subjects and areas of work attempts had been made to supplement basic content with extensions for the most able. Other instances were found where a work guide provided pupils with indications of how they might select material appropriate to their capacities. In another case, tasks were chosen by the teacher from a resource bank but at the same time were selected in such a way that they followed a carefully structured plan of development suited to each pupil. In many instances encountered by HM Inspectors, mixed ability grouping had led to an extension of the range of content for pupils in the lower ability range; but it had often produced some restriction of experience for the most able which could lead to serious under-achievement.

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Schemes of work, where they existed, did not on the whole make sufficient allowance for pupils being at widely different stages of development. Sometimes where consideration had been given to this aspect it had not been followed through in practice. Occasionally a subject department took the view that the collection of materials used was itself the scheme or work; this, however, left considerable areas of doubt about methodology and learning objectives. Many schemes were successful at identifying needs for appropriate learning materials and methods, but failed to identify clearly levels of expectation and attainment to be aimed at.

Teaching methods

The adoption of mixed ability grouping imposes the need to adopt teaching methods and modes of class management which are compatible with it. Methods which depend on the class being more or less homogeneous in ability clearly cannot succeed. A range of approaches, including whole class teaching, work in smaller groups, individual learning and individualised learning (see below), is necessary (any or all of these are usable and may be desirable with homogeneous groups, but they are not indispensable in that situation) if the varied needs of the pupils are to be met; though the balance between them will vary with the subject and the stage of learning.

Many mixed ability classes observed, however, demonstrated that the practice of having small groups of pupils working together for particular aspects of a subject was rarer than the whole class working together or the pupils working as individuals. Providing appropriate content and task, matching these to pupils in the small group, and ensuring that discussion which genuinely promoted learning took place seemed to have proved very difficult for many teachers. Where small groups were formed within the mixed ability class, their composition was usually self-determined by interest or friendship. Less commonly, the teacher selected group members, either to ensure a spread of ability or to form more homogeneous groups. However, regrouping of pupils when this would have been appropriate within the mixed ability pattern was not often practised even when timetable facilities and accommodation were suitable or specially designed for this possibility. Certainly there was some lack of awareness of such possibilities, or of expertise in creating them. It may be that the need for such flexible grouping was sometimes obscured by the fact that the number of pupils at the extremes of the ability spectrum was comparatively small.

Whole class teaching was sometimes not utilised when it would have been the quickest, simplest, and most effective form of organisation and method. On the other hand, it was often over-employed, in subjects such as mathematics, modern languages, English and the humanities, to a point where the wide differences between pupils which existed in mixed ability groups were seriously discounted. Some good class teaching which took full account of the range of ability was seen, however. For example, a class pursuing integrated studies in the humanities were presented with a film strip which gave opportunities for noting differences between

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present and past and making deductions. The teacher helped with sensitive questioning, and pupils of all abilities were able to contribute to and benefit from the work.

'Individual' and 'individualised' learning

The most frequent alternative to whole class teaching encountered during the survey was a situation in which pupils worked as individuals. This was often described as 'individualised learning'. In fact, a distinction needs to be recognised between individual work and individualised work. Individualised work involves personal assignments devised to meet the different needs, abilities, and attainments of individual pupils. Individual work is activity on which the pupil is engaged by himself, at his own pace, but which is essentially the same as that being undertaken by the rest of the class. Most of the work seen other than class teaching was individual rather than individualised.

Resource-based learning

In some cases, the pupils' experience was widened by individual learning based on the use of prepared resources, and their relationship with the teacher enriched by the associated experience of individual discussion with him. But in matters of motivation, pace, levels of difficulty and academic challenge, the hopes underlying resource-based methods had not often been realised. Sometimes resources were simply insufficient or unsuitable. In other cases their use was insufficiently exploited because of imprecise diagnosis of pupils' individual needs, lack of clear definition of learning objectives, and deficiencies in organisation within the classroom.

Resources produced by the schools

Some schools produced materials of very high quality for individual study, albeit at the cost of much time and energy. Since, however, some teachers lack the expertise to structure and write programmes and do not always have access to good graphics or good quality printing, some of the worksheets seen were visually unattractive and technically incompetent. In such circumstances, books and other material available commercially may be as or more effective.


At their best, worksheets discriminate between tasks, employ appropriate language, and give clear guidance to pupils. Those used for geography in one school adopted different levels of approach to cater for the full ability range and provided full opportunity for the use of language in extended writing and summarising. But many of the examples seen failed to provide differentiation, confused pace or working with level of work by simply asking more able pupils to do more of the same in the available time, and did not offer problem-solving opportunities. Many were unchallenging, lacking academic edge, creating a superficial attitude to learning, and failing to use a wide range of references to other sources of information and ideas. Weaker pupils were observed to have difficulty in meeting their demands on reading and writing skills.

Matching the methods to the group

Although in a few schools or departments within schools examples were found of effective and imaginative matching of methods to the problem of providing appropriately for all abilities in one

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teaching group, the general experience was otherwise. As HM Inspectors who investigated provision for gifted children observed in their report,* 'While we found ... mixed ability grouping, we had greater difficulty in finding mixed ability teaching'. Predominantly, the whole class was offered the same experience, whether by being taught as one group or by being set the same insufficiently differentiated tasks to perform as individuals. The consequences of this are described in the section on The quality of work, later in this report.

*HMI Series: Matters for Discussion 4 Gifted children in middle and comprehensive secondary schools.

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9 Assessment and recording

Use of primary school records

In most of the schools visited, it was normal practice for pupils' primary school record cards to be received when pupils entered. The scope and form of these records were found to vary widely; while some gave only a generalised impression of pupils' earlier performance, others provided detailed information about their potential, sometimes supplemented by an indication of scores obtained in objective standardised tests. Many included comments on relevant behavioural or social matters and details of past medical history. A few were accompanied by work specimens in order to afford more specific evidence of pupils' capabilities.

Notwithstanding the lack of uniformity of type and content of these records, they often played an important part in the initial allocation of pupils to mixed ability teaching groups in their new schools. Often the primary school records available to the comprehensive schools had been systematically maintained and supplemented by effective personal contacts between the staffs of the schools. This combination of background information proved invaluable to the comprehensive schools in the process of allocating pupils to classes to achieve a reasonable social and intellectual mix. The records were also frequently used by the staffs of the comprehensive schools to identify those pupils likely to be in need of immediate remedial help.

Apart from their use in allocation to groups and in identifying remedial needs, however, the use made of primary school records in the first year of the secondary school was greater in the social/ pastoral dimension than in the academic. In discharging their pastoral responsibilities most teachers took careful note of the information contained in primary schools record cards relating to the pupils transferring into their houses or year groups. In contrast, most subject teachers made little use of the primary school assessments of their pupils' academic attainments (a phenomenon by no means found only in schools organised on a mixed ability basis). In some instances this arose out of a desire to ensure an unbiased approach to the potential of their new pupils; it led occasionally to a refusal to accept important information concerning some individuals' particular learning needs, and, in an extreme case, to a deliberate suppression of it.

Assessment within the secondary school

The Working Party paid considerable attention to assessment methods within the secondary schools. While all schools (though not all teachers) acknowledged the need for some kind of assessment, the visits revealed a wide range of opinion about the role and nature of assessment, and extreme diversity of practice.

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A few schools considered that the use of objective tests was necessary in order to determine their pupils' grasp of ideas and acquisition of skills. At the other extreme, a few schools saw any kind of marking based on the assessment of quality as likely to produce in pupils it competitive spirit which they considered undesirable; they limited any assessment communicated to pupils to comments of an encouraging nature, and the records kept by teachers for their own use were vague and unsystematic. However, the majority of schools used some form of grading of pupils' work; some assessed effort as well as attainment; and a few compiled rank orders of pupils.

Although some heads had attempted to establish uniform practices in the assessment of their pupils, there was often no consistent system to be observed in the schools visited. The procedures adopted varied, not only from school to school, but sometimes also within a school from department to department. There was usually a measure of uniformity within individual departments - but even here there were occasional variations. In extreme cases, the actual mode of assessment was left to the personal choice of individual teachers.

Continuous assessment of pupils' work was rare. Assessment at intervals was usually adopted, the frequency varying according to the subjects concerned. At one end of the scale, a pupil's work was marked on completion of a unit occupying a period of a fortnight or less; at the other, assessment was made only when a whole term's work had been accomplished.

Again, there was much diversity of practice in arriving at an assessment. The substantial proportion of assessment procedures which were pre-occupied with performance in written work appeared to reflect the widespread use of worksheets in the schools visited. Often any form of comparison between pupils was assiduously avoided; assessment in such cases was more concerned with effort than with attainment. However, a few schools had concluded that a pupil could derive considerable satisfaction from attempting to improve upon his own past performance without reference to the standards of his contemporaries. One interesting procedure was that practised by a home economics department. In this, assessment was centred on the individual pupil, with whom every piece of work was discussed at some point in its construction. The staff maintained private assessments of each pupil on an A to E scale, to build up a picture of the pupil's potential in academic and practical skills. No A to E assessments, however, were communicated to pupils until the fifth year, when they were guided to a CSE or GCE O-level course and their work was regularly assessed against the standards required.

The use made of assessments

The regular provision and use of diagnostic assessments in order to structure future work patterns was found to occur more frequently for the benefit of the less able than for the average or above average

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pupil. For example, one modern languages department periodically examined the performance of under-achievers and devised supplementary materials to tackle the difficulties revealed. Thus, in many instances, the slower pupil was given a clear indication of the appropriate course of action needed in order to improve his standard of work, but abler pupils remained unaware of their true potential and too readily accepted a level of achievement which was unworthy of them.

There was evidence to suggest that some of the schools visited were coming to recognise shortcomings in their policies for the assessment of pupils' progress and were seeking to improve them. It was disturbing to find, however, that a small number of departments - for reasons which often stemmed from considerations other than the promotion of effective learning - still approached assessment in a casual way or rejected it altogether.

Reports to parents

Although periodic school reports were the principal medium for keeping parents informed of their children's progress at school, the actual information contained in them varied considerably. Some schools submitted reports containing effort and attainment gradings: others deliberately omitted them but would supply them if requested to do so by individual parents. Some schools considered that the publication of detailed gradings would be contrary to the philosophy to which they were committed. For this reason, many reports were largely impressionistic in character - although there was evidence to suggest that some parents would have welcomed more detailed information, including relative grades.

Public examinations

Schools' policies on entry for external examinations had been influenced to some extent by the adoption of a mixed ability system of organisation. Thus, there had been a steady increase in the number of Mode 3 CSE entries for a wide range of subjects from the schools in question; in addition, one or two had experimented with the new 16+ Trial Examinations. These developments were intended to reduce or avoid the need to provide different examination courses for pupils of different ability. Double entry for both CSE and O-level in the same subject was looked upon by a number of schools as another way of avoiding discrimination between pupils who continued to be taught in mixed ability classes up to the end of the fifth year; objection could be made to this arrangement, not only on the grounds of expense but because such pupils may be subjected to an inflated programme of external examinations in their fifth year.

The need for assessment

The final picture that emerged contained elements of inconsistency. All the schools visited were understandably anxious to ensure that all their pupils were valued equally as individuals and given every opportunity to develop according to their particular aptitudes and abilities. Because the organisation favoured in these schools implied the avoidance of any kind of premature classification of children, it had perhaps been concluded that assessments might

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themselves become dangerously self-fulfilling. And yet, it would seem, unless there is a careful evaluation of the educational progress made by children within the chosen system, it is not possible to determine how effective that system is proving in practice. In a true mixed ability class, there will be a number of different norms against which individual performances need to be matched; in more homogeneous groupings, with fewer norms and more common objectives, divergences will be less extreme and individual progress easier to monitor. It is therefore all the more important - if difficult - to ensure adequate assessment at the various levels of working likely to be encountered in the typical mixed ability class.

During the survey HM Inspectors frequently felt concern about provision for the abler pupil in the mixed ability class. A disproportionate amount of credit had sometimes too readily been awarded to such pupils for the expenditure of effort alone; some pupils may have given the impression of total involvement in their studies and yet still failed to be fully extended. Pupils of all abilities benefit from the encouragement and caring attitudes of their teachers; but this can prove misleading if not tempered by clear knowledge of individual capacity as well as past and present attainment. If teaching staffs are adequately to advise their pupils about crucial curricular choices, such as those that have commonly to be made at the end of the third year, detailed knowledge of pupils' achievements up to that stage must be available.

The schools usually spoke of the improved social attitudes exhibited by their pupils. They based their opinions on general impressions gathered over a period of time. Some contended that a slight, but probably temporary, reduction in academic attainments was an acceptable price to pay for improved motivation and behaviour on the part of a majority of pupils. Although this might be an acceptable argument, it rests on the possibility of assessing the improvement in social attitudes and behaviour which has occurred and which is attributable to the chosen form of grouping. The claims for success in this respect were seldom found to be based on any attempt at systematic assessment of this sort. Whereas such assessment might be very difficult, perhaps it should be attempted, so that policy decisions are based on firmer evidence.

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10 Attitudes and behaviour of pupils

The expectations of schools

As has been noted, many schools committed to a mixed ability organisation contended that it would produce an improvement in pupils' attitudes. Most often it was social attitudes that were expected to improve. It was less commonly claimed that academic performance would benefit, although it often seemed to be implied that pupils' improved social attitudes would enhance their motivation and consequently their academic performance, particularly in the case of the less able. A few schools made explicit claims that all pupils, whatever their levels of ability, would benefit from being taught in mixed ability classes.

Not many schools gave any precise indication of which attitudes they expected to influence. Where they did identify the social aims of the mixed ability organisation, these were usually said to be the development of self-discipline, social responsibility, self-confidence and a sense of community. But there were many schools where the task of interpreting a basic philosophy was left to departments and to individual teachers. It was not surprising, therefore, that, even within a given school, there were sometimes many different interpretations of what it was that the school was setting out to achieve and, very frequently, a great deal of uncertainty over what was intended.

In relation to academic work, expectations of improvement in the desire of pupils generally to learn and to obtain qualifications were the most commonly identified. Occasionally, it was anticipated that the more able would be better stimulated and the weaker would be better supported; although it was often far from clear whether these were intended as objectives for which a deliberate effort was needed, or developments which would occur without any specific attention being paid to bringing them about.

Attitudes to work

The Working Party found that a majority of the pupils they saw in mixed ability classes, whatever their levels of ability, demonstrated at least a satisfactory attitude to work. Where there were exceptions, this usually resulted from frustrations caused by unsuitable teaching methods or materials or, not uncommonly with abler pupils, from boredom arising from failure to involve them in sufficiently demanding work.

On some occasions, pupils of low academic ability demonstrated an unusually high level of motivation and sustained application which may have been directly due to the successful adaptation to their particular needs of assignments on which the whole of a mixed ability class was working, to the provision of learning materials appropriate to their capacity, or to the absence of a sense of competition with their contemporaries. The pride of

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achievement shown by some of these pupils was greater than that often found in streamed or setted classes. However, where methods and materials suited to the range of ability of the pupils were not used, tensions and frustrations frequently occurred and in some cases appeared to be aggravated rather than reduced by the presence within the same class of pupils of widely varying abilities.

Teachers of mixed ability classes often strove deliberately to achieve an informal and relaxed working atmosphere in the belief that this would contribute to improved personal relationships. Many were successful in achieving that kind of atmosphere and there was evidence to suggest that the work of the pupils benefited directly from it. But there were also cases where this aspiration had encouraged teachers to retreat from their responsibility for the academic attainments of their pupils. In these circumstances pupils acquired a casual attitude to work which negated the social benefits which had become the primary target.

Certain teaching methods, when used excessively, seemed sometimes to have cumulative effects which produced a deterioration in the pupils' attitude to work; for instance, a diet of worksheets was observed to lead to growing boredom. This was particularly noticeable when over-use of a particular approach extended into the third year.

Some pupils told HM Inspectors that they regretted their lack of opportunity to take part in class or group discussion, and even felt isolated, when the experiences provided had not been sufficiently varied or when the teaching arrangements lacked flexibility. While these are deficiencies which may occur under any organisation, the mixed ability class seems particularly at risk in this respect. The extent to which teachers provided specifically for group and class oral work within mixed ability classes varied widely; but few, even of those who recognised that this work deserved some priority, achieved any marked degree of success in involving pupils across the whole ability range. Sometimes the less able took a particularly active part while the more able remained uninvolved. On other occasions the most able took the most active part. Seldom was there an evenly balanced contribution from all sections of the class. It seemed possible that the infrequency of this kind of oral work, particularly in subjects other than English, made it the more difficult to conduct successfully.

The presence of abler pupils in groups which were well taught appeared to be a major factor in the encouragement of healthy attitudes to work on the part of pupils of average and lower ability. Where there were few able pupils in a group, however, they themselves appeared to suffer because of a lack of stimulus.

Behaviour and relationships

Although at a given point in time it was impossible for visiting HM Inspectors to measure the extent to which changes in behaviour had occurred, those teachers who had seen both a streamed and a mixed ability organisation operating in their schools were in a

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position to make comparisons. Most testified to significant improvements, particularly in personal relationships between pupils and in cooperation between pupils and teachers. Certainly, the observed behaviour of pupils both in and out of the classroom in the schools visited was generally satisfactory, often good and in some schools particularly impressive. While HM Inspectors felt that mixed ability organisation had been one influence, there often appeared to be other contributory factors such as change of leadership, increased emphasis upon pastoral care and alterations to catchment areas, the results of which it was impossible to isolate. It did, however, seem clear that there was a causal relationship in schools using mixed ability organisation (as in differently organised schools) between, on the one hand, good standards of personal behaviour and relationships, and on the other, teaching which was appropriate and well organised and accompanied by firm class management. There can be no doubt that sound organisation and positive leadership are essential ingredients in a mixed ability environment as in any other form of school organisation, for the encouragement of good social relationships.

Standards of courtesy noted in a majority of the schools were impressive. Pupils were both willing and able to talk to strangers about their work and experiences and about their interests, and during the course of HM Inspectors' visits many from all sections of the ability range did so with confidence and considerable self-assurance. The picture was not uniform, however, and there were occasions when pupils appeared markedly under-confident even though the standard of courtesy generally in the school was good.


The physical conditions of the schools visited varied widely, as did the way the pupils treated the premises and their contents. Although many teachers said that the advent of a mixed ability organisation had resolved earlier problems of vandalism, there was little evidence that this benefit was as widespread as the claims suggested. The pupils of some schools, although reasonably courteous, showed scant respect for school property. Books and equipment had suffered considerable maltreatment and the conditions for work were depressing and potentially damaging to good social attitudes. This kind of evidence suggested that the adoption of mixed ability organisation did not of itself necessarily result in acceptable standards of communal behaviour, and that positive measures may be needed to ensure that the pursuit of harmonious relationships does not reduce the attention given to standards of conduct.

Disruptive behaviour

The avoidance of a concentration of older pupils of low ability by the adoption of a mixed ability organisation produced a climate favourable to cooperation and reduced a potential cause of hostility. Disruptive behaviour in mixed ability classes visited was rare. When it did occur, it seemed to stem from ill considered and inappropriate teaching methods which have often been seen to produce similar results under other forms of organisation. But it has to be

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faced that unless mixed ability classes are given skilled and appropriate handling, the alternative to a concentration of disruptive behaviour can be a wide distribution of it. Whatever the organisational pattern, it is the sympathetic and well judged treatment of pupils that makes the greatest contribution to solving problems of disruption.

Working together

Another benefit often expected of a mixed ability organisation was the sharing of experience between pupils of differing abilities and the provision of opportunities for them to help and learn from each other. This occurred less frequently than might have been expected. Opportunities in the more academic subjects occurred mainly in English and the humanities, where there was usually greater provision for working in small groups. Even there the number of occasions on which pupils were observed directly assisting each other was relatively few. Self-chosen friendship groups generally equated with ability groupings, thus minimising the opportunities for cooperation between pupils at different levels of ability. Some teachers who deliberately structured their groups to provide a range of ability for certain activities such as dramatic presentations, field studies, role-play and simulation exercises achieved greater success in this respect. On such occasions pupils of different abilities usually worked together profitably with observed benefits, particularly in language development and mathematics. For the most part, however, the number of such opportunities deliberately created was small. A benefit more widely apparent was the stimulus which pupils less able in the subject received from seeing and hearing the work of their abler contemporaries. In the practical subjects, craft, drama, art, music and physical education, it was more common to find groups varying widely and frequently changing in composition. In these activities it was usual for skills to be shared and, through sharing, pupils appeared to acquire a better understanding of each other and a considerable degree of tolerance.

Pupils' views

Most pupils HM Inspectors talked to were content with working within their mixed ability groups, and in the best organised classes they showed an enthusiasm which reflected a high degree of involvement and achievement. Enjoyment of aspects of individual learning was often mentioned; but a criticism frequently voiced reflected the isolation that some felt when experiences had been narrowly restricted, particularly as a result of a surfeit of worksheets.

Although HM Inspectors were frequently doubtful whether the abler pupils in mixed ability classes were being fully extended, many of these pupils themselves welcomed the opportunities afforded them for working at a pace and level of their own choice. A number, however, expressed dissatisfaction with the standard at which they were required to work. The great majority of pupils of average ability voiced no criticism of their mixed ability experiences and most spoke of them appreciatively. Occasionally, notably in modern languages and mathematics, there were complaints from these pupils that too much was expected of them:

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some found the pace too demanding, while others expressed disquiet over levels of work which they felt to be beyond their capacity. Seldom did pupils of lower ability express other than enjoyment of their work. These diverse reactions highlight the fundamental relationship between customer satisfaction and the appropriateness of the teaching methods and materials used. This is a relationship which is as valid in the mixed ability situation as in any other, and may be even more important in it.

Basically it seemed that most pupils in mixed ability classes were content with their lot. Nowhere was there any suggestion that pupils felt undervalued. Indeed, with pupils of lower ability, there was much evidence of positive enjoyment and a sense of motivation and enthusiasm. The evidence of those schools which had successfully adapted their methods of working to the abilities of the pupils demonstrated that it was possible for pupils to achieve personal satisfaction whatever their level of ability. But it was also evident that the organisation in no way reduced the sensitivity of pupils to the provision accorded them within it.

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11 Quality of work

The Working Party found that in a very small number of the schools visited, pupils were working at an appropriate level and pace in mixed ability groups in all the subjects and year groups to which this organisation applied. In others there were examples of excellent work in particular subject areas. Nevertheless, in most of the schools visited HM Inspectors felt concern about the level, pace and scope of the work in a significant number of subjects. This concern was sometimes on behalf of pupils throughout the ability range; more frequently it related to the extremes of the range; and most frequently it related to the work of the most able pupils.*

Lack of differentiation

Where the level, pace, and scope were inappropriate, this was mainly because teachers failed to provide sufficient differentiation, or sometimes any differentiation at all, in the work required of pupils of different abilities, whether they were using class teaching methods, 'individual' assignment methods, or both. It was surprising to find that in a large number of cases mixed ability classes were taught as though they were homogeneous groups. The work was usually pitched at a level thought appropriate for the majority of the class, and inevitably this was unsuitable for pupils at each end of the spectrum. Sometimes the level aimed at was below what the average pupil could attain, and the result was a slow pace, undemanding work, and general underachievement.

Pupils of below average ability

HM Inspectors endeavoured to assess what benefit mixed ability work offered to pupils of various levels of ability. They found a number of instances where pupils of below average ability seemed to be doing better than might have been the case in another form of organisation. Where this was so, it was apparently because pupils felt valued and were enabled to take part in work which might traditionally have been thought too demanding for them and which offered them a challenge; this was particularly the case where discussion and exchange of ideas were involved. Their confidence seemed to he strengthened, their aspirations were raised, and sometimes their understanding appeared to be improved; this could be assisted by the contributions more able pupils made to the work of the class generally, or as a result of the direct help the below average received from them in cooperative work. There was some evidence that the main benefits to the below average occurred in those subjects where learning is less markedly sequential.

Success for the least able pupils, however, depended on their special needs and difficulties being recognised by teachers and carefully met. In integrated humanities lessons in one school,

*For evidence that failure to extend the most able occurs in schools organised in a variety of ways, see: HMI Series: Matters for Discussion 4 Gifted children in middle and comprehensive secondary schools.

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for example, the least able pupils, some of whom had considerable language difficulties, were unusually well motivated and capable of considerable sustained application, and their achievements were markedly better than is usual with such pupils. Their success was due in large measure to the individual attention given to their efforts by the teachers, who took particular care to avoid setting them trivial tasks. It was notable that in schools where the least able pupils were doing as well as or better than might have been expected there was good - sometimes outstandingly good - provision for remedial help (which, in most cases seen, took place in withdrawal groups). In one school, for example, there was close liaison with contributory primary schools, and each child on entry was interviewed and tested for reading ability. The entire staff were then briefed on pupils with problems; all were invited to participate in the provision of remedial help, and over half did so, usually during non-teaching periods or before morning school. Monitoring and reappraisal of individual needs were carried out frequently. Careful diagnosis, preparation of good quality resources, and very genuine care for the individual ensured that the remedial programme was highly successful. The help thus provided was invaluable in enabling the least able pupils to participate effectively in mixed ability classes; this became possible not only because the pupil concerned had achieved a degree of proficiency in the skills required but also because their teachers had been carefully informed of their problems and needs, and were in a position to set them appropriate tasks. In another school, remedial teachers sometimes joined classes for science, to help the least able; this was not only of benefit to the pupils concerned, but provided valuable in-service training to the science teachers, who thus improved their understanding of the needs of such pupils.

In some schools, however, pupils of below average ability were underachieving because teachers had an incomplete understanding of their problems and so made unsuitable demands on them. A failure to differentiate appropriately the work set faced them with tasks beyond their skills, causing frustration and lack of progress. In such situations the least able suffered more than others in the group.

Pupils of average ability

A natural consequence of the fact that the work was usually aimed at the level of the majority was that pupils of average ability were usually the best served; and sometimes their expectations and achievements were raised by the presence of abler pupils. The extent to which they benefited from learning in a mixed ability group depended essentially on the level of work provided and on the expectation of the teacher. For example, the English department in one school constantly challenged pupils with work deliberately pitched at a demanding level, and many of those of average ability rose to the challenge and achieved high standards.

Pupils of above average ability

It seemed to HM Inspectors that pupils of above average ability - particularly the most able - were at the greatest disadvantage in

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the circumstances generally encountered in mixed ability classes. There was evidence that the presence of less able pupils occasionally caused the more able, in discussion or group work, to consider concepts and tasks in a new light because of the need to mediate them to the others. In most cases, however, the more able were underachieving, usually because the level of work demanded was aimed at the average or below. In modern languages, mathematics and science, particularly, pupils were often operating at a level which failed to provide the extra degree of difficulty that could have challenged and extended them. In English and humanities the range and content of the work were often restricted to remain within the compass of the average pupil; as a result the breadth of linguistic experience and the depth and quality of literary experience were restricted, and some conceptual aspects of history and geography were not encountered. There was evidence in what HM Inspectors saw and in what they were told by some pupils and teachers that abler pupils sometimes under-achieved in order to conform to the level of the majority of their class-mates. And, though the presence of the inevitably few very able pupils in a group sometimes stimulated the remainder of the class, the most able often lacked the stimulus of matching their ideas with others of similar gifts.

Often, the most able pupils were insufficiently extended because their teachers did not realise what they were capable of achieving. A not inconsiderable number of teachers had no experience of the level and quality of work that can be achieved by able pupils in setted or streamed groups, and found it difficult to appreciate their potential and meet their needs when they encountered them as individuals or as a small minority in a mixed group.

Public examinations and the transition to examination work

Public examination results of the schools visited were analysed to see whether they provided any evidence of the effect of work in mixed ability groups. In some cases, comparisons with results before the adoption of mixed ability grouping were invalidated by changes in the intake of the schools concerned. In others, there had been too short an experience of public examinations since the establishment of the school or the introduction of mixed ability grouping for any pattern to emerge. In the remaining schools, results varied from subject to subject, and from very good to very poor. This was true both where mixed ability grouping was employed only during the first three years and where it operated throughout the full five years preceding the examination. Some subject departments which had tried mixed ability grouping throughout Years 1 to 5 but had reverted to setting by ability after Year 3 found that the examination results of the ablest pupils improved following the reversion. There was evidence from one school that the public examination attainments in several subjects of many of the less able pupils had improved greatly since the introduction of mixed ability grouping, and that improved motivation had been a major factor in this. In general, however, because of the complicating effects of many other factors than mixed ability grouping, the evidence available did not permit clear conclusions to be reached on the relationship

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between this form of organisation and performance in public examinations.

The influence of public examination requirements, however, produced in a number of schools certain observed effects. Whether or not, in any given subject, mixed ability grouping was continued after the end of the third year, this stage commonly involved a change in the pace and sometimes the mode of work. The work of the first three years was often characterised by slow pace and limited demands, and sometimes prolonged a style of working more appropriate to younger children. The transition to the demands of work for public examinations at CSE or GCE O-level was for some pupils a disturbing experience which often intensified the problems of the reluctant learner, though the more willing usually seemed to recover.

Apart from the unsettling effect of a changed pace and mode, the requirements of examination courses often revealed deficiencies in what had been learned in the first three years. Some teachers, while admitting that the level of attainment of potential examination candidates at the end of the third year had been limited, argued that this did not matter unduly as they 'caught up' in Years 4 and 5. This argument, however, was open to two objections. First, the catching up often involved a resort to narrowly examination-orientated work; secondly, pupils might well have achieved better grades, as well as experiencing wider and more liberal learning, if they had not needed to make up lost ground.

Certainly it seemed that there were particular problems to be solved during the third year. What seems to be needed is that the pace of work and the ground covered during Years 1 and 2 should be carefully planned and monitored to ensure a smooth transition during Year 3 so that pupils are properIy equipped and prepared to embark on whatever examination courses are appropriate for them.

When pupils experienced a change to ability setting, usually in Year 3 or 4, this sometimes produced a loss of motivation in those of lower ability. A possible solution to this problem might lie in some sort of transitional arrangement in Year 3, with the continuation of mixed ability grouping for selected aspects of the work in a subject.

Teachers and their expectations

The quality of work found in the various schools was closely related to the professional and personal qualities, experience and commitment of the teachers. This will not be found surprising and would be true in any system. But some forms of organisation are more demanding on the skills of the teacher than others. It would be unreasonable to expect from every teacher both the scholarship and the intellectual resources needed to extend the very able pupil and the knowledge of remedial techniques, the sympathetic insight and the patience needed to deal successfully with the slow learner.

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To deal with these extremes and the wide spectrum between them in one group so as to provide for their several and widely different needs demands exceptional professional qualities. HM Inspectors saw a number of teachers of high quality who handled mixed ability groups with great skill and enterprise, so that the able were extended, the average and below average were lifted in aspiration and achievement, and the less able were encouraged, helped, and given pride in achievement and motivation to progress. In the hands of the average teacher, however, the mixed ability class tended to function at the level of the average pupil. For the weaker reacher, the challenge of the mixed ability class was simply too great.

Teachers whose classes were achieving mediocre or poor standards were sometimes unaware of the fact. The expectations that teachers have of their pupils are of critical importance since on them depend the expectations pupils have of themselves and their ultimate success. One of the major arguments in favour of mixed ability grouping has been the hope that expectations of pupils of lower ability would be raised. There was some evidence to show that this had occurred. In one school the expectations of teachers appeared to have stimulated the middle and lower ranges of ability to a reasonable response. In another school with a lively department of humanities the less able were probably doing better than they would have done under another form of organisation.

However, there was also evidence in many schools to show that while sights had been raised in work with one group of pupils, they had been lowered with another. Teachers' expectations of those of high ability were very frequently pitched too low. This was particularly evident in academic subjects requiring a degree of abstract conceptual thought. In modern languages in particular, a lack of challenge for the able linguists was characteristic of almost every department seen. Many of the worksheets seen in humanities and science did not involve the ablest in problem-solving exercises worthy of their abilities. The failure of many teachers to demand from pupils language of good quality and appropriate register, whether written or oral, and a tendency to choose the less demanding literary texts were further illustrations of low expectations in relation to able pupils and of underestimation of their true potential in linguistic and literary development.

In the many cases where expectation for the whole group was pitched at the level of the average, the pupils' performance tended to match that expectation regardless of their ability. In a few cases these expectations were pitched high, but more commonly they erred on the low side. This is not a new problem, nor is it one that is specific to mixed ability situations. But there are a number of factors which make it particularly difficult to pitch expectations appropriately with mixed ability groups. Teachers will constantly have to adjust their sights - to perceive, define and adjust to the needs of twenty, thirty or more individuals. If these individuals

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are in relatively homogeneous groups, there will be certain established norms against which teachers can check the average level they should expect, and no individual judgment will be wildly wrong. If, on the other hand, the pupils are drawn from the whole spectrum of ability, the task of perceiving, defining and adjusting to their needs will demand an unusually high level of professional experience and skill.

Some teachers seen during the visits did not accept the need to differentiate their expectations in this way. They set themselves certain social objectives, including the development of social integration, the reduction of competition, and the encouragement of self-esteem, with which they could not reconcile any kind of categorisation of pupils. The purpose of this chapter is neither to discuss the relative importance of academic and social objectives, nor to examine whether the conflict between them is real or apparent. But the fact must be recorded that the priority given by some teachers to social objectives was operating against the development of the full academic potential of some of their pupils.

Results of dependence on worksheets

The heavy reliance in mixed ability classrooms on written worksheets and assignment cards, already discussed in an earlier chapter, seemed to account for some of the failure to extend pupils adequately. Even when they were genuinely matched to the abilities of pupils - and this was rare - the assignment sheets had certain inherent disadvantages. They had to be explicit to enable work to proceed without reference to the teacher, and as a result were often over-directive and reduced opportunities for pupils to think for themselves and to use resources. For the same reason, they tended to over-emphasise transfer of information and to encourage intellectual conformity rather than intellectual curiosity and independence of thought. By asking for a written response to a written stimulus they reduced opportunities for discussion, with the result not only of limiting progress in oral skills but also of restricting opportunities for the development and understanding of concepts that can arise through talking round a subject.

Activities involving working in groups - such as music, drama discussion - are an important part of social and academic education. The Working Party formed the opinion that standards in these could possibly be at risk if pupils were led by their experience in other areas of the curriculum to consider the worksheet the only serious 'work'. In one school the change from individual worksheets extensively used in other subjects to a 'whole class' approach in music presented pupils with an unfamiliar situation, and was possibly partly responsible for the uncooperative and even disruptive nature of some classes. In the same school the pupils appeared to feel that when worksheets were not given out at the start of a science lesson they were being prevented from 'getting on'. It may have been for similar reasons that the standard of English was noticeably better in the written than in the oral mode (though this is not to suggest that worksheets always promote good written English).

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The scope and range of work

Another problem, already raised in its connection with the work of able pupils, was found to have a more general relevance. Certain topics or aspects of work were avoided: not only those which were thought by teachers to be too difficult for pupils of average ability, but also those which were difficult to present to groups of mixed ability. In one school, for example, the teachers of French devoted a much higher proportion of time than is usually expected to background studies, and almost entirely neglected oral and listening skills. In another school, in mathematics there was a reduction in difficult numerical material in the first two years; and although there was some evidence that those pupils who had difficulty with basic arithmetic were given extra practice there was no clear policy to ensure that this happened.

Integrated studies

The teaching of mixed ability groups makes great demands on professional skills, many of which have been referred to in other parts of this report. They include skills of presentation of material, classroom organisation, diagnosis of individual needs, sympathetic understanding of individual difficulties, assessment of progress and potential, and record keeping. To these must be added a sufficient knowledge of the subject being taught to extend the ablest pupil in the group, and sufficient knowledge of techniques to be used with the weakest. Where the programme of work involves an integration or two or more traditional subjects - one of which, in almost all cases, provided the framework of the teacher's own training - he meets the need to develop additional skills of team and cooperative teaching, and must extend his subject knowledge into fields hitherto unfamiliar. This is in itself a formidable task, and it is not surprising that in almost all cases where mixed ability grouping was combined with integrated studies the quality of the pupils' work was disappointing. One school, to which pupils transferred at the age of 12, began with a two-year programme of integrated studies in English, history and geography. The course was carefully prepared and well resourced. Nevertheless, HM Inspectors considered that at the end of it most of the pupils were underachieving in history and geography, while the level was pitched too low in conceptual and language terms to form a basis for the specialist English work which was to begin the following year. In another school, work in integrated history and geography in the first two years rarely rose above the mediocre. Few pupils managed any sustained writing, and discussion with even the most able revealed serious misconceptions or complete absence of understanding of recently completed work. Work in the separate disciplines in the third year was of a higher quality.

Concluding remarks

This chapter has highlighted the many problems that, on the evidence of HM Inspectors' visits, are likely to confront any school committed to mixed ability teaching and anxious to allow pupils to reach the highest academic standards of which they are capable. These problems are complex and admit of no easy solutions. We must stress the fact that there is no intention here to denigrate the valuable work being done by many committed teachers in

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schools which have adopted this organisation. Nor is there any suggestion that work of high quality is not compatible with a commitment to mixed ability teaching. Indeed, in one of the schools visited by the Working Party in which mixed ability teaching continued for a substantial part of the curriculum until the end of the fifth year, pupils generally were working at an appropriate pace and level and had good attitudes to work and high motivation. A number of factors appeared to contribute to this success: the head and the heads of department gave strong leadership; a hard working, able, and relatively stable staff were committed to the work to an unusual degree; the work was throughly planned and carefully differentiated to match the ability levels; and good arrangements were made for the assessment and diagnosis of potential and needs. Here, as in all those schools where HM Inspectors found work of high quality, success was achieved by teachers of strong commitment and exceptional skill. Teachers of average ability found great difficulty in meeting the complex requirements of teaching mixed ability groups.

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12 The effects and implications of mixed ability grouping

This section summarises what the Working Party found to be the main effects of mixed ability grouping in the schools considered, and the consequent implications.


1 Generally, mixed ability grouping was associated with good relationships between pupils and between teachers and pupils, and with cooperative attitudes on the part of the pupils (pp 44-5). Often a high level of motivation was engendered among pupils of below average ability (pp 43-4). Standards of courtesy were above those commonly encountered (p 45); and it was understood that, where pupils of lower ability had formerly been grouped together in Years 4 and 5, the incidence of disruptive behaviour in this age group had been reduced following the adoption of mixed ability grouping. There were, however, a few cases where mixed ability grouping had resulted in a wider distribution of disruptive behaviour (pp 45-6).

2 In a very small number of schools, pupils were working at an appropriate pace and level in all the subjects and year-groups to which mixed ability organisation applied; and in others there was excellent work in some subject areas (p 49 et seq).

3 In most of the schools visited, however, HM Inspectors felt concern about the level, pace and scope of the work in a significant number of subjects. This concern was sometimes on behalf of pupils of all abilities; more frequently it related to the extremes of the ability range; most frequently it related to the most able pupils (p 49 et seq).

4 In a number of schools where their special needs were understood and met the less able pupils seemed to be doing better in mixed ability classes in subjects where learning was not markedly sequential. They benefited from the stimulus of working among pupils more able than themselves (pp 49-50).

5 Many programmes of work did not provide for differences of ability. Since they were often drawn up with the average in mind, pupils of average ability were the best served in such circumstances. But even the needs of the average had not always been accurately assessed and provided for (pp 35, 50).

6 Most frequently it was pupils of well above average ability who were not adequately catered for. For them, low expectation by teachers and failure to provide appropriate work programmes resulted in under-achievement (pp 50-1).

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7 Failure to diagnose underachievement and to recognise individual needs sometimes stemmed from the fact that the teachers' commitment to the mixed ability principle was accompanied by reluctance to assess and record pupils' progress on the grounds that such processes were associated with competitiveness and with a system of grading inconsistent with the equal valuing of all pupils (pp 18, 19, 39-42).

8 In a few schools, teaching methods had been matched to the problem of providing appropriately for all abilities in one teaching group. In most, they had not; and mixed ability groups did not receive mixed ability teaching (pp 36-8).

9 More often than not teachers resorted either to whole-class teaching or to a system of individual (but not necessarily individualised) learning, and did not exploit sufficiently the possible variants between these extremes which could meet the needs of mixed ability classes (pp 36-37).

10 In some schools, the development of resource-based learning for mixed ability classes was resulting in a greater variety of learning approaches. However, the great reliance placed on the worksheet as the main basis of individual learning had significant drawbacks. It overemphasised the transfer of information, encouraged intellectual conformity rather than questioning attitudes and the capacity for independent thinking, and developed writing skills at the expense of oral ones. Some pupils complained of boredom and a feeling of isolation produced by too much individual working (pp 37, 44).

11 Mixed ability organisation had often resulted in some restriction of content in programmes of work. Sometimes teachers avoided topics or activities deemed too difficult for pupils of average ability or below, or difficult to present to mixed ability groups (pp 50-1, 53, 55).

12 The quality of the educational process was adversely affected where teachers were faced with the difficulties of teaching 'integrated studies' in addition to the difficulties of teaching mixed ability groups (p 55).

13 The majority of pupils exhibited at least a satisfactory attitude to work. Where this was not so, the cause usually appeared to be the provision of unsuitable work or the use of unsuitable teaching methods (p 43).

14 With a lack of variety in the classroom approach and with failure to provide suitably differentiated programmes, mixed ability grouping often resulted in uniformity in the level and pace of work, usually pitched at pupils of average ability or below. The combination of a slow pace and an undemanding level of work led not only to under-achievement but to some frustration for some pupils by the time they had reached the third year (pp 49, 51, 52).

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15 The presence of abler pupils in well taught groups seemed to improve the work attitudes of pupils of average and lower ability. Where there were few able pupils in a group, however, they themselves appeared to suffer because of a lack of stimulus (p 44).

16 Analysis of public examination results threw little light on the effectiveness of mixed ability work because other factors affected the issue (pp 51-2).

17 There was a tendency in the fourth and fifth years to concentrate narrowly on preparation for public examinations in order to make up for a slow pace in earlier years (p 52).

18 In schools, that retained mixed ability grouping in the fourth and fifth years, there was a steady development of courses leading to CSE Mode 3 examinations (p 41).

19 Schools with mixed ability organisation had attracted many dedicated teachers who made great efforts to ensure its effectiveness. It was clear, however, that the teaching of mixed ability groups made greater demands than more traditional forms of teaching (pp 31, 32, 55-6).

1 A decision on the adoption of mixed ability grouping (or any other organisational pattern) needs to be preceded by detailed considerations of aims and consequences in both the educational and social dimensions, and adequate time should be given to this consideration (pp 15, 16).

2 It is unwise for a school to make a blanket decision on the introduction of mixed ability organisation. For each subject and for each year-group the reasons for adopting it should be most carefully weighed, and the likely consequences considered (p 20).

3 The decision to adopt mixed ability organisation should be taken for positive rather than negative reasons, and not merely in the hope that a new situation will produce new thinking (pp 15, 16, 17, 19).

4 Social and educational considerations should be kept in proper balance (pp 15, 20, 21).

5 Careful consideration should be given not only to whether a mixed ability organisation is desirable, but to whether the teachers in the school or department are capable of coping with it without detriment to the interests of the pupils (pp 52-3).

6 Schools, and departments within them, should carefully consider whether their accommodation and resources are suitable for mixed ability work, or can be made so (p 23).

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7 Adequate time should be allowed to prepare thoroughly for a change to mixed ability methods (pp 15, 27, 28).

8 For the whole school and for individual subject departments clear written statements should be made of the aims and objectives to be worked for through mixed ability organisation and of the methods by which these may be achieved (p 28).

9 The adoption of mixed ability grouping imposes a need to adopt teaching methods and modes of class management which are compatible with it. Appropriate teaching strategies should be developed to meet the needs of the wide ability range within each mixed ability group. Programmes for the various levels of ability should be adequately differentiated and, for all categories of pupil, should have both quality and variety. The amount of time to be devoted to individual working merits special consideration (pp 36, 44, 46, 54).

10 Preparations for teaching mixed ability groups demand substantially more of the teacher's time than preparation for teaching more homogeneous groups (p 32).

11 Schools should consider whether their staffing situation and their overall curricular policies are such that mixed ability groups can be kept to a manageable size without imposing undue strains on teachers or on other aspects of provision (pp 33-4).

12 The adoption of mixed ability methods has implications for the whole five year course, at the end of which most pupils take public examinations. The pace and content of the first two years should be carefully monitored and the transition from work in the earlier years to work for public examinations carefully considered (pp 28, 52).

13 Particular attention has to be paid to the assessing and recording of pupils' progress. Assessment is more difficult when mixed ability grouping is used; but it is essential in order ensure that the programme for each pupil is appropriate (pp 19, 39-41,41-42).

14 At whole school and at departmental level, teachers should regularly question the results of their work. Programme content and methods of working should be frequently reviewed to assess their effectiveness (pp 29, 30).

15 For a system of individual working to be fully effective, a plentiful supply and a wide variety of appropriate resources are needed. The production and evaluation of these, their use and storage and retrieval arrangements have all to be thoughtfully organised (pp 23-4).

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16 Institutions for the initial training of teachers should take account of the possibility that their students may subsequently find themselves teaching mixed ability groups (p 31).

17 If teachers are to meet the complex demands of mixed ability teaching, appropriate in-service training should be provided (pp 31-2).

18 Sufficient ancillary help is necessary so that the production and preparation of resources for mixed ability teaching does not unduly consume the time and energy of teachers (p 32).

19 LEA advisory services have a significant part to play in helping schools to review the results of mixed ability work and in in-service training (pp 30, 31).

20 Mixed ability teaching requires special qualities in the teachers involved. Catering adequately for the full ability range within each mixed ability group calls for more sophisticated professional skills than does teaching in more traditional forms of organisation (pp 20, 52-3, 55).

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13 Appendix: Children with disabilities

The organisation of secondary schools is a significant factor in making appropriate arrangements for pupils with special needs either within ordinary forms or groups or in special units and classes within the school. This significance is increased at the present time by the pressure to educate children with more severe disabilities in ordinary schools. The Education Act 1976 Section 10 is a result of these trends. When it comes into effect it will markedly increase the importance of the issues outlined in this memorandum.

There are at least three different situations which need to be distinguished: that of children with special needs who form part of the normal population of the school, that of individual children with more marked disabilities placed in ordinary classes, and that of groups of children assessed as handicapped, who may be placed in special classes. For the first group the school is usually expected to make provision from within available resources. Children in the second group may receive additional help either in the form of extra non-teaching assistance or from visiting special teachers such as peripatetic teachers of the hearing impaired. Classes in ordinary schools designated as part of the authorities' special education provision may be full-time or part-time and for them the school will receive additional resources.

Within the normal population of the secondary school there will be a significant proportion of pupils with special needs. Meeting these needs will not just be a matter of the resources available to the school. The ability of the staff to recognise different needs and to be discriminating in their provision for them is vital. Attitudes and approaches to different groups of children on the part of adults and contemporaries are important. For practical purposes five main groups of children may be distinguished.

1 Children with limited ability who may be moderately mentally handicapped.

2 Children with broadly average ability who for a variety of reasons have limited attainments in the field of language and literacy.

3 Children with very severe and specific learning difficulties particularly in spelling and writing.

4 Children with mild and moderate sensory and physical disabilities.

5 Children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Any individual child may fall into more than one group and cultural and ethnic factors may add to the learning difficulties of any or all of them.

For each group a mixed ability organisation may have differing advantages and disadvantages. Some of the factors may be briefly stated as follows:

1 Children with limited general ability may remain in ordinary schools because they are socially able to do so but their learning difficulties will have much in common with those of pupils in ESN(M) schools. Their main difficulties stem from a limited ability to relate different learning experiences to each other and to form concepts, in addition to the commoner difficulties in reading and writing. If there is no separation for part of the curriculum the presence of such pupils can raise very real difficulties in mixed ability groups mainly

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because their teachers seldom define a limited range of objectives for them. As a result their learning is fragmented and incoherent and few opportunities are provided to consolidate the limited amount they may be expected to learn from any particular lesson or series of lessons. These difficulties remain even where their literacy level enables them to read simple material and to communicate in writing. In some situations their inability to respond in terms of a conventional range of literacy skills leads to a serious underestimation of their general ability and consequently to very limited expectations for them.

2 This group includes children who may profit from remedial education and become able to function effectively in mixed ability groups. On the positive side such arrangement may give access to a wider range of stimulation through teaching and discussion for pupils with reasonable ability and poor attainment. Whatever system is used to provide special help, and withdrawal is most common, their functioning in mixed ability groups will be affected by the range of materials available and the level of written response required. Schools seldom analyse the level of reading skills required to work with the texts provided. More particularly these children, in receiving separate help in a withdrawal situation, are not always helped to function effectively in mixed ability groups. More attention could be given to providing appropriate help when they are learning in mixed ability groups including arrangements for co-operative teaching which include teachers trained in remedial education.

3 This relatively small but significant group of pupils may need very specific teaching in reading, spelling and writing and their difficulties may persist for most of the secondary school period and beyond. They have general abilities which are stimulated by being in mixed ability groups. As well as the specific teaching referred to they need general help with communication skills. Tape recorded learning materials and responses are examples of ways which may be found to enable such children to continue to learn different subjects while they have specific learning difficulties.

4 For children with sensory and physical disabilities, whose needs may vary considerably, there are few special problems raised by mixed ability teaching as such so long as there is adequate assessment and realistic educational demands are made. In some respects a mixed ability organisation makes it easier to disperse children with special needs in different classes than is the case in banded and streamed schools. It is essential, however, that there is adequate support from peripatetic teachers who are specialists in the particular disability, so that teachers have enough information and suitable materials and aids for their children.

Where such organisation is combined with integrated studies in open-plan teaching areas a number of specific problems may arise. For the hearing impaired communication may be more difficult because of the unavoidable level of noise and the informal use of different forms of language in a variety of situations which may make comprehension more difficult. Although there is much to be gained from this stimulus for the hearing impaired their needs must be appreciated and special help is needed for them to make the best use of the opportunities in mixed ability groups. For the physically handicapped mobility may be difficult in using resources in different areas.

5 Children with emotional and behavioural difficulties may be more easily allocated to congenial groups in mixed ability organisations. As with physical and sensory disabilities, this requires much greater knowledge and skill from more teachers. Again with integrated studies and the flexible use of space this group of pupils may present the teacher with more problems in sustaining their attention and in controlling their behaviour.

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Special units and classes may be provided for different handicaps or combinations of handicaps and currently include those for partially hearing pupils, physically handicapped pupils, delicate pupils, ESN(M) pupils, ESN(S) pupils and maladjusted pupils. In addition to special tuition different parts of the curriculum may be taught within the special class. The degree to which the pupils in them are taught with other groups in the school will vary according to a number of other factors in addition to a mixed ability organisation. Where these units exist many of the issues raised in paragraph 4 above will also be relevant but the children concerned may be expected to have more severe disabilities and require a higher level of understanding by teachers in charge of the ordinary groups with which they may join for some areas of the curriculum.

When mixed ability teaching goes hand in hand with good planning and a differentiation in objectives, in teaching materials and in methods according to individual need, it may on balance make better provision for children with special difficulties. Provided it is closely allied to appropriate special education where necessary, and to counselling and tutoring for individual handicapped pupils, it will stimulate individuals and raise their expectations. However, it is important that any differentiations in tasks and expectations on the part of teachers are made in a spirit which does not suggest that the work of these pupils is less worthwhile. Where mixed ability teaching is at its best, it results in good stimulating discussion involving a wide variety of children with different disabilities. What has not followed as a consequence of this increased interest has been appropriate tasks and appropriate help with tasks to consolidate the interest and the learning which is taking place. All too frequently the stimulus is followed by a rather sterile and trivial work card.

In summary, the conditions for good mixed ability teaching if and where they exist are those which make allowances for individual differences and hence make it easier for handicapped children to fit in to teaching groups in the secondary school. At the same time there are many aspects of learning with disabilities which ordinary teachers have little opportunity to understand, and in-service education is needed if handicapped children are to be accepted within mixed ability groups and if teachers are to make better provision for them within ordinary schools.

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Assessment The measurement or estimation of the ability or achievement of pupils. Assessment may range from standardised test results to the teacher's estimates of attitudes.

Block timetabling Arranging that all classes for a particular subject or area of work in a particular year group or half-year group take place at the same time.

Assignment sheets Written directions giving a task to be done.

Catchment area The area from which a schools' pupils are drawn.

Class teaching Teaching at a particular level to the whole class.

Contributory primary schools Primary schools from which pupils are transferred to the secondary school in question.

Comprehensive school A school to which the admission of pupils is not based on selection by reference to ability or aptitude.

Curriculum The range of subjects or areas of activity studied.

Diagnostic For the purpose of determining the individual pupil's needs, abilities and attainment.

Differentiated work School work designed to suit an individual pupil or a particular section of pupils, rather than work which all are expected to perform.

Extra-curricular activity Activities which a school provides beyond the time-tabled programme, such as clubs or hobbies groups.

Integrated studies Work in which several usually separate subjects are combined. For example, 'Integrated Humanities' often means a programme of work involving elements of history, geography and religious education.

Lead-lesson A lesson given by one teacher to a large group of pupils, to be followed up by lessons in smaller groups each with its own teacher.

Options Subjects chosen from a range of choices. An option group is a class formed of pupils who have chosen a particular subject.

Pastoral Concerned with the personal and social welfare of the pupil.

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Remedial Provision for helping pupils with difficulties (e.g. poor readers) to overcome them.

Resources Equipment and materials used for teaching and learning, such as books; audio-visual machines and the tapes, film strips, slides etc. used with them; and booklets, worksheets, etc. either produced in the school or bought from commercial publishers.

Resource centre A part of the school premises where resources are kept. In some schools the use of these resources also takes place within the centre.

Storage and retrieval Arrangements for storing resource materials and for making them available for study.

Withdrawal Temporary separation from a class of an individual or of a small group of pupils so that they may receive tuition designed to meet their particular needs. The system is most often applied to pupils needing remedial help; but it can be used for others such as very able pupils, who may in withdrawal periods pursue studies at a higher level than their classmates.

Worksheets Sheets of paper containing directions for tasks, such as sets of problems to be solved, which the pupil works at as an individual. These may be devised by the teachers and physically produced in the schools by reprographic equipment, or they may be commercially produced.

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Part II Mixed ability teaching in comprehensive schools in Wales

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HM Inspectorate (Wales) conducted an informal inquiry into the incidence of mixed ability teaching in secondary schools in Wales in 1976/77. A stringent definition of mixed ability organisation was applied, schools having separate 'transitional' or 'slow learners' classes in addition to a remedial group not being considered 'mixed ability' for the purposes of the statistical exercise. Nevertheless a substantial number of the schools thus excluded place a large proportion of their intake (15 per cent or more) in parallel classes, each containing a wide range of ability. The issues and problems discussed in this paper are equally relevant to them. On the basis of the agreed criteria, however, of the 218 comprehensive schools, 41.7 per cent had mixed ability teaching groups in the first year of secondary education; 19.7 per cent continued with mixed ability classes in the second year, and 5.5 per cent in Year 3. A more detailed summary of the returns from district teams is presented in the table on page 72.

On the basis of information gathered on pastoral visits, 18 schools in seven Welsh authorities were selected for inspection by teams of HM Inspectors in June and November 1976. All were mixed schools and all save one (an 11-16 school) catered for the full 11-18+ age range. The largest had over 1,800 pupils on roll in September 1976, the smallest 700, and the average size was 1,300. The majority had relatively new, purpose-built premises, but a few occupied old buildings, in three cases on split sites. They served areas very different in character including urban and suburban localities, industrial valley townships, and country towns with widespread rural catchments; a substantial minority were situated in or near large local authority housing estates. Though teaching groups containing a considerable spread of ability continued to operate into Year 5 in some subjects (notably English) in a few of the schools, the inspections focused on Years 1-3 where mixed ability teaching was the norm for all or nearly all pupils in a wide range of subjects.

Philosophy of the schools

In four of the schools, mixed ability teaching is a fairly recent development associated with the appointment of a new head, in each case a person with considerable previous experience of this style of organisation in a large comprehensive school in England. At one school opened within the last five years, the head had the opportunity of selecting staff who expressed an interest in mixed ability work and is supported in all his organisational policies by a deputy head who, is an enthusiast for the approach. In these and a few other schools in the sample a sense of philosophic commitment to mixed ability teaching was apparent. One head was convinced from his personal experience of schools in England of the bad effects of the self-fulfilling prophecy in streamed/banded situations and sought in reinforcing the mixed ability organisation already established at his school to build pupils' confidence and to provide systematic learning approaches for all. In this school heads of department are required to submit schemes of work embracing the whole ability range and including an outline of evaluation and

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A summary of information on mixed ability teaching in the secondary schools of Wales

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assessment procedures for each topic or phase of work. The staff perceive a different advantage in the evolved system - primarily, the fair-sharing of the delights and burdens of teaching. While 'political and social' reasons dominated the motivation of some headteachers, or a vaguer sense that mixed ability teaching is a natural concomitant of comprehensive education, for others its introduction initially into the first year was a practical response to what was felt to be the unreliability of the information provided by contributory primary schools, or, similarly, a determination to avoid prejudgement of children's abilities on transfer at 11+. In these cases staff had been persuaded by the success of what was essentially conceived as a 'diagnostic' year to extend mixed ability teaching by stages to Years 2 and 3.

Planning and preparation

In certain cases where the introduction of mixed ability teaching has coincided with comprehensive reorganisation in the locality and the appointment of a new head, there has been little time for preparation. The school has embarked on an experimental course after only perfunctory discussion of the problems and possible implications and with inadequate resources to meet the needs of new approaches. At best there was only time for a few senior teachers to attend a relevant in-service course. Elsewhere, however, a period of one year, or in one case eighteen months, elapsed between decision and implementation. Two schools included in their preparation large scale visiting by staff to schools where mixed ability teaching was already well established. One such host school contributed a series of workshop days allowing the groups of visiting teachers to discuss mixed ability work at a practical level. The involvement of heads after the initial moves varied considerably. One head continued to be actively concerned throughout the period of planning, acting as coordinator and leading the investigation into the use and design of worksheets and the setting up of a resources centre. Most of the schools were conscious of the benefits that would accrue from setting up a resources centre but were prevented from doing so by the lack of finance, suitable accommodation and ancillary staff. Only one of the schools visited had managed to establish a fairly comprehensive centre during the preparatory period. Staffed by two resource assistants/librarians, it is capable of undertaking a wide range of reprographic work as well as catering for the various needs of subject departments in cataloguing and storing information. Perhaps the most interesting of the initiatives taken in planning and preparation developed from a discussion group which formed spontaneously in a secondary school staff room some time before comprehensive reorganisation. In due course, the group sponsored in-service activity at a local teachers' centre and organised visits to schools where mixed ability schemes were in operation. Two or three members were deputed to attend courses touching on mixed ability organisation and report back to the group. Since comprehensive reorganisation the group has continued its activities. Teachers with experience of mixed ability work have been invited to speak to the newly formed Parent-Teachers Association and the subject departments have been allocated specialist teaching rooms (this at least facilitated by the split site), allowing

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easy storage of and access to the necessary range of learning materials. The more difficult task of setting up an all-purpose resources centre has commenced.

Reviewing by the school

Though in all schools in the sample staff meet regularly and, in some, quite frequently, as a whole or in department or faculty teams, the meetings are usually concerned with administrative details or the sharing of tasks such as the preparation of worksheets, rather than with the discussion of aims and objectives, assessment of strategies and the promotion of school-based in-service training. It was generally recognised, however, that systematic evaluation of methods and achievement to date was a prerequisite of further progress and in two schools where mixed ability teaching had been established for several years staff specifically indicated that a review of progress was required as a prelude to a fresh input of ideas and enthusiasm. At one school, however, the newly appointed head has set up working parties on educational measurement, the problems faced by teachers in the mixed ability situation, and resources and their use, which will contribute to an evaluation process and facilitate the introduction of fresh initiatives. This systematic approach commended itself to the team of HM Inspectors.


A minority of schools in the sample had adopted a faculty organisation. While this had encouraged a team approach in some subject areas, notably science, where integrated teaching programmes already existed, there was in general a disappointing lack of effective liaison between traditional disciplines. Some 'humanities' schemes (combining history, geography and, occasionally, religious education and organised along thematic lines) worked satisfactorily, but they were the exception rather than the rule. It is significant that where certain aspects of integrated studies taught to mixed ability classes were particularly impoverished, the fundamental problem was lack of mutual guidance and support among the staff team engaged on the course. Only rarely, then, did the faculty structure have real meaning and purpose.

The commitment of senior departmental staff to examination preparation tends to limit their participation in teaching at Years 1-3 level. Despite the pressures of examination work the heads of department in several of the larger schools particularly were concerned to involve themselves in mixed ability teaching in the lower forms, partly out of a desire to demonstrate commitment and leadership and partly for the experience itself; in some schools it is declared school policy that they should do so. The overall strength of the departmental team is an important determining factor in this as in other issues. In two of the schools visited the lack of contact of heads of department with the teachers involved in mixed ability work was remarked. In one, heads of department had no contact with the lower school building in a split site situation, and in the other, where no physical barrier existed, heads of department had left the mixed ability classes in Years 1 and 2 entirely in the hands of non-graduate mixed ability 'specialists' but complained

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of the gaps in knowledge and deficiencies in pupils' attitudes when more traditional approaches were introduced in Year 3.

A small minority of staff in about half the schools maintained their dissatisfaction with mixed ability organisation. These tended to be teachers whose earlier doubts about the efficacy of mixed ability teaching in their subject were confirmed by classroom experience. Most were teachers of modern languages. In one school where teachers without exception supported mixed ability approaches, some confessed themselves converts, others, perhaps the majority, knew nothing else. Here, however, the head had been able to require a degree of commitment to or, at least, interest in mixed ability work of all staff on appointment, and the quality of the head's leadership subsequently had been an important factor in maintaining a high level of involvement and enthusiasm among staff. Even among these highly motivated teachers there were grumbles about the amount of preparation of worksheets and other materials, and the burden of marking. The same complaints were echoed in most of the schools, underlining in almost every case the lack of resources and of ancillary help available to all staff-especially with regard to typing and other reprographic services. It appears likely that the use of worksheets tends to increase the amount of marking required, though since pupils' answers are often very brief this increase is not easy to quantify, relative to traditional practice.

The difficulty of catering for the needs of less able pupils in the mixed ability situation was expected to be teachers' most serious concern, but discussion at the schools suggests that this is not the case. The existence of separate remedial classes and/or arrangements for withdrawing pupils for specialist instruction in basic subjects (reading primarily) obviously satisfies the majority of teachers on this score. It was more surprising to find in one school widespread concern among teachers that they were unable to extend appropriately the most able in their mixed ability classes. It became clear in the course of the visit that there was a movement among the staff which sought to persuade the head to create a separate 'high-flyers' stream - a suggestion which the head would resist in principle and in practice.


The amount of contact between the comprehensive schools and their contributory primary schools and the reliability of the information about pupils at transfer provided by the latter are vitally important to initial placement procedures. Indeed, in two cases, doubts about the quality and consistency of information provided constituted a major reason for the introduction of mixed ability organisation at the comprehensive school. All the schools visited were conscious of the need to place children carefully and all attempted to create parallel classes in doing so. In most cases standardised test scores and/or descriptive assessments of the academic potential of pupils are used in this exercise but a few schools had instituted quite elaborate combinations of academic and social criteria (including

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measures of ability, place of residence, presence of siblings in the schools, friendship patterns, the need to maintain a reasonable balance of the sexes within classes, and primary school advice) in deciding the combination of mixed ability groups.

The desire to keep the size of mixed ability classes as small as possible (below 30 seems the accepted norm) is also widely supported and is even a distinguishing feature of the schools in the sample compared with schools in Wales differently organised. The example of one school officially recognised as 10-form entry but providing 12 classes in Years 1 and 2 is representative.

In some of the larger schools especially, the timetable is composed almost entirely of double periods and organised to give the choice of setting to individual departments. The response in most subjects has been an endorsement of mixed ability teaching. Setting is introduced in Year 2 in modern languages (including Welsh) and mathematics in a minority. The existence in one of the schools of a substantial number of pupils whose first language is Welsh has been recognised by a special arrangement whereby on entry the 'Welsh' pupils are grouped in three 'houses'. Schools visited in the initial round of investigation provided examples of linguistic banding, a system which permits fluent Welsh-speakers to be catered for appropriately in mixed ability classes within their band, while those from English-speaking homes or whose fluency in Welsh is not sufficient to sustain a course of instruction through the medium of Welsh are again organised in mixed ability groups within their band.

The sample includes schools in which a separate class is formed (usually of 12-16 pupils, representing approximately 5 per cent of the ability range) and a minority in which this lowest ability group is included in the mixed ability classes. The latter all employ a system of extraction of pupils for remedial treatment. Normally this is from English lessons and the emphasis is very much on additional instruction in reading. In one school, a greater measure of flexibility has been introduced into these arrangements by allowing pupils to be withdrawn for up to 24 periods per week from (variously) mathematics, English, science, French, Welsh and religious education. It remains a matter for concern that even where the organisational formula appears satisfactory, the quality of liaison between the remedial department (or specialists in remedial education however designated) and the staff of other subject departments is generally rather poor and few opportunities are taken to arrange mutually supportive activities for less able children.

Curriculum and teaching methods

As has been noted already, a few of the schools had adopted interdisciplinary approaches within a faculty system. While one or two notably successful courses had resulted, they tended to be based upon the individual strengths of certain subject specialists, rather than upon the effectiveness of a team approach. There were also, regrettably, examples of poorly planned and/or badly supported interdisciplinary activity.

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The size of the common core never emerged as an issue for discussion since, as is usual in Years 1-3, pupils were committed to the full range of subjects including English, mathematics, a modern language and Welsh (in most cases), humanities (history, geography, religious education), science (physics, chemistry, biology - often in the form of an integrated course), aesthetic/practical subjects (art, music, crafts) and physical education. The introduction of Latin and/or a second modern language, usually in Year 3, marked for several of the schools the first break-up of mixed ability groups. The problems of modern language teaching in a mixed ability situation have been highlighted earlier in references to the dissatisfaction expressed by some teachers. The schools' response to this usually takes the form of earlier introduction of setting, so that the traditional forms of language study are reserved for the abler pupils while the less able pursue courses termed 'European (in practice, almost invariably French) Studies' in which the linguistic element is much diluted. Welsh sometimes receives similar treatment in the curriculum but elsewhere the teaching of the Welsh language is continued across the ability range and where able and less able groups are identifiable it is (perversely, one might consider) usual for the able to have the larger allocation of teaching time.

In contrast, English teachers were generally happy with mixed ability classes and there was a marked tendency for English departments to preserve a substantial ability mix in classes for longer - even into the fifth year in one case. This appears not unrelated to the teaching approach which predominated, regardless of school or subject: whole class introduction of material followed by individual practice. In the English lessons observed, the input, in the form of text or topic, was generally aimed at the level of the average or rather above average pupil without noticeable concession to the whole range of ability, but teachers who combined in their manner liveliness, authority and concern contrived to stimulate the ablest and carry the less able without evidence of strain. It was evident that, when appropriately motivated, pupils in English classes are able to respond to their own and the teacher's satisfaction at their various individual levels of ability and attainment.

Other than in a few drama lessons observed and marginally in some science laboratories where friendship pairs worked on experiments as a team, opportunities for group work (in the sense that a small number of children within a class are set to work together on a common task, each contributing to the final product) are very rare indeed. Even where, as was observed in a few classes, children were roughly grouped according to ability and provided with corresponding texts/tasks, the product was essentially individual work.

As noted above, class teaching was the dominant mode in the schools visited, in the majority of cases text book based. Occasionally two or more text books dealing with the same or a similar

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topic were used together providing several levels of sophistication and complexity. This kind of input appeared particularly favoured by history teachers and where it contributed to an investigatory approach it produced notably successful results across the ability range. Though little general use of audio-visual aids and other resources was observed, where, for instance, in a geography lesson, slides and the overhead projector were used in conjunction with text books, atlases and worksheets, the resulting integrated view of landscape and society constituted a valuable experience for pupils. While the mixed ability situation is certainly not a condition of this type of approach, the need to rethink traditional methods in order to cater for a wider range of ability was undoubtedly an important influence.

The only example of work more specifically individualised than the use of two or more text books mentioned above was seen in some mathematics classes in which pupils steadily worked through a large set of commercially produced cards. While this ostensibly permitted each child to proceed at optimum rate, some dissatisfaction was expressed by the staff of one school at the remoteness of the activity. As a deliberate policy, therefore, the mathematics department had reinstated a single period of class teaching into the weekly schedule of each group.

Even in schools where they are used intensively, the same worksheet is provided to each member of a class. The demands made upon pupils, regardless of ability, in terms of understanding the material and responding to it are identical. The only concession to the ability mix is usually perceived in the arrangement of questions, the more difficult, open-ended sort being presented last on the tacit assumption that few less able pupils will progress that far. New concepts and vocabulary were usually dealt with in a lengthy introduction dominated by teacher talk, and once pupils had begun writing the teacher was free to assist those who might need help. In practice this format allowed the teacher very little time either to assist the slower child or to extend the able.

HM Inspectors had further reservations concerning the leisurely tempo of work in many of the schools over a wide range of subjects and were alarmed to observe in specific instances (including some integrated science lessons) repetitive tasks of a grossly simple kind being painstakingly performed. It was of little reassurance in such cases to know that far more demanding work would be set before abler pupils in due course.

Assessment and recording

Two schools in the sample had instituted assessment systems designed to provide a degree of uniformity in monitoring and recording pupils' progress, and regular reports to parents. In one, teachers are required to grade pupils on each assignment within a unit of work under the following headings: capacity for interpretation, mechanical skill, imaginative/creative talent. A unit average mark for effort and grade for content are computed from

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the assignment scores. In addition, end of unit tests have recently been introduced and the results of these with the continuous assessment marks/grades are communicated to parents in formal reports twice yearly. The heavy demands which this procedure makes on staff are to some extent compensated for by a sense of satisfaction that the progress of each pupil is being adequately monitored. In the other school, a new comprehensive, a similar system of awarding grades A to E for achievement and marks 1 to 5 for effort was established at the outset, but without the infra-structure of assessment detailed above. In practice it is not applied consistently by staff, some of whom complain that it is exceedingly difficult to judge how much effort a pupil has put into a piece of work. Nevertheless, grades and marks must be submitted for all, each half-term when letters of commendation are sent to parents of pupils who gained three or more grade 1 assessments, and of concern to parents of those with three or more grade 5 assessments. Formal reports go to all parents at the end of each school year,

Though there may be flaws in these structured systems, they are superior to the more loosely organised schemes of most of the other schools in the sample. In several, little thought had been given to assessment, so that though individual teachers kept records of marks awarded for pupils' work, there was no agreement regarding the correlation or use of this information. Science staff in one school claimed that the use of worksheets enabled far closer monitoring of pupils' progress than had been possible with traditional methods, but few noted marks obtained by pupils on completion of a worksheet and subsequent recorded assessments tended to be both subjective and imprecise. The same lax attitude to assessment and recording was observable in other aspects of the school's work: some teachers did not know which pupils in their classes were being withdrawn for remedial reading clinics nor what criteria were used to select these pupils.

Discussion in one school underlined the difficulty of framing and implementing a homework policy for mixed ability classes. Though a 'homework timetable' had been drawn up, teachers found they were unable to set purposeful work that would cater for the whole ability range. The majority of staff were prepared to compromise by merely asking pupils to complete work begun in class. Even then some did not. In this school, reports (on continuous assessment) are sent to parents twice yearly and form tutors (briefed as necessary by subject teachers) interview parents subsequently. The first formal examinations are not held until the end of the third year when they herald the breaking up of mixed ability classes into sets and option groups.

Three of the schools retained the traditional pattern of terminal examinations, but most examined pupils twice yearly, while a few (as noted above) delayed the onset of examinations until the second or third year.

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Standards of work

It was generally observed that the work of the ablest in various subjects in several schools was not readily distinguishable from that of pupils in the middle ability range. This suggestion that standards may be depressed by mixed ability teaching was repudiated by one head teacher who claimed (on sound evidence) that there were few children of more than modest ability in any year in his school. It was apparent, however, that the gap between the most and the least able in science classes at another was artificially narrowed by restricting the demands made on pupils in writing up experiments. In every case in the first three years, the worksheets (common to all pupils in a group) provided very limited space for writing so that accuracy in spelling technical and other words became the only clue to differences in ability. This style of worksheet proved a great leveller, and, since the able were not required to undertake extra reading and the less able were not required to correct their own inaccuracies, there was little stimulus to individual effort.

In certain humanities (history) classes where all pupils discussed the same topic, the input for the able pupil was differentiated from that of the less able by the use of two (or more) text books of varying complexity. In these lessons the greater length and detail of the able pupils' responses identified them and it was clear that the majority of children, if not all, were being appropriately extended. In history classes in another school where worksheets were in use, pupils of some ability wrote brief answers with reasonable accuracy but finally accumulated only a thin and over-simplified account of the topic which teachers accepted too easily. It was also felt of this, as of work in other schools and other subjects, that there was insufficient discussion before pupils began writing and while they were engaged in the task, with the result that the need to place a particular topic within a broader pattern of understanding was neglected. However, successful lessons in a variety of subjects stimulated a lively oral response and pupils of average and below average academic ability did not appear constrained by the complexity of the topics discussed or by the mixed ability situation.

Standards of work in many English classes were broadly satisfactory. Again it was noticeable that able pupils wrote more, in greater detail than the less able. The quality of the instruction which follows the marking of pupil's work would seem to be crucial and in this respect the lack of guidance about accuracy and style offered to able and less able alike was considered a serious deficiency in the teaching programme. The ablest were not underachieving in terms of their initial response, but they were being allowed to proceed with less rigorous attention to detail than would probably be required of them in a top stream or set. There was no evidence, on the other hand, of pupils of average and below average ability being badly lost; rather they derived considerable benefit from access to richer fare than they would generally receive in a bottom stream or set.

Attitude and behaviour of pupils

Schools where mixed ability teaching had been introduced relatively recently agreed that staff-pupil relationships had been much

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improved as a result. Even in those schools which served communities containing a high proportion of materially and culturally deprived families, the good humour and stability of pupils were remarked as features of the relaxed atmosphere in classrooms. Staff explained that the mixed ability organisation provided a means of spreading the potentially disruptive. Individual teachers in one English department volunteered to take into their groups known 'difficult' children and made special efforts to establish good relations with them. The reduction in tension deriving from the general improvement in teacher morale undoubtedly assisted the development of good social attitudes among pupils.

It was also apparent that most pupils, regardless of ability, were better motivated towards work in mixed ability classes, but certain exceptions remained. Perhaps the most surprising was the reaction of some pupils of moderate ability in a socially well integrated school where standards of behaviour and general attitudes were, on the whole, very good indeed. They complained that they were tired of worksheets in every lesson. They were prone to mislay papers and it was clear they took few pains with the presentation of their work. In several of the schools it still proved difficult to persuade the less able especially to take care of exercise books/folders, and in some where absenteeism had been a long standing problem the introduction of mixed ability teaching had done nothing to improve attendance. Despite such disappointments the improvement in pupils' behaviour in class and about the school was considered by many staff the strongest argument for retaining a mixed ability organisation.

Parents' attitudes

Only two schools (one serving a rather favoured community) reported that there had been resistance from parents to the proposed introduction of mixed ability teaching. This opposition had evaporated quite quickly in both cases, undoubtedly aided in one by a sequence of satisfactory public examination results.

The lack of opposition noted in most schools is not necessarily an indication of lack of parental interest. Indeed there was a general impression that many parents supported mixed ability classes in the early years of secondary schooling, and two schools serving localities where social attitudes tended to favour this style of organisation reported an enthusiastic response.

Effects and implications

Perhaps the most widely perceived and lauded effect of mixed ability teaching has already been mentioned - the good working relationships it encourages among pupils and between teachers and pupils. There was evidence in the sample (though on a small scale) of able pupils helping the less able as they worked together in mathematics and science lessons, for example, and this kind of collaborative activity could be extended to other subjects if teachers organised lessons in such a way as to encourage it.

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The relaxed and socially well integrated atmosphere of most mixed ability classrooms is associated with a slow pace which, provided the work is coherently structured and stimulating, seems to benefit the majority of pupils of average and below average ability but provides less academic pressure than able children are capable of sustaining. In those few schools where they had little or no contact with classes in the early years, heads of department were unhappy about the leisurely tempo of the mixed ability situation and attempted to introduce a compensatory rigour and acceleration of effort at third and fourth year level with some disturbing consequences. Circumstances such as this strongly argued that involved leadership and the development of co-operative strategies by departmental teams are important conditions of successful mixed ability practice.

One of the least desirable effects of mixed ability teaching may be some loss of quality in structured oral activity. Teachers were conscious of the need to simplify expression for the sake of children of limited ability in their classes. As a consequence pupils do not hear enough sophisticated English in lessons across the whole curriculum, and there is rarely sufficient time for compensatory group or individual work with the able children.

If the able pupils are not sufficiently extended, as seems likely, nor made to give the kind of attention to detail that will enable them to improve their skills rapidly in various directions, it is probably true of the vast majority of the less able that they benefit from exposure to richer stimuli, improved contact with specialist staff and the use of specialist accommodation and facilities which in other forms of organisation are frequently denied them. Certain difficulties remain for the academically weak, however. Where they are regularly withdrawn from lessons (often French or Welsh) in order to receive extra tuition in the basic skills, their ability to benefit from the lessons in these subjects they do attend is rapidly reduced to nil. It is clearly essential that there should be close liaison between those responsible for remedial education and staff in other subject departments and that withdrawal programmes are carefully co-ordinated so as not to compound failure in some directions while attempting to treat it in others.

Many teachers were concerned about the burden of preparation and marking which, they said, increased dramatically with the introduction of mixed ability teaching. Of as great concern to HM Inspectors was the superficiality of much of the marking and the lack of guidance and instruction provided to able and less able pupils as encouragement to systematic, meaningful correction. With mixed ability classes perhaps more than with other forms of grouping, it is necessary for teachers to plan not only the content of lessons but also the organisation of time and pupil contact, so that this vital aspect of school work can be secured.

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Part III Papers on mixed ability work contributed by specialist committees of HM Inspectorate

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1 Introduction

This part contains contributions by specialist committees of HM Inspectorate on the use of mixed ability organisation as it affects the specialist subject concerns of those committees. They vary in length and approach, since the issue affects different subjects in different ways and each committee dealt with the topic as it thought best. In writing them, HM Inspectors had mainly in mind the interests of readers professionally involved in education.

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2 Classics

Although the methods have changed in recent years the learning of the classical languages is still widely (and probably rightly) held to be a task of some difficulty and only rarely therefore does one find Latin and Greek taught across the entire ability range. The last ten years have seen a fairly extensive development of courses in classical studies - a semi-technical term for studies of the Greek or the Roman world, or of both, which do not require a knowledge of either or both classical languages. In the early years of the secondary school, classical myth, legend and history are used to stimulate pupils into a wide variety of activity which readily lends itself to group work or to individual work at an appropriate level of achievement. It is not uncommon to find a course of this type included in the common element in the curriculum taken by all pupils in Year 1 or, less frequently, Years 1 and 2. A survey carried out in 1973-4 of classics in comprehensive schools revealed that 12 per cent of the sample offered classical studies courses in teaching groups organised on a mixed ability basis*.

The origin of these courses owes much to the demands made upon classics teachers in comprehensive schools to relate their subject to the needs of the whole range of ability. The so-called 'story-centred approach', which is the basis of the methodology adopted for the Cambridge School Classics Project's Greek foundation course, first published in 1972, starts from the long recognised appeal to children of some of the well-known myths and legends of ancient Greece. When stories like the slaying of the Minotaur are told, particularly if the telling involves direct and vivid communication from teacher to class, there are few pupils who fail to respond. What does the Minotaur look like? The response is an exercise in imagination, but some pupils would choose to express it in written prose or verse, others in painting, others in a model, others in mime; many would seek to clarify their own conception, perhaps only partly formed, through discussion with their peers or with the teacher, with or without the stimulus of seeing an artistic representation.

This account of the 'story-centred approach', though necessarily simplified and over-compressed**, will perhaps be enough both to illustrate its potential for pupils' general rather than specifically 'classical' education and to underline the desirability of breaking down the class into sub-groups, differing in character and size, to eater for the many possibilities of response. The 'story-centred approach' continues to be used widely, particularly with pupils of eleven or twelve, but it is by no means the only form of course which can derive broader educational values from classical material

*HMI Series: Matters for Discussion 2, Classics in comprehensive schools, HMSO 1977, Table 7, p 12.

**For a full account see Teachers' Handbook to Cambridge School Classics. Project Foundation Course Folders I-V, Cambridge 1972 and Schools Council Curriculum Bulletin No 6 Teaching classical studies, Evans/Methuen 1975, pp 33 et seq.

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through the use of group and individual work. Slightly older pupils tend to move from myth through legend to history and the response activity is modified accordingly. The Roman Foundation Course recently prepared by the Cambridge School Classics Project confronts the young pupil with primary source material and encourages him to look at it critically, to base hypotheses upon it and to assess its value as historical evidence. Some schools include a classical component in a broad humanities course lasting two or three years. At fourth and fifth year level, experiments in common examining at 16+ have opened up possibilities of more flexible grouping arrangements for pupils taking classical languages and classical studies, and mixed packages of options covering both these elements may well develop more widely in the future.

How successful is mixed ability work in classical studies? Initially, classicists were perhaps surprised, though gratified, to find that they had after all something to offer of interest and value to the full range of ability. Progress beyond this first stage of gratified surprise has been disappointing, since classicists, endowed as they are with a rich source of material, have not always discerned the broader educational aims which the material can and must serve if it is to have validity for the whole range of ability. In the best practice, such aims certainly include the discovery and fostering of individual talent, the development of cooperation, the encouragement of effective means of expression and communication, and the promotion of orderly thinking and purposeful reasoning. These, and others, are aims which classical studies can serve at least as well as anything else in the curriculum. In addition, the pupil can and must be given insight, as clear and as accurate as available evidence and resources can make it, into the worlds of Greece and Rome (in many ways two different worlds) to set alongside his own culture, so that by comparing and contrasting the similarities and differences, he can grow in awareness and understanding of his own life and times.

Without an answer along these, or similar, lines to the question "Why teach classics?" there can be no satisfactory answer to the more immediately practical questions "What shall we teach and how shall we teach it?" In the absence of clear aims for a course, individual lessons or modules within it cannot be planned with positive objectives in mind. The organisation of the class is often found to be haphazard because the purpose of a lesson has not been clearly thought out. Too many instances have been observed of blanket prescriptions of work for the whole class, so that the more able respond at too low a level of achievement, while the less able are baffled. The resources available do not always meet the needs of the pupils, so that the organisation of the work is again jeopardised. Indeed, many a classical studies lesson takes place in a classroom whose shape, size and furnishing confine the class to sedentary activity only, and the lack in many schools of a base for classics restricts the teacher to the use of only those resources which can be carried from room to room (two-thirds of the schools in the

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1973/4 Survey which taught classics did not have the use of a specialist room*).

Dangers too are often observed to arise from the involvement of teachers in a diversity of activities which may take them outside their own subject disciplines. The successful teacher of Latin or Greek may be nonplussed by the technology involved in a papier mache representation of the Minotaur. Similarly, the teacher of English or of drama may tell the Minotaur story brilliantly, but be taken out of his depth by 'supplementaries' about Minoan civilisation or Sir Arthur Evans' work at Knossos. (In the comprehensive schools included in the 1973/4 Survey 44 per cent of those teaching classical studies had no post-school qualification in classics**.)

Classical studies courses in the fourth and fifth years contribute by comparison much less evidence to a discussion of mixed ability teaching than do those in the earlier secondary years. For one thing, the number of pupils involved is much smaller***; for another, there is a tendency for pupils of different abilities to be following different examination objectives and therefore to be taught in different groups. There are exceptions to this pattern and their number is growing, but they do not yet provide enough experience on which to generalise.

To conclude, then, the nature of the subject matter of classical studies is such that it can adapt itself quite readily to a mixed ability form of organisation, and a substantial body of practice exists. To succeed, the aims of the study must be clearly defined in generally educational as well as specifically classical terms, the objectives of each lesson must contribute to progress towards the aims, and the organisation of the work, of the resources and of the class must in turn further the objective of the lesson.

*Op. cit. Table 13, p 15.

**Op. cit. Table 14, p 17.

***Op. cit. Tables 4 (p 10) and 5 (p 11).

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3 Craft, Design and Technology

Planning and preparation

Recently trained teachers of Craft, Design and Technology are likely to have had some experience of teaching mixed ability classes during their initial training. It is, however, unusual to find school-based or LEA in-service training courses planned specifically to help specialist teachers prepare for a mixed ability organisation, although the topic may well be discussed informally.

Craft, Design and Technology teaching methods have not generally been devised specifically for a mixed ability organisation. Where pupils are involved in the design of their own work, and in appropriate problem solving activities, it is likely that an individual or group approach, suitable for mixed ability grouping, will be adopted.


Existing premises are generally as suitable for a mixed ability organisation as for any other form of organisation.


The cost of materials for courses is determined more by the nature of the work and the teaching methods than by the form of organisation. In a growing number of school workshops, reference and recall aids have been provided to assist individual learning, and to encourage self-reliance. In some parts of the country groups of teachers cooperate to produce suitable materials for this purpose.


Many teachers have been accustomed to classes of pupils with a wide range of both general academic ability and specific craft ability. Others have had experience of streamed classes, usually based on ability in mathematics or English.

A group of not more than 20 pupils with one teacher, desirable for safe and effective work with tools and materials, makes possible a measure of individual help, enabling pupils to work and progress at their own pace, regardless of the system of organising groups.


Streamed, broad-banded or mixed ability organisations are usually based on criteria other than ability in Craft, Design and Technology. Whatever the organisation, classes rarely contain pupils with a narrow range of ability in this specific subject area.

Curriculum and teaching methods

In Craft, Design and Technology, the activity of designing and making should be central. Such an approach can meet the needs of all individuals if at some stage pupils design their own work

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and are presented with appropriate problems rather than with solutions. When pupils are working from the same prepared drawings and to step-by-step instruction individual needs are not always met, although at times this teaching style may serve particular purposes.

Group projects of a 'design and make' nature may allow pupils in a mixed ability class to contribute according to their abilities and interests. Working in a team can enable pupils to test their ideas, to use particular individual abilities, and to modify attitudes, all within the context of shared experiences.

Practical activities are appropriate for all pupils whatever their level of intellectual ability. They are likely to extend and reinforce the more formal work of the classroom, they may be an aid to career choice, and they will form a practical base from which pupils are able to apply and test theoretical knowledge. The specialised layout and varied equipment needed for Craft, Design and Technology requires a measure of individual and group teaching, if the facilities are to be used effectively.

In the best kind of mixed ability teaching, work is differentiated and the teacher's expectations differ in the level and pace required from individuals. Not all teachers of Craft, Design and Technology, however, use the professional skills necessary to meet the needs of individual pupils in a mixed ability class. Problems arise from undue emphasis on class teaching, from presenting the same work to all pupils and expecting the same rate of progress, from the misuse of worksheets, and the lack of variety in constructional methods.

Assessment and recording

When pupils are involved in the design of their own work, and in the solution of problems, teachers are well placed to assess the quality of thinking that goes into a pupil's work, as well as their ability to handle tools and materials safely and well. The criteria against which an assessment is made should take into account the ability of individual pupils.

Quality of work

The pace of some teaching lacks urgency and fails to take advantage of the time available. In most cases pupils are set neither short term nor intermediate targets. In many mixed ability classes the differences in quality of thinking and of practical work evident between the two extremes of ability are not as marked as might be expected considering the potential of individual pupils. In some courses in Years 1 and 2 there is a tendency for undemanding and sometimes trivial work to be undertaken in the limited time available.

Implications for teaching Craft, Design and Technology to mixed ability groups

The main requirements for Craft, Design and Technology are:

a Observation and appreciation of the basic requirements and conditions for teaching mixed ability classes.

b In-service training courses planned specifically to help teachers of Craft, Design and Technology to prepare for this form of organisation.

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c Presentation of work at appropriate levels, through different teaching modes, using design problems or tasks suitable for each pupil's particular abilities.

d Anticipation of the skills, knowledge and experience required by pupils for a project, to ensure that reasonable success is possible.

e Adequate resources, and supporting services to ensure that all necessary materials, tools and equipment are available in good condition when required.

f Diagnosis of the specific abilities of each pupil.

g Assessment of work related to the ability of each pupil.

h Regular recording of the interests, achievements and attitudes of individual pupils,

i Understanding that within a group there will be pupils with different interests, abilities, and different examination or non-examination objectives.

j Class management and organisation to ensure that pupils engaged on a wide variety of activities are taught the necessary skills and how to use different types of equipment at appropriate times.

k Appreciation of the complex nature of practical activities and their contribution to general education.

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4 English

With English, as indeed with other subjects, it is generally accepted that pupils' performance can be lifted by high teacher expectation and depressed where teacher expectation is low. It may therefore be to the advantage of all pupils to be working in a mixed ability group, if, because of the mixture, the teacher's attention is focused on the needs of individuals, and if what he expects of each pupil as a result is appropriate.

And although it can never be easy to cater for the individual needs of a group where the range of ability is wide, in the right conditions and with skilled teachers there could be, for all pupils' language development, particular benefits resulting from mixed ability grouping that justify the very special demands it makes. For English is not a linear or sequential subject in the way that a modern language or mathematics is. English language and literature teaching must allow for different levels and types of response from different individuals even where the group is reasonably homogenous. Moreover, in English, a shared experience and the development of a wide range of individual responses are perfectly compatible, and the very width of the response which mixed ability grouping facilitates can be turned to the advantage of those involved. As for the experience to be shared, happily it is often the finest literature, that which has the strongest human appeal, which will make the deepest impression on pupils of all abilities and allow them to meet on common ground.

But we shall not serve the interests of English teaching or of mixed ability grouping if we fail to acknowledge the inadequacy of some present practice where a mixed ability organisation exists. Even though a mixed ability system alone is not necessarily responsible for such weaknesses as there are, the system may contribute to such weaknesses if it is adopted without a clear appreciation of what is needed for success.

In some places where it has been so adopted, there has been a narrowing of the English programme, and the aspect most affected has been the study of literature. Sometimes, experience of this has been largely restricted to the reading of extracts on which comprehension questions are based. On occasions the literature studied has been of a limited range only - the result of teachers underestimating the capacity of pupils of average and below average ability to understand and respond. In some schools, perhaps because teachers have not developed the skill of involving the whole class or small groups in a discussion of literature, there has been some

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failure to develop response to it. For instance, pupils have read silently or aloud to the teacher, and have then been required to write without further preparation.

The increased interest in groupings of mixed ability has been linked with an appreciation of the importance of talk in developing language. It is unfortunate, therefore, that in such groupings the opportunities for talk, not only in connection with literature but as part of the English programme generally, have not been sufficiently taken. Talk has suffered on occasions because individualised learning based on worksheets has resulted in more time being spent on, writing, and there has been proportionately less time for other things. It has suffered also because some teachers - in spite of being willing and able to develop the appropriate techniques - have experienced difficulty in finding texts and topics suitable for the whole class or small group discussion.

Even when much of the time has been given to written work, the range of this has been limited in places. Such limitation has been noted either where pupils have been allowed, in the name of free choice, to resort to writing that does little to extend their command of language, or where there has been a predominance of comprehension exercises and notemaking - the latter most frequently when English was subsumed in a humanities programme.

An integration of subjects in which English is subsumed is not necessarily part of a mixed ability organisation, but it does in practice often accompany it where the interest in such an organisation is strong. And it is where such integration has taken place that English is sometimes found at its most limited, especially where the English element of interdisciplinary studies is in the hands of teachers who are not specialists in the subject.

Another weakness encountered is that of teachers failing, in choice of materials and learning methods, to differentiate for pupils' specific abilities, knowledge and interests. A mixed ability organisation, through concentrating a teacher's attention on the requirements of individuals, can be one possible means of fashioning appropriate teacher expectation for each pupil, and so of improving each individual's performance. When class teaching predominates with a mixed ability group, when the prevailing lesson pattern includes the same material for all and provides no differentiation in the kinds of learning opportunity, it must follow that individual requirements are not being met.

If the teaching of English to groups of mixed ability is to be fully effective, the situation has to be thoughtfully exploited, so that each pupil, through a succession of literary and other experiences, sometimes shared and sometimes enjoyed individually, is enabled to improve his understanding of and control over language. In this connection, some of the key ideas of the Bullock Report* are of particular importance. For example: (a) " ... the teacher's skilled

*A language for life: Report of the Committee of Inquiry appointed by the Secretary of State for Education and Science under the Chairmanship of Sir Alan Bullock FBA: HMSO 1975.

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and carefully controlled intervention is a valuable means of extending his pupils' thinking and making new demands upon their language." (10.11 p 145). (b) "The teacher's skill lies in developing the subtlety and complexity of [the pupil's] response without catechism or a one-way traffic in apodictic judgements," (9.21 p 134) and (c) "As a background [the teacher] should have in his own mind a clear picture of how far and in what directions [the child's language] competence should be extended." (11.25 p 174).

The skills demanded of the teacher are indeed wide-ranging - a clear perception of the balance of each pupil's strengths and weaknesses and of needs in the light of this, a knowledge of a variety of tasks appropriate to the needs, and of the different forms of classroom organisation that can facilitate their accomplishment. In particular, perhaps, the teacher must have a thorough understanding of the virtues and dangers inherent in class teaching and individual working, the two forms of classroom organisation most commonly found.

Of course good mixed ability work in English includes the teaching of the whole class as one group. Class teaching is often the starting and finishing point of various group activities. It is the very important means by which the whole group shares literature and drama and other experiences, made richer by discussion among pupils with widely different altitudes and responses. But to turn this diversity to good account, so that, because of it, each pupil is better enabled to make progress in his use of language, will require from the teacher a high degree of skill: without the skill necessary to make it productive, the teacher could find the diversity overwhelming.

It is a fear of this diversity which leads some teachers to a kind of abdication of their role in favour of individualised learning based on worksheets. Worksheets in some form are no doubt useful, and even essential, on occasion, but the quality and relevance of the tasks they offer must be most carefully considered. At their best they should represent something of a conversation between the teacher and the individual pupil, and must be differentiated to cater for each pupil. They must have the clear intention of maintaining pace and rigour in the learning process by engaging each pupil actively. Some of the most effective worksheets are those which set tasks for a group, and so afford opportunities for talking as well as reading and writing.

Two further points need to be made. The wide range of ability within a group, with its accompanying variety of individual requirements, underlines the teacher's inescapable responsibility for regularly assessing the progress of each pupil in terms of the individual objectives set, and, to this end, of keeping the most sensitive records of each pupil's progress.

Finally, the successful operation of a mixed ability organisation for English teaching will depend also on the existence of appropriate

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resources, on timetable arrangements and the availability of suitable rooms which will allow some flexibility in the deployment of teachers - a flexibility that facilitates the formation of groups of various kinds and size, Where the timetabling and room arrangements permit teachers to work together as a team, there is advantage not only for the pupils but for the less experienced members of staff who can derive valuable in-service training from the opportunity to work alongside more experienced colleagues.

It may be through a mixed ability organisation that the greatest good in terms of language development can be achieved for the greatest number. But that is not to say that such an organisation should be adopted for English teaching unless the teachers are clearly aware of the demands it makes, are prepared to go on developing the necessary skills, and are supported by the right conditions.

What advice, then, can be given about mixed ability grouping in the subject? The point at issue is not whether we are for it or against it - it is what is actual and possible in each quite different school. The set of questions that follows is intended to suggest some ways in which an English department might try to assess its preparation for and its performance of mixed ability work.


i. How much previous experience of mixed ability work have members of the department had? What has that experience enabled them to contribute to the present planning?
ii. What forms of preparation are taking place? Do they include reading, visits, courses, the rewriting of departmental policy papers, and a build-up of resources?
iii. What consequences will mixed ability work have for the timetable, for the use of teaching spaces, the library, and reprographic and other aids.
iv. What running arrangements have been made for consultation, evaluation and modification?
v. Has the department examined the different roles that teachers and pupils will play in a changed organisation?
vi. Where else in the school does/will a mixed ability organisation operate? Where does it not operate? With what linguistic consequences?
i. Has the change to mixed ability grouping increased opportunities for language activity? Is this just an increase in quantity, or is it also an increase in range and/or quality of talk, reading and writing?
ii. Are those pupils who would have been in the upper groups of a streamed or setted organisation missing anything from which they would otherwise be profiting? Are they profiting from anything which would have been missing from their streamed or setted experience?

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iii. To what extent has the change enabled pupils of different attitudes, interests and experiences to contribute to the work?
iv. What evidence is there of the effect of the mixed ability organisation on the working stamina of individual pupils or teachers and of groups?
v. Are any of the activities associated with English as a school subject being neglected?
vi. Has there been any gain or loss in pupil performance measured against traditional criteria - for example, examination results?
vii. Has there been any effect on pupils' performance in subjects other than English, in an increased facility in language use across the curriculum, and in pupils' greater maturity and capacity for independent work?

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5 Geography


If a comprehensive school has adopted a mixed ability form of organisation, for whatever basic philosophical reason, it is almost certain that geography will be included, sometimes as an element of interdisciplinary studies. The 11+ and 12+ age groups are often involved and in some schools mixed ability classes for geography extend into the third secondary year. The beginning of external examination courses in the fourth year usually involves a move to more homogeneous ability grouping but in a few schools mixed ability classes in geography continue to the end of the fifth year.


Some schools emphasise the social rather than the academic benefits of adopting a mixed ability organisation. Their geography departments then have a responsibility for contributing to the achievement of these social aims through their teaching. A few identify the social skills that a particular experience is expected to encourage. These include, for example, a sense of identity and responsibility through simulations, co-operation through field and group work, and tolerance through role play.

No less important is a department's responsibility for considering the implications that a mixed ability class organisation has for standards in the subject and for making them secure. The wide differences of capability and need of pupils in such a class must influence what is taught and how it is to be taught if all are to profit. Yet explicit identification of the ideas and skills appropriate for different levels of ability and of methods and resources suitable for the tasks in hand is still rare. One school which had 'settlement' as a third year theme envisaged that the study of a city would provide different groups of pupils with opportunities for:

a simple identification of building types with classification in tabular form;
b identification of evidence of types of occupation and delineation of zones, with diagrammatic representation of relative size and location;
c finding supporting evidence from OS maps, comparing with other examples drawn from different parts of the world noting similarities and differences, establishing hypotheses and testing these against further evidence.
A common photograph was provided for the whole class. Other resources including books, maps and slides were available as required.

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Combined studies

The mixed ability situation inevitably demands more rather than less knowledge on the part of the teacher who must interpret and adapt the guidelines for every mixed ability class that he teaches. Yet in some schools the adoption of a mixed ability organisation has been accompanied by a requirement for geography to be combined with one or more other disciplines. The stress on teachers which this has caused has often led to failure to make either adjustment effectively, and standards of geographical work have suffered in consequence. The absorption of geography into combined, integrated or inter-disciplinary studies often means that many mixed ability classes do not have the first-line assistance of a subject specialist when a geographical topic is being studied. Even though many schools ensure that one member of a combined studies team is a geographer subject support often remains inadequate because he cannot be available as consultant when need arises and because there are no regular team meetings.

Planning and preparation

Few schools accord course planning and revision and the development of resources the priority which their importance justifies by making provision for them within the teaching timetable. Teachers who enjoy such provision find that newcomers to mixed ability teaching benefit particularly through sharing their new planning tasks with a team. The development of course material for less proficient readers has been assisted in some larger schools by the attachment to the geography department of a specialist remedial teacher who advises on such matters as the appropriateness of language in an assignment sheet or reference book.

Teaching resources and techniques

Mixed ability classes need a wide range of both teaching and learning materials and it is an advantage if all the available resources of the department (and of the resource centre where one exists) can be used. Quick retrieval and effective use of resource material imply a concentration of teaching rooms and storage space which few departments enjoy.

Often, a great deal of teachers' time is devoted to the production of materials for work with mixed ability classes. Geography teachers accomplish prodigious feats with little assistance, in providing for their classes. The provision of a work-room for the geography (or integrated studies/humanities) team can be of crucial importance in the achievement of quality of material and of inspiration and ingenuity in the generation and application of ideas. In a few schools a well-endowed library and a resource centre geared to the mixed ability situation provide excellent support both to individual pupils and to teachers.

Geography probably offers as great a variety of approaches suitable for pupils of a wide range of abilities as any other subject. Often the opportunities are not fully exploited, and only a few teachers of mixed ability geography classes adopt flexible grouping of pupils, varying the tasks according to the activity. More able pupils are sometimes grouped to tackle a more demanding task

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where the sharing of ideas involves a sophisticated dialogue with the teacher. One example seen was that of a small group of the ablest pupils assessing the lessons learned from a number of studies on a 'communications' theme, formulating and testing a hypothesis and arriving at a prediction of future developments. As some pupils develop the capacity to handle more abstract ideas the need for this kind of arrangement becomes greater. Less able pupils, too, benefit from group work designed to reinforce their recall and understanding of basic information and ideas. In other situations, for example where groups are examining different case studies illustrating a common group of general ideas, the groups may be heterogeneous in ability. Simulation exercises are increasingly being used to give pupils of a wide range of ability an opportunity to work together, with a division into ability groups for debriefing. An exercise of this kind occasionally used is the consideration of urban development proposals designed to identify and examine conflicting interests of different sections of a community.

For individual work a popular stratagem with mixed ability classes in geography, particularly within combined studies, is the use of a worksheet. It is fairly common practice for this to be preceded by a precis of information supplied by the teacher. Pupils are thereby deprived of the opportunity of consulting a range of sources, of assessing one point of view against another, or of making a choice of what they perceive to be relevant and significant. The questions based on this information are sometimes graded in degree of difficulty or, less often, pupils are given different sheets according to their particular needs. The teacher acts as consultant and guide to individual pupils but the layout of the worksheet often restricts the pupil's form and style of response and frequently acts as a disincentive to abler pupils who would profit from wider-ranging and detailed enquiries. At the other end of the scale the language difficulties of less proficient readers often consume a disproportionate amount of a teacher's time.

Although there are circumstances when the production by the department of comprehensive booklets of information is justified, their understandable lack of quality of presentation compared with that of commercially-produced material constitutes a serious drawback. The work-guide, through which a teacher leads and encourages pupils in the use of a variety of books, photographs, maps etc of quality, is often to be preferred and it is more likely to avoid the dullness and ineffectiveness which characterise inferior materials.

Care is needed to ensure that a balance of activities is maintained. The more individualised assignments become, the less is the likelihood of interaction between pupils and teacher in classroom activities. Yet exploration, explanation, evaluation and reinforcement with a whole mixed ability class may still be essential on occasions. Whenever opportunities are not deliberately created for the development of oral skills, such as through group and class

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reporting back, the teacher becomes involved in repetitive discussions with individuals. Some extreme cases have been seen where the teacher had become little more than a checker of worksheet answers and the role of initiator had disappeared.

In some departments the mixed ability situation has encouraged greater use of film, television and visual material generally, with groups as well as with whole classes. These media provide excellent opportunities for introducing a range of tasks at various levels and for different objectives while utilising a unifying common theme. Often, however, in spite of adequate resources, insufficient use is made of these methods and inadequate attention given to preparation and follow-up.


The progressive development of skills and ideas is as fundamental for a sound geographical education in a mixed ability situation as in any other. Exercises aiming at increasing sophistication are commonly used to achieve this with mixed ability classes working to a common theme. Frequently seen are tasks ranging from:

a highly specific questions that require pupils merely to locate and record particular information, for example 'Make a list of the raw materials referred to in the passage';


b open-ended questions that invite a wide-ranging investigation, for example 'Find out what you can about the growth of manufacturing industries in area ...'.

Often, however, because they are not accompanied by discussion and structured guidance, tasks of type b result only in further copying and place no greater demands on the pupils than those of type a. There is frequently a dearth of exercises designed to lead pupils through carefully identified stages in the development of important intellectual skills. The organisation of work in this way at a number of different ability levels is intricate and demanding, but deserves the highest priority.

Assessment and evaluation

In a situation in which pupils in a class have had varying experiences designed for their particular needs the task of assessment needs special consideration. It hardly seems logical, either socially in a situation designed at least in part to avoid comparison between able and less able, or academically when pupils have worked at different levels with different materials, to submit all to a common test of factual information and then to compare performance. Few geography departments have yet come to terms with this problem. Forms of continuous monitoring and assessment sometimes adopted appear to be more in keeping with the basic philosophy of a mixed ability organisation, with individual records of pupils' experience and performance occupying a central place. Again this underlines the significance of clearly defined objectives related to various levels of ability against which the individual pupil's performance may be recorded and assessed.

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Few schools have yet made attempts to evaluate the results of their mixed ability teaching of geography. This omission appears to be partly due to the pressing tasks of preparing and organising materials and resources; but it seems also that the need for evaluation has not yet been sufficiently widely recognised.

Quality of work

At best some departments and teachers working with mixed ability classes achieve a quality of work which bears comparison with that of more traditionally organised schools and lays firm foundations for later study. The fact that the quality, presentation and completion of written work seen in the mixed ability situation often, however, falls below the standard of which pupils seem capable is no doubt due in large measure to the heavy demands that the system makes on teachers. Faced with the tasks of preparation and organisation many are unable to create sufficient opportunity for a proper evaluation of the effects of the materials and techniques employed. Oral work is often given too little attention and only exceptionally are the ablest pupils afforded an opportunity to work at sufficiently demanding levels. From the evidence of work in mixed ability classes in which geography is involved, some of the principal features that seem likely to enhance the prospects of sound achievement in the subject are:

a A scheme of work which is concept/ideas based and in which different levels of task are identified.
b A wealth of learning materials identified, in relation to the scheme, for use at a number of different ability levels and organised for retrieval by pupils as well as teachers.
c A supply of extension materials for use in remedying deficiencies and in developing particular strengths.
d Careful attention to the language used in assignments, particularly for weaker pupils.
e Care in checking assumptions concerning language, knowledge and understanding in formulating assignments.
f Provision of regular opportunities for oral work.
g Variety and flexibility in the grouping of pupils and in the types of activities used.
h The maintenance of systematic individual records of pupils' experiences and performance.
i Assessment procedures which avoid inappropriate and unproductive comparisons of pupils at different ability levels.
j Regular and guaranteed opportunities for appraisal and revision of the methods and materials used, and for evaluation of the effects of the teaching.

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In recent years the progress of geography as a discipline has been characterised by the building of a conceptual structure, a development which has significance for the contribution of geography to academic work in schools. Some of the practices of mixed ability teaching in geography, and perhaps even more in combined studies, appear to militate against this development. In many mixed ability situations the lack of direct interaction between teacher and pupil, and between pupil and pupil, reduces the opportunity to explore ideas and to interpret information. The evidence of practice in a few schools shows that this need not be so. But the complex tasks of devising and organising work at different levels, of resourcing it, and of supervising and assessing the progress, call for particularly favourable circumstances and for unusually high qualities in the teachers.

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6 History

History is a very democratic subject: all pupils, whatever their ability, can approach it and get something useful and interesting from it. It has a variety of approaches - narrative, discovery, argument; and demands a wide range of skills - writing, drawing, interviewing, interpreting, discussion; it has many attractions - adventure, mystery, tragedy, romance, role playing.

But history is not only a very accessible subject, it is also an obliging one in that it caters for mixed ability classes as well as streaming. Nevertheless it is still rare to see examples of good practice in mixed ability teaching.

The biggest single weakness is the unexamined assumption that mixed ability teaching means individualised learning based on work sheets. More often than not these simply offer opportunities for pupils of different abilities to work at different rates. Skills are limited to the collection, memorising, and regurgitation of knowledge. Assessment tests memory, rarely understanding, and progress is defined in terms of the increasing accumulation of fact.

Examples of good practice in mixed ability history teaching suggest the following:

a The importance of careful planning and some in-service training of inexperienced teachers before the implementation of mixed ability teaching. One school moved from streamed to mixed ability classes over a period of four years. During that period, and in the years following, departments, including history, were involved in internal discussions, and in discussions with specialist HMIs.

b The period of preparation should also be used for the collecting of a variety of resources which should be accessible and clearly comprehensible to pupils of widely different ability.

c Resource collections should not be limited to work/assignment sheets but should include books, pictures, tapes, slides and should take account of the resources in the environment and the content of educational broadcasting. Assignment sheets should not merely offer opportunities for pupils to work at different rates so that the less able never complete them, but should offer every pupil the opportunity regularly to complete a task.

One school bases much of its teaching on boxes of resources which include books, slides with hand viewers, tapes (some made by the department) and cassettes, source material and assignment sheets. These assignment sheets demand a variety of tasks:

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i some call for specific information with clear indications of its amount and where it may be found, eg a first year class may be required to read some information on Tutankhamen and then note down the age at which he became Pharaoh and the age at which he died.

ii open-ended assignments which allow the individual pupil to decide the style, depth and level of an answer, eg a second year group may be required, after examining village life before the Black Death, to describe the working life of a serf.

iii creative and imaginative assignments, eg provided with a street plan of Sarajevo and a detailed account of the events of 28th June, 1914, third-year students may be asked to imagine that they were standing by Schiller's Store when the fatal shots were fired. They may be asked to describe what they heard and saw.

iv assignments which require students to use and analyse source material, eg second year classes may be asked to describe a scene of an Aztec sacrifice based upon a contemporary account and asked to speculate on Spanish attitudes to it. Fourth year students may be asked questions on factory conditions based on a famous letter sent by Richard Oastler to the Leeds Mercury in 1830.

v assignments calling for students to use material not found in the classroom eg in the resources centre, the public library, interviews with other people.

vi assignments encouraging students to use small items of hardware such as slide viewers and cassette recorders.

This same school marks certain tasks with asterisks; these are optional and more difficult and are pursued by the pupil on his own initiative and, if necessary, with the guidance of the teacher.

d Mixed ability grouping requires that exercises have to be accessible to and allow a variety of responses from pupils of different abilities. Open-ended, speculative and imaginative exercises, it is argued by one head of department, offer scope for this. For example, the following task was set.

- In the evening of the 2nd August, 1099, King Rufus was shot dead by an arrow while out hunting. Suggest an explanation for his death using the following facts and rumours.
There follow two columns of statements, one factual eg
- Rufus was buried at Winchester Cathedral. Within a year the Tower fell down.
- The hunting party split up leaving Rufus alone with Walter Tirel.
- Rufus's younger brother Henry was on the hunting trip. Without waiting to see the body he dashed off to secure the Kingdom. He was crowned only three days later.

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These Factual statements are paralleled by others under the heading 'rumours' eg
- some people say that Rufus worshipped the devil.
- perhaps a stag passed between Tirel and Rufus. Tirel's arrow hit Rufus although he aimed for the stag.
- Henry was a savage man - he conducted at least one execution personally.
e Good practice also recognises that a reliance on work and assignment sheets threatens group and class work and may cause the learning of history to be associated with tedious, isolated and lonely tasks. Narrative should still be the core of history teaching and a story well told can still stimulate the interest and enthusiasms of a group of pupils of a wide range of ability. Similarly the use of games/simulations and of drama can provide opportunities for a mixed ability class in history to work together.

f With a range of ability in the history class it is more than ever important for the history department to define carefully a progressively demanding series of skills which it is hoped that a pupil will acquire and a progressively complicated set of concepts which he might be expected to understand.

One large comprehensive school bases its assessment for the third year on a simple grid such as 'evidence of interest and concentration in class including oral participation'; 'ability to sustain and finish class work'; 'ability to work well alone and unaided'; 'reading for meaning'; 'reference skills'; 'competence in basic English skills'; 'fluency in oral work'; 'historical imagination: 'evidence of chronological and thematic comprehension'. These are marked on a 5 point scale with particular reference to improvements during the year. They are further related to particular historical tasks set by the teacher in assignment books. However, it is still very rare for historians to define precisely what is 'progress' in the learning of their pupils, although an increasing number of teachers are beginning to investigate means of doing this.

g Mixed ability teaching places great strain on departmental organisation. This means that regular meetings must be held not only in advance of reorganisation in mixed ability classes but also constantly to monitor individual pupils' progress and to relate the work in the class to a planned, coherent syllabus.

A medium sized rural comprehensive school which has an effective interdisciplinary syllabus organised by the history and geography departments believes that the success of its course on the history of the English landscape depends on their weekly interdepartmental meetings timetabled within the working day. The head of department identifies five functions for these meetings.

i. binding the team together, fostering understanding within the team and integrating new members.

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ii. assessment of work just completed. Did it go well? Which part succeeded and which failed? What changes will need to be made in the future? Are there implications for the next piece of work?

iii. a check on the work about to be started. Have the films arrived? Is the duplicated work complete? Are the appropriate slides available?

iv. long term planning. This aims to produce at the beginning of the year an outline plan of the work that will be completed during the next three terms.

v. a general assessment of the course and its development. How good are pupil responses? Are their interest and enthusiasms being maintained? Are aims and objectives being achieved? Do assessment techniques need refining?

This of course could be the agenda for any departmental meeting but it is particularly necessary for interdisciplinary schemes in which historians frequently find themselves participating.
Thus effective mixed ability history teaching depends on a syllabus in which aims, skills and concepts are clearly defined; on able teachers willing to give an immense amount of time to collecting, organising and regular reassessment of resources; on assessment methods suitable for monitoring each individual pupil's progress and to relate it to a coherent, planned syllabus. These cannot be achieved without regular departmental meetings and an effective departmental head. History is indeed a democratic and obliging subject for those who seek to teach it in mixed ability classes, but the demands on teaching time and skill are very great.

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7 Mathematics

Background issues

Good teaching in mathematics needs to make use of a varied range of techniques for learning, to pay careful attention to content and to provide materials that are appropriate to the needs of the pupils. It should promote effective contact between teacher and pupils and encourage pupils to develop habits of steady work and a sense of responsibility for their own progress. There should be opportunity for consolidation of essential skills and also for appropriate investigational and problem solving activities. Methods of assessment should be sensitive and easy to administer. Moreover, there is a need to provide opportunities for the use of language as a means of learning, in discussion both between teacher and pupils and between pupils themselves, so that they may be able to develop and clarify ideas and concepts and become aware of the relationships between the various parts of mathematics and between mathematics and other subjects. Attention must also be paid to the needs of everyday life, including those of industry and commerce.

These requirements exist regardless of the composition of teaching groups and, whatever form of organisation is used, their total fulfilment is difficult within mathematics teaching groups of the size that is customarily found in secondary schools; but although not all may be satisfied totally, none should be entirely neglected. Different forms of organisation make some aspects easier to achieve than others; the need is to adopt a method of organisation which enables as much to be achieved as possible.

Teaching method

Any lesson given to a class which spans a wide ability range is likely to be wholly suitable for only a section of those present, and the range of ability that can appropriately be dealt with probably varies from subject to subject. Experience shows that in mathematics any prolonged attempt to use a class teaching approach with a group which contains a wide range of ability faces severe difficulties, though it may be appropriate when introducing a topic which is new to all the pupils. It thus becomes essential within such a class to provide work at a variety of levels and for the pupils to work individually or in small groups. Nevertheless, there are positive reasons (including social ones) why teachers using individual work schemes should try to talk to the class as a whole for a few minutes in most lessons.

There are thus both opportunities and problems. Many mathematics courses in use at the present time include a considerable amount of practical and investigational work and so lend themselves to individual or small group methods of working. With more than one activity going on at the same time, it is often possible to make

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better use of the equipment that is available, and pupils can be helped to develop responsibility for planning and organising their work. Since it is essential that the teacher's time is not taken up during the lesson with assembling and distributing materials, all the equipment that pupils are likely to need must be readily available, so that each pupil can find what is needed without difficulty or disturbance to others. Some time may have to be spent initially in training pupils to do this.

If a school decides to produce its own material, a very considerable amount of work is involved and this will need to start well in advance of the introduction of mixed ability teaching. However, the complexity of such a task should not be underestimated and it will probably be better to start by making use of some of the commercially produced material that is now available. Discussion and cooperation between members of the department will be necessary to evaluate the material and to develop the supplementary resources that are likely to be required. This can provide the opportunity for valuable in-service training.

A major problem, but an essential requirement of successful mixed ability teaching, is to suit the speed and level of work to individual pupils. This does not merely mean providing extra material for the more able pupils to use after they have completed the 'basic' work sheets. Such pupils can become very disenchanted if they are asked to work through material which is insufficiently demanding or goes in steps or units of work that are too small. Alternative worksheets with a more substantial content can help to resolve this difficulty. In the same way those at the lower end of the ability range may find even the basic worksheets too difficult and need alternative material at a more elementary level.

It is important, too, to try to ensure that pupils' work does not lack pace. This can occur for a variety of reasons. Some pupils may have difficulty in understanding the subject, some may find that the work is making too little demand and so lacks interest, some may become bored with working on their own - and it should not be assumed without question that individual learning is a method which is good in itself and suits all pupils. Also, a single worksheet is likely to be used by pupils of a wide range of ability and, however carefully constructed, inevitably lacks the flexibility of approach that is available in a class teaching situation in which the teacher can vary speed and method of explanation according to the response of the class and the expression on the pupils' faces. Thus pupils can become 'stuck'. The teacher needs to be aware of these possibilities, to keep a careful record of the work that each pupil has done and to organise the class in such a way that there is opportunity to move about the room and observe the pupils while they are working.

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The most difficult task of all may be to ensure that there is adequate opportunity for the use of language, which should play a dominant role in the learning of mathematics. It is not an easy subject to learn from the printed page; pupils need to speak and write about what they are learning if the subject is to develop as a coherent whole, and the teacher needs to listen to them.

Organisation of mixed ability classes

The problems of providing opportunities for discussion and for the use of language call to some degree be overcome by the use of block timetabling, with one extra teacher provided for a group of three or four classes. This teacher can operate in a variety of ways and in particular help by gathering together pupils from all the classes who are working on a particular topic or group of work cards. This will enable discussion to take place, questions to be asked and answered, ideas to be developed and consolidated and essential links to be made with other parts of the subject, something which even very able pupils often find it difficult to do for themselves. It may be noted that this 'floating' teacher does not necessarily need to be available for every mathematics period in the week.

Even if an extra teacher is not available it is possible for the teachers of three or four classes timetabled at the same time to rearrange their classes so that one can undertake the discussion and consolidation work suggested earlier. For this reason it may well be preferable for pupils to work in small groups rather than on an individual basis, both to make it easier for the teacher and to encourage pupils to discuss their work and investigations among themselves. For the same reasons it is probably wise to restrict the number of topics on which members of the class are working at any one time.

There will also be occasions when it will be useful for the whole class to consider a model, chart or other piece of work that one pupil has produced, to discuss it, and to learn from the points that it raises.

Mixed ability grouping should certainly not be considered a means of easing timetabling problems by avoiding the necessity of blocking teaching periods. It is a difficult task for a lone teacher with some 30 pupils in a mixed ability class to meet unaided the wide variety of needs that will exist.

Recording and assessment

Within a mixed ability situation problems of recording and assessment can be considerable and it is necessary to develop straightforward and reliable procedures that are both sensitive and unobtrusive. Assessment involves more than mere correction of exercises and needs to include an attempt to discover whether the pupil has developed an understanding of essential ideas. This is one of the areas within which teachers commonly find most difficulty. It is all too easy for a long queue to develop at the teacher's desk so that the teacher is continuously under pressure and unable either to discuss work or to observe what is going on in the classroom as a whole.

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In a well-run class it should not be necessary for the teacher to mark everything in detail; there is value in pupils learning how to mark exercises for themselves. But pupils' work must be regularly appraised by the teacher and this appraisal should be clear to any other person such as a parent, head of department or head teacher who looks at a pupil's book or file. Such appraisal is probably most easily done during non-teaching time. Some teachers use a system whereby each pupil is assigned a day on which to hand in his book: in this way the teacher can spread the marking load through the week, have the opportunity of assessing several pieces of work within a given topic, and either make written comments or ask the pupil to come for explanation when the book is returned. Any pieces of work which need immediate assessment by the teacher before a pupil moves on can be indicated.

The availability of a floating teacher who is able to withdraw groups of pupils for discussion and consolidation can provide a further opportunity for assessment and appraisal of whether a concept has been understood.

The inexperienced teacher

The teaching of a mixed ability class is likely to present especial difficulty to an inexperienced teacher because of the need to have good knowledge of all the materials in use in order to be able to direct pupils' work; nor is it easy to prepare for lessons of this kind. The best introduction for such a teacher is probably to act as a floating teacher so that there will be opportunity, through helping individual pupils and by withdrawing small groups, to become familiar with the materials in use and with the difficulties that arise most frequently. In addition, work with groups of pupils on a particular topic provides opportunities for making use of a carefully prepared lesson.

The extremes of ability

Pupils who are both backward in reading and weak in numerical skills can present a considerable problem. The teaching of such pupils requires not only special skill and experience but also more of the teacher's time than can reasonably be made available in a full-sized class. For these pupils teaching within a normal mixed ability group is unlikely to be successful and it is probably best to make full-time remedial provision for them. Even where reading skills are adequate, there may still be some pupils whose mathematics is so weak that some kind of special provision is necessary. This provision should be made for all mathematics periods - withdrawal for only some periods in the week is unlikely to be effective. For the weakest who still remain, careful attention needs to be given to the language level as well as to the mathematical level of the materials that they use.

Provision for very able pupils should include investigations and mathematical puzzles as well as opportunities to undertake extended pieces of work.


It cannot be emphasised too strongly that, as with any other major change, mixed ability teaching should not be introduced without

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adequate preparation both in terms of the availability of suitable resources and of assistance to teachers to prepare for their new way of working. Successful mixed ability teaching needs both skill and hard work on the part of those who undertake it. It is in no sense an easy alternative.

Readers may also wish to consult the Schools Council publication Mixed ability teaching in mathematics, Evans/Methuen Educational.

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8 Modern languages

This paper is concerned with the first modern language to be studied in the secondary school, whether this is French, German or some other language. Second foreign languages, normally taught to selected groups, are not considered here.

As a result of the varied pattern of foreign language teaching in primary schools, groups entering secondary schools are often composed of children with differing experience as well as of mixed ability. This presents an added complication which it is not the purpose of this paper to discuss.

In classes where there is a wide range of ability there are serious obstacles to success in foreign language learning, for reasons which relate both to certain essential requirements of the subject, particularly at the stage when basic structures are being acquired, and to developments that have been taking place since the late 1950s.

Essential requirements

Organisation of classes must take account of the fundamental need for sequence in foreign language learning; few teachers would disagree that both vocabulary and structures must be presented in a far more sequential way than happens with the mother tongue.

The central activities in the classroom are concerned with the development of complex, interdependent oral and written skills which require regular practice under the direct guidance of the teacher. In a mixed ability group, practice which is tedious and insufficiently challenging for some can be beyond the capacities of others, and the limited extent to which less able pupils can master the more demanding skills soon presents the teacher with the need for differentiated objectives and activities.

Variety in stimulus and level of difficulty is provided in some other subjects, whether or not the approach is sequential, by individualised and group-based learning materials. However, there are some fundamental objections to a dependence on such material in the foreign language. Secure foundations in this case depend on oral interchange based on spoken models. This is not something that lends itself easily to individual or group assignments. The use of audio-visual aids could provide a variety of models of speech within one classroom; but constant monitoring of oral interchange would remain essential. Provision of a full range of sufficiently flexible aids in every secondary school would have serious implications in terms of cost, class size and technical assistance.

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Recent developments

Currently, teachers are extensively engaged in a search for ways of motivating pupils of average and below average ability, to whom foreign languages were seldom taught prior to secondary reorganisation; they find it very difficult to cater for these new categories of language learner in groups which also contain the abler pupils to whom they have been accustomed. Pupils of high ability thus find themselves in a new and experimental situation in which their progress is by no means assured. Moreover, the time allocation in the broader curriculum of the comprehensive school is often smaller and the time itself less well distributed than in the past.

Important developments in language teaching preceded by some years the advent of interest in mixed ability grouping. Not surprisingly, therefore, the materials commercially available nearly all assume the existence of a relatively homogeneous group of pupils working together towards a common objective.

The present situation

Under present conditions, a teacher of a mixed ability class can normally do no other than involve the whole class in a common listening or reading comprehension task, after which he tries to allow for a variety of levels of response. Differentiated tasks are most commonly devised, if at all, for reading or written work only, to the obvious detriment of oral skills. Often, because of the evident needs of the slower pupils, the ablest are neglected, or are provided with ancillary materials which do no more than keep them occupied.


There seem to be no grounds for believing that mixed ability grouping can offer any advantages to the modern language class even in the hands of an able teacher; in the hands of those less skilled or experienced it can have positively harmful effects.

Setting which takes account of linguistic aptitude is therefore recommended as the normal form of organisation for this subject, provided that time has been allowed for a careful process of diagnosis and prognosis before pupils are allocated to sets. Moreover, sets containing the slower learners need teachers no less skilful and dedicated than those teaching the faster groups, and the objectives of the different sets must be realistically matched to the capabilities of the pupils.

In present circumstances, modern language classes are very often far more heterogeneous in ability than formerly. Where there is a shortage of language teachers, particularly in smaller schools, opportunities for setting are inevitably restricted; and in all schools the need to diagnose linguistic ability implies that at the start of the course classes may well include the whole ability range. In such circumstances, teachers need to create opportunities for some children to extend, and others to consolidate, their learning by differentiated listening or reading assignments. There is scope for more open-ended tasks than are customarily set, and for occasional oral practice in groups. A beginners' course, designed for a diagnosis of linguistic ability across a wide range, will require a greater variety

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of approaches than would be the case with homogeneous groups, and should include sufficient experience of the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing for differences in aptitude to become apparent.

It is increasingly important that pupils of all abilities should gain some experience of a modern language, and disturbing that at present two-thirds of our pupils - and a higher proportion of boys - have opted out of foreign language study by the age of 14. Progress towards successful language learning for all cannot be made without competent modern language teachers, and the nation's supply of good linguists and teachers will undoubtedly diminish if our abler pupils are held back or even deterred from learning foreign languages.

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9 Music


Whatever the internal organisation of a secondary school, music classes usually contain children who show widely diverging levels of attainment in the subject. Even when separate arrangements are made for the tuition of instrumentalists, it remains difficult to provide a comprehensive class music course that is sufficiently differentiated to suit the needs of a typical cross-section of pupils. Although for social and other reasons many schools have included music amongst the subjects which are taught in mixed ability classes, the implications of this arrangement have not always been fully grasped. A substantial number of schools adopting such an organisation have not prepared adequate schemes of work, devised teaching groups of appropriate size and composition, or deployed staff and resources so as to ensure that all pupils can benefit equally from their foundation courses in music. Even schools whose efforts have met with greater success have done so in the face of considerable difficulties. The purpose of this paper is to examine, in the light of recent visits to secondary schools, some of the effects and implications of teaching music to mixed ability groups.

School policy and organisation

Most music departments have fundamental aims but success in achieving them varies considerably in schools which have adopted a mixed ability organisation. Some have exercised determined thought and careful planning in devising new courses and ways of working, resulting in acceptable and rising standards; others have continued to implement syllabuses and methods more suited to other systems of grouping. The stated objectives of some departments entirely ignore the possibilities of mixed ability grouping: one school preferred to allocate the bulk of music time to optional extra-curricular musical activities on a community basis, while formal contact with the general body of pupils was limited to the first year and one second year class only. In another school, inadequate planning and preparation for mixed ability teaching resulted in unacceptable standards and disruptive or uncooperative music classes.

Many schools arrange for certain children to be withdrawn from normal classes to receive instrumental tuition. Some schools are able to offer regular facilities for instrumental practice during the school day and many authorities provide additional opportunities for promising pupils to develop their musicianship further at local music centres. Far less frequently is remedial help provided for underachievers in music. A true mixed ability organisation should permit the extension of the talents of the more able children while, at the same time, ensuring that equivalent provision is made for the needs of the average and below average.

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While it is hoped that many of the points discussed in this paper will have been adequately considered by students during the period of their initial training, the value of in-service education, both for experienced reachers and for new entrants completing their induction year, in offering a more sophisticated appreciation of the issues raised by mixed ability organisation, cannot be underestimated. Although some music teachers are devising courses and styles of working well suited to use with mixed ability groups, too many are doing so in isolation. Carefully planned in-service courses could in such cases give confidence to the inexperienced and opportunities for further development to the more accomplished.

Resources and accommodation

Some of the more important resources for teaching music to mixed ability groups (apart from the human voice) are the relatively simple instruments which can be made available to individual pupils within the classroom. Recorders, melodic instruments of the glockenspiel type and untuned percussion are those most frequently chosen. Although examples of mixed ensembles have been seen, the emphasis has too often been upon massed activity with a majority of pupils playing similar parts on similar instruments; where a more individualised and varied approach was favoured, pupils gained most from the activity. The provision and maintenance of enough appropriate instruments, together with the sheet music and stands necessary to service a whole class, often make greater demands upon a school's resources than can readily be satisfied.

Since mixed ability organisation implies the revision of attitudes, groupings and teaching methods, music accommodation planned in future will increasingly need to take these developments into account and be capable of flexible use. Some especially accomplished teachers have shown their ability to operate individual or group work in almost any conditions; others might be more successful if able to work in a more appropriate teaching environment. Such accommodation might comprise a large music workshop space, group rooms, properly equipped listening facilities and adequate storage - all capable of flexible adaptation, with appropriate teaching aids readily available.

An increasing number of secondary school music departments are experiencing the need for readily accessible reprographic equipment to facilitate the rapid duplication of home-produced scores for classroom and other use. An indiscriminate use of worksheets, as seen in some schools, can lead to the prescription of linguistic rather than musical tasks; but specially prepared audio-visual aids with complementary tape recordings can facilitate pupils' working at different levels and at different rates. The use of junction boxes with outlets for headphones to allow for a variety of listening needs within the class can also be helpful. Sound recorders, projectors, video-cassette recorders, television cameras and monitors, overhead projectors, and film cameras are all seen being used from time to time as additional resources in class music lessons.

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Curriculum and teaching methods

Mixed ability organisation implies an increasing effort on the part of music teachers to find out what musical skills and experience, talents and interests children have acquired or developed during earlier years. Planning of courses to build upon this earlier work can hardly start without detailed knowledge. In some schools, music teachers have been appointed with a responsibility for liaison with their contributory primary schools. In one community school, this liaison role occupied a major part of the teachers' time and produced activities involving both primary and secondary pupils. The important factor, irrespective of liaison arrangements, was the recognition of the level and stage of development of each pupil on transfer, thus enabling appropriate courses to be formulated for them in the secondary school. A considerable degree of continuity in musical development could be achieved in this way.

Music making as a shared experience can play an important role in stretching the talents of all pupils by involving them in a variety of activities. Classes have been seen where some pupils could perform only by memory and intuition, while others were playing instruments of all kinds (including percussion) and singing competently in parts; in such classes, the pupils were not performing identical tasks at the same level but were nevertheless participating actively in a unified musical experience. It is necessary to plan programmes of work for mixed ability groups that give adequate scope to pupils of all abilities to engage in activities according to their needs.

Children's listening needs in the mixed ability class are diverse. Music teachers have an important role to play in widening experience and developing tastes; many now include twentieth century works as well as those of earlier periods and of other cultures in their listening sessions. Listening to music can be a worthwhile class activity within a mixed ability organisation; it can, as with singing, be a meeting point for all children, although individuals will hear a piece from different standpoints and with varying degrees of sophistication.

The amount of emphasis placed upon the acquisition of musical literacy can vary considerably from school to school; some heads of department have dismissed it from their syllabuses as irrelevant while others have given it far greater priority than it warranted. It is, nevertheless, a sad fact that in recent years the teaching of music reading skills in our schools has often been too little and too late. Teaching in mixed ability groups implies that careful attention is paid to all the needs of individual children; varying levels of attainment are to be expected, implying the need for carefully differentiated help in the classroom. One school visited had produced a tailor-made, progressive, three year course in which a variety of musical materials had been scored for voices and a wide range of instruments, using both staff notation and accompanying chord symbols and so arranged that all pupils could contribute according to their level of ability and attainment; opportunities

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for extemporisation were also given. Some schools have developed individual approaches to notation involving the use of a tape recorder or even electronic aids. Others have opted for the performance and composition of contemporary forms of music requiring a 'graphic' system of notation. Frequently, examples of pupils' musical efforts have been preserved, not only in the form of notation, but also by means of the sound or video tape recorder. At their best, such courses are planned to ensure that all the pupils in the mixed ability class can acquire appropriate reading skills to enable them to participate rewardingly in both creative and recreative musical activities.

Organisational changes have sometimes been found necessary in order to cater adequately for the mixed ability teaching situation. A few schools have adopted a setting arrangement in the first year based on the pupils' previous experience and attainment in recorder playing; others have redeployed their music staff so that a team of three teachers could be made available to work with two classes. Occasionally, advisory or peripatetic teachers or music centre staff have supplemented the work of the class teachers in providing all increased range of musical experiences for the pupils.

Assessment and recording

The identification of individual difficulties, or potential talent, is necessary before special help can be given; the monitoring of pupils' progress is therefore essential if appropriate courses are to be offered.

An effective system or passing information about pupils' work from one school to another can be particularly helpful. If objective tests are used, the purpose of using them needs to be carefully defined and their limitations need to be acknowledged. The assessment of practical music making and aural skills, apart from those of pupils withdrawn for instrumental music lessons, presents difficulties in the whole class situation; monitoring progress in these circumstances is too often limited to marking and checking work in books. The adoption of individualised or group working makes individual assessment more feasible and helps to identify pupils who at one end of the scale need remedial attention or at the other might be suitable candidates for fourth-year optional music courses. Assessing progress and recording the balance between effort and ability can often encourage pupils to produce better work and develop more enlightened attitudes towards learning.

Standards of work

As indicated earlier, some of the most successful musical developments in recent years have been in the field of instrumental teaching. Where classroom music fails to make an impact, too often the pupils experience a sense of frustration in that they feel they are not improving in musical expertise. In some schools, the pace is too slow, expectations are low and little attempt is made to provide work appropriate to the whole ability range; here it is not surprising to find that appropriate leadership and planning are lacking, staff morale is low, and classes are disenchanted with their music lessons.

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Successful work was seen in schools where new or updated syllabuses and ways of working had been devised by music teachers who had confidence in mixed ability grouping. In the best of such situations, the work produced by pupils of all abilities exhibited competence and imagination. Where good practice was encountered the philosophy and objectives lying behind mixed ability teaching were mirrored in the concern shown for the individual and improved relationships between teacher and pupils. The pupils responded well to the work required of them and organised themselves purposefully to achieve satisfactory results. Much thought, leadership, planning and preparation of materials had been undertaken in such schools.


1 A clear policy about music teaching and its role within the school needs to be developed and stated. Good communication between the contributory primary schools and the secondary school can play a part in shaping this policy.

2 The implications of mixed ability organisation are far-reaching with regard to the content of courses and the methods of teaching them. A wide range of activities and styles needs to be practised and decisions need to be taken about the relevance of music literacy. The size and groupings of classes, diagnostic testing and assessment, deployment of staff, withdrawal arrangements (for pupils of both high and low ability), use of resources, varying ways of working and the role of extra-curricular musical activities are other important issues on which decisions need to be taken.

3 New courses and ways of working which are being developed by many schools imply equation with accepted practice adopted in other disciplines. However, where individualised approaches are based on the exclusive use of worksheets, the emphasis may become too theoretical: the method must not be allowed to dictate the content.

4 If a real attempt is to be made to develop pupils' musical skills on an individual or small group basis, a favourable staffing ratio and appropriate accommodation, resources and equipment are likely to be necessary.

5 Developmental support for teachers working in a mixed ability organisation is essential. Training institutions, local education authorities and the schools themselves have responsibility for providing suitable initial and in-service training.

6 In any new situation, the balance between holding on to well tried methods and exploring new approaches and techniques needs to be carefully weighed. Teaching mixed ability classes often entails some modification to traditional attitudes; this should not be taken to imply that all teaching strategies associated with other forms of class organisation are automatically suspect.

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10 Physical education


Working groups for physical education usually contain pupils of a wide range of physical ability. This is because the relationship between academic ability, which forms the basis of the general organisation of most schools, and physical ability is only slight and because there are difficulties in setting for this subject. Specialist teachers are, therefore, accustomed to dealing with groups of mixed physical ability for much of the time.

They understand the wide diversity of human movement potential and recognise that at the heart of the subject's philosophy lies the individuality of the child. They know too that, if care is not taken, disparities of ability may be disadvantageously emphasised in this subject more than in most. Appropriate schemes, approaches, procedures and modes of learning have been devised for these circumstances but effective solutions are seldom found, because of organisational and other constraints.

Differences between pupils are the major problem. Differences in intelligence, temperament and background are important, but the most influential differences lie in the domain of movement. Physical skill appears to be highly specific. A good tennis player may well, for instance, be a poor swimmer or an indifferent skater. Physical differences, too, may be important: activities such as rugby football, cross-country running and gymnastics make their individual demands for qualities such as strength, endurance and suppleness. The development of these and other characteristics in children proceeds furthermore at different times and in ways peculiar to the individual, and is part of the process of maturation.

The syllabus usually comprises different activities for boys and girls. In the early years it consists of basic activities and assumes few common experiences, because of the vastly dissimilar provision in the contributory schools. Later on, however, the developing interests and aptitudes of the children indicate the need for a more diverse programme and the opportunity for choice. Options are, therefore, usually provided, although it is not always easy to staff and resource them adequately. They often result in more homogeneous groups with common interests. Extra-curricular activities in most schools compensate some pupils, usually the more able in the particular activity, for what cannot be achieved within the curriculum.


The nature of the subject, therefore, demands flexible forms of working, including setting, and the use of largely individual methods of learning to cope with the wide range of physical ability which is

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present whatever form of grouping is adopted. Setting, however, is not always possible because of constraints such as the size of the school, the nature of the facilities, the number of staff available, and, in mixed schools, the need to arrange single sex groups for much of the work.

Dealing with the whole spectrum of abilities in one group for a variety of activities is difficult, but more tolerable with younger pupils. Much of the work is new to first-year pupils and disparities here are less marked than they are in activities such as swimming and association football, in which some pupils may already be very experienced. The teacher's knowledge of the pupils may be slight, and understanding of their needs necessarily provisional until their talents are revealed.

There are advantages for the subject in the early secondary years if the school adopts a mixed ability organisation and uses the form or tutor group for time-tabling physical education. There are fewer instances of the depressed class, the group becomes stable and potentially cohesive, while containing a range of aptitude and intelligence. Those pupils who show some skill may gain esteem in their own eyes as well as in their fellows' when their performance is viewed by others who excel elsewhere in the curriculum. They may learn from each other and come to appreciate each other's strengths and weaknesses. The stability of the group may well be a particular asset from this point of view as well as from others.

As the pupils grow older it becomes increasingly desirable to set the pupils or to establish interest groups. Schools often make considerable efforts to provide a block of forms simultaneously with a choice of activities, thus making the groups more homogeneous and easier to teach. Often this is achieved with the help of non-specialist staff and, in the smaller schools, at the expense of overloading the facilities, particularly the changing rooms. Care must be taken to ensure that the legitimate advantages of blocking and regrouping are not neutralised by the desire of some members of staff to coach school teams, which can lead to a limitation of the curriculum and a hierarchical structure which surrenders the needs of all the pupils to the competitive success of the few.


Whatever the grouping arrangements, appropriate procedures have to be used. Both gymnastics and dance have developed methods of working which allow individual progress and satisfaction irrespective of ability.

Educational gymnastics uses discovery methods, problem solving approaches and individualised learning. With these approaches and the wide range of apparatus available, competent, suitably trained teachers can provide enough opportunities for learning for groups of mixed physical ability. However, many teachers, particularly men, have found difficulty in this work, especially with

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older pupils. The problem has been in providing sufficient stimulus and attention to stretch the abilities of all the pupils but particularly the most able ones.

Because dance can also be based on common themes and tasks, groups of mixed physical ability may be taken together satisfactorily. Ideally, however, it is desirable to have pupils of similar ability and maturity in a group. For this reason there are disadvantages as well as advantages in groups of girls and boys working together. Irrespective of its composition. the dance group requires stability and sufficient length of time together to establish cohesion.

The interdependence of pupils in games presents special problems and there is a tendency to supply only the needs of the average pupil in the group. Progress in the game and enjoyment of it is largely dependent on working in groups of similar ability. Care has to be taken to match individuals, pairs and small groups. Setting for the particular game may help, but whatever form of grouping is used, practices of sufficient variety and range of difficulty have to be devised.

Performance in many games and sports is readily measurable in quantifiable and comparative terms. Sensitively used assessment can be an aid to dealing with a diversity of ability in one group. Swimming provides an excellent example, because from the moment of initial success with the first few strokes progress can be measured in terms of distance swum, time taken, strokes used or water skill performed. Measurement of pupil progress in this way is a vital part of certain sports and complementary to others. Some of the skills of games can form the basis of tests or batteries of tests for similar purposes. In addition to providing reinforcement of pupil learning through knowledge of results and progress, such measures can be used to provide fair forms of competition on an individual or group basis. Generally, however, the assessment of work makes demands which it is almost impossible to fulfil. Within the lesson awareness of the progress of pupils and of the achievement of groups is often submerged by the more urgent demands of safety, control and organisation.

Most aspects of the subject require frequent changes in the composition of working groups and forms of organisation if pupils across the range of ability are to be satisfactorily taught. Athletics exemplifies some of this range. New activities are often introduced to the whole class, but practice is individual and can be cross-checked and motivated by reference to progress in time, height or distance. 'Standards' can be used similarly to provide incentive and aid evaluation. Competitions between groups of pupils, and some of the practices, can be arranged with groups of any age by processes of matching and handicapping. With older pupils, however, choice of activity is indicated, although common practices and competitions can still be carried out with benefit and pleasure if sensitive arrangements are used for matching.

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Even within a group of very mixed physical ability, the able and sensitive teacher can overcome and perhaps capitalise on individual differences by promoting responsible interest and self-help in the pupils, so that there is almost individualised learning. All approaches should intelligently encourage the pupils to discover both the principles of movement and their own capacities and qualities in movement. In this way they will be able to personalise and understand their own movement as well as acquiring capacities to tackle new tasks in an autonomous, self-organised and confident way.


The nature and scope of the subject is such that teachers, although accustomed to the task, find difficulty in dealing with groups of mixed physical ability and in providing appropriately differentiated activities and instruction to cater for the range of abilities and interests of all the pupils. The extremes of the ability range often suffer, although extra-curricular activities usually enrich the provision for the more able children. The problem is aggravated with older pupils. Ideally even in the early secondary years pupils ought to be placed for many aspects of the work in groups of similar ability, so long as the groups are all treated fairly, and do not become permanent. Organisational constraints limit the amount of regrouping that can be provided and consequently various organisational and methodological strategies have been devised. These, and the natural appeal of the subject for most pupils, help to overcome the difficulties. Nevertheless for all members of staff and for the providers of initial and in-service education and the training of teachers the problem is one that requires more careful thought and planning.

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11 Religious education

Religious education has traditionally been regarded as an appropriate subject for mixed ability teaching on social (even religious) grounds, and also convenient for the timetabler because it is thought to provide one of the occasions when a form otherwise setted for much of the time can be taught as a unit.

There is some sense in this traditional view, in that ability in religious education may relate as much to personality factors and the pupil's experience of life as to his intelligence quotient. The intellectually less able pupil may be more aware of the issues in human life with which religion deals than his abler peers. This is sometimes evident in those mixed ability non-examination courses in the fourth and fifth years where religious education figures with other subjects in a course concerned with social and personal issues. Here it may be the less able pupil who makes not only the most pungent but the most perceptive contribution to discussion.

However, where the emphasis is upon the cognitive and body-of-knowledge aspects of religious education, as is often the case in the early years of secondary education, the stage where mixed ability organisation has increasingly appeared, then the less able pupil may have the same difficulties in assessing the significance of facts or in using reference material as he would display in history or geography. There are at least three problems encountered in mixed ability work using a worksheet method in Years 1 and 2 which, while not peculiar to religious education, press hard upon the subject:

a The use of worksheets may much reduce the amount of class discussion and of individual pupil-teacher contact, both of which are important if pupils are to be helped to clarify their questions about, and their grasp of, this complex area of human experience.

b The work is often done without the resources necessary to support it. This frequently happens where the religious education department is peripatetic and the teacher reduced to such resources as he can carry. The able pupil is then not able to follow up points which interest him, but confined to the worksheet of the all-purpose textbook which the teacher has carried to the lesson. Fortunately, many religious education departments have at least one room as a base for their work with some reference material at hand for the more able or highly motivated pupil. Even if this is not possible, suggestions about suitable sources of information for those who wish to go further can still be given in the worksheet, and on occasion this could well include reference to works which offer contrasting views on the topic being studied.

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c The less able pupil is repeatedly condemned to struggle among the foothills of graduated worksheets without ever reaching those sections where he might have opportunity to form a judgement or express an opinion. It is important that worksheets should be sufficiently differentiated to allow pupils of varying ability to make judgements based upon evidence and not simply to summarise information provided by the teacher or drawn from a textbook.
The difficulties which mixed ability organisation poses for religious education are compounded when it is allied with some form of inter-disciplinary studies. Here again the problems (of category confusion, of finding topics broad enough to encompass the interests of all abilities and all the contributing disciplines) are not confined to religious education, but there is ample evidence that this subject is particularly prone to distortion, dissolution or even complete disappearance when merged in an interdisciplinary scheme. There are schools where religious education exists as a separate subject only in the third year and such situations make it hard for pupils to gain that understanding of the distinct perspectives of the subject which is necessary if interdisciplinary work is to be fruitful. This might suggest that interdisciplinary work is best deferred until pupils have been introduced to some of the concepts, content and vocabulary central to the study of religion, in that some time is allowed in each year when the constituent subjects of an interdisciplinary study receive separate treatment.

In many cases young, inexperienced and sometimes non-specialist teachers assist in religious education departments and often face more classes in a week than their colleagues in other subjects. To the strain of this rapid procession of classes may be added that of handling mixed ability groups, and if teachers lack specialist knowledge in religious education they may be introducing broad but inappropriate topics without thinking ahead to later stages in the pupil's understanding of religion. Teachers with other specialisms can make a very valuable contribution to the work in religious education. However, this is more likely to produce a coherent programme for the pupils if the RE department takes care to provide a clear and detailed scheme which enables all those assisting its work to see the relevance of particular sections to the plan and objectives of the course as a whole. The scheme also needs to suggest possible methods of approach and to give details of the books and other resources available in the school to support particular units of work.

Mixed ability organisation is not intrinsically unsuitable for religious education and there are areas of the subject, such as those related to the experiential and ethical aspects of religion, where it can enrich class work and discussion. However, especially when allied with interdisciplinary studies, it demands specialist knowledge on the part of those constructing the scheme of work, diverse teaching strategies to match the range of abilities, adequate time

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for the subject to establish its contribution, and adequate resources for the full range of abilities in the class. Without these elements - and many religious education departments lack at least two of them - mixed ability organisation makes harder the already difficult path of the small religious education department and more fragmented and unsatisfying the pupil's contact with this part of the curriculum.

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12 The teaching of science to mixed ability groups

Curriculum and organisation

Whatever the kind of grouping, many schools are now providing a science course common to all pupils in Year 1 and Year 2 and this was true of all the schools visited which had mixed ability groups for science. Despite the expressed intention of many teachers to provide for all abilities, in the majority of schools visited there was need for more variation in the depth of treatment to take account of the different stages of development of the pupils. Thus an able pupil at a young age may readily understand the formation of copper (II) oxide from copper and of copper from copper (II) oxide and appreciate that these are particular examples of oxidation and reduction, but thought about the purpose of such work with less able pupils is needed since they may get out of it little more than the fact that changes in appearance occur.

a The variation in attainment between the most and least able becomes increasingly obvious as the pupils get older and in an attempt to overcome this difficulty many schools provide additional work for the most able. The nature of the additional work which was seen gave cause for concern since much of it was little more than unnecessary reinforcement of work already understood, or repetitions on the same theme. For example, young pupils in one class were asked to consider pictures of different animals and then to relate speed, agility and strength to skeletal structure. The most able very quickly understood the points being made but to fill in time they were asked to copy pictures of antelopes and elephants while the others finished off their notes. At the other end of the scale, few of the departments visited sought skilled help for pupils with learning difficulties.

b In science, particularly physical science, more than in many other subjects the early introduction of concepts which may be difficult is required if able pupils are to make the progress of which they are capable. For instance the concept of acceleration as a measured quantity is difficult and many 13 to 14 year old pupils cannot fully understand it; yet it is fundamental to physics. If such concepts are introduced into the third year (and to postpone them to Years 4 and 5 can overload O-level courses in these years) it is even more important for pupils to work at different rates and depths. A few of the schools visited were successful in providing suitable work for the full range of pupils in mixed ability classes but others were not. The majority taught science to streamed or setted groups in the third year.

c The schools visited usually recognised the need to differentiate between the examination or non-examination targets of different pupils in Year 4 and Year 5 although GCE O-level and CSE candidates were frequently taught together until decisions about

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their examinations were made in Year 5. In these years the teacher usually knew the pupils well and teaching group sizes were somewhat smaller. Consequently it was easier to provide work at different rates and depths. All the teachers, however, usually found considerable difficulty if less able pupils aiming at no examination were included in the same teaching group as those seeking examination qualifications. Even if individual learning methods were used, it was not easy to cope simultaneously with the pupil who enquired about diffraction gratings and the pupil who wanted help with his project on cars.
Facilities and resources

Whatever the form of organisation, effective science teaching demands well equipped laboratories and a good range of suitable reference books and audio-visual aids. For mixed ability teaching it is even more important to have plenty of resources because of the need in a given lesson to provide materials suitable for more than one level of ability and because of the greater variety and amount of experience needed by some pupils. Similarly, adequate laboratory assistance is even more necessary. Many of the schools visited had insufficient resources to aid the science teacher with mixed ability classes.

In the majority of schools visited science staffs had come to rely on work-sheets as the means of organising their teaching of mixed ability classes. HM Inspectors noted that these could be a useful aid to organisation, allowing, as they did, most pupils to start and continue working while the teacher was attending to an individual or a small group. They also made it possible for pupils of widely differing ability and experience to proceed at different rates and levels of understanding. It was, however, felt that even the best worksheets had certain disadvantages. Some pupils were either unable to read at all or only with great difficulty; some who could read found it difficult or impossible to follow and implement the instructions given on the worksheets. In almost every case the sheets prevented pupils from isolating and defining their own problems, and usually they did not allow a pupil to design and carry out his own experiments, At worst, they restricted a pupil to prescribed tasks and conditioned his thinking along fixed channels. Some demanded one-word answers and inhibited opportunities for writing extended prose. Thus instructions such as "Connect A to B, observe what happens and complete the sentence 'When A is connected to B the lamp ...'" encouraged neither thought nor literacy.

It seemed that the most successful use of worksheets was when they were supported by reference and general reading books as well as by a variety of audio-visual resources. For example one series of worksheets took the pupils through a series of experiments on different forms of energy. After each experiment a carefully graded set of questions tested the levels of understanding of the various abilities. All but the least able were required to write their own accounts of what they had done. At appropriate points they were referred to film strips, film loop and books. At the end all who were

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capable of it were asked to devise experiments to get from North Sea gas as many different forms of energy as possible and also to write essays about the world's energy resources.

The chief resource remains the teacher, who still needs to use his knowledge and professional skill and who cannot be replaced by worksheets or any other aids.

Teaching and methods

Whole-class teaching

a By far the commonest method observed during visits was whole-class teaching. All the pupils irrespective of ability were kept together studying the same topic at the same time and progressing at the same rate. This had the advantage of being relatively easy to organise and of being the only method with which many teachers were familiar and confident. There were obvious difficulties in pitching the lessons and practical work at levels to suit all abilities.

In one lesson class practical work involved introduction to the electrolysis of copper (II) sulphate. Pupils used worksheets which had been well prepared and which asked for additional work and thought from the faster workers by presenting appropriate questions. Nevertheless the pace of this lesson, like so many others seen, was slow and the worksheets were hardly necessary since the teacher, in answering many questions, went through the whole procedure on the blackboard. Class discussion was good, however, and average as well as able pupils gained some understanding of the phenomena observed but the less able understood very little, the use of terms such as electrolyte, anode and cathode being a particular stumbling block.

b It is clear that there are serious disadvantages in using whole-class teaching methods exclusively. Nevertheless, with younger children in secondary schools, good teachers who are sensitive to individual needs have been seen to employ these methods successfully provided that the classes were not too large (but see General comment b below).

Individual learning

This method, used in a small number of science departments, attempted to provide for each pupil to work at whatever level and pace were suitable. Individual assignments of work, using worksheets, were provided and self-testing systems could be included. It provided for pupils at different stages of development, and therefore it was a way of teaching mixed ability groups. Thus one pupil might be considering the difference between meiosis and mitosis while another was examining the parts of a buttercup flower. There were difficulties, however. Great demands were made on the teachers, who were faced with complex organisational problems, especially in practical work. Most serious of all, however, was that the pupils lacked the stimulus which comes from working in a group. A pupil's response might be to the worksheet and not to other pupils or the teacher.

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Small group working

Perhaps the most promising method was that which provided for small group working. This could allow for pupils being at different stages of development and for the good intellectual and social effects of group interaction; foremost amongst these was the increased opportunity for language development.

Team teaching

Cooperative teaching was seen to be effective when circumstances allowed it. Two or more teachers shared the work of circulating round a laboratory or interconnecting laboratories during practical sessions, so supporting and complementing one another. Sometimes one teacher with special expertise introduced a topic by giving a lead lesson to one or more classes of pupils before they dispersed into smaller groups under different tutors.

General comments

a There is much to be said for a science teacher developing a repertoire of teaching methods and at any one time using whichever method seems to be most suitable for the pupils, individually and collectively, and for the topic being taught.

b Science teachers rarely have skills in handling pupils in need of special help with reading and writing. Ways of helping the teachers to achieve these need to be explored. The presence of a specialist remedial teacher in the laboratory with a mixed ability group can be very effective, but this procedure has been observed in only a few schools.


Whatever the form of class organisation, good assessment and recording procedures are required. Mixed ability grouping has stimulated many science departments to give serious and praiseworthy consideration to this aspect of their work, but many of those visited have yet to do so. It seemed to be particularly unfortunate when different teachers in a department operated their own methods of assessment with no attempts to achieve coordination or comparability; this suggested the need for departmental planning and policy meetings.

In many cases there was need for the science department to make more deliberate attempts to evaluate the success or otherwise of the course provided and of the teaching methods adopted.


Very few teachers, whether experienced or inexperienced, have had any guidance on mixed ability teaching during their initial training. Many are getting information and help from each other, from books, from articles in professional science journals and from in-service training. An impressive by-product of the growth of mixed ability science teaching is the way in which many teachers, fully convinced of the benefits to be gained from this form of organisation, have come together to work out ways of overcoming difficulties.

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During the course of visits mixed ability science teaching has been seen to entail much work (often more than with other methods of organisation) in the preparation of individual lessons and the collection of materials. There can be nothing but praise for the way in which many science teachers have willingly accepted this load. The load is sometimes, however, so great as to cause undue strain, and lack of time for marking books can jeopardise standards. When financial resources permit, relief could be provided by increasing the amount of laboratory and clerical assistance.

The effects of mixed ability science teaching

Pupils' attitudes to each other, to the teacher and to science may be improved, although this is not always the case.

Gains and losses in pupils' progress are less clear. The standards of work as seen by HM Inspectors are usually acceptable for the average and less able pupils. Many teachers consider that the standards achieved by these pupils are better than they were under a setted or banded organisation. In numerous cases, however, HM Inspectors' impression is that in the early years able pupils are underachieving (for example in quality and range of writing as well as in their grasp of concepts) but with a spurt in Year 4 and Year 5 many gain creditable grades in science at O-Ievel.

In previous sections mention has been made of some possible disadvantages of mixed ability grouping, although some of these apply also to other methods of organisation. Homework presents a problem because of the need to differentiate between abilities; it has been abandoned in some schools. With some notable exceptions, reference books and textbooks are less frequently used in a number of schools than they were before.

With good teaching, backed by good resources and with classes which are not too large, the disadvantages of mixed ability grouping are nearly all avoidable. Examples have been seen of science departments which are doing much to overcome difficulties. Mixed ability science teaching is still in its infancy and it seems likely that the work will become more effective as more experience is gained.

Considerations when mixed ability science teaching is adopted

While effective teaching of a modern science course is difficult with large classes under any organisation, with mixed ability groups the difficulty is even more pronounced.

With present levels of expertise there may be a serious decline in standards and progress if mixed ability science teaching extends beyond the second year.

Good, well equipped laboratories with a full range of resources, including ancillary staff, are even more necessary than with groups organised by ability.

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The additional demands made on professional skill often add to the stress undergone by both experienced and new teachers, but frequent consultations, often found in those departments practising mixed ability grouping, may ease and benefit teacher induction.

Collaboration between science teachers and remedial departments in helping the least able should be encouraged and developed.

Ways of helping the able pupil need development.

There is need to find ways of avoiding sudden changes in the pace of work and of demands made on pupils as they transfer from mixed ability groups to examination sets for GCE O-Ievel and CSE.

Teachers should note the advantages to be gained from developing a repertoire of teaching methods.

Science departments could, with advantage, look for ways of measuring the success of their courses, organisation, and teaching methods which are intelligible to parents and others outside the schools as well as to pupils and staff.

There is need for more initial and in-service training. The relative contribution of outside and school-based in-service training should be considered. There are two aspects, one concerned with the theory of learning, including concept formation and language development, and one with the ways of putting this into practice.