Banned from Baguettes, Damaging mindsets, and more. In this episode, Robin and Adam are joined once again by special guest Roger Hitchin to discuss streaming and ability groups. What are the positives and negatives of ability groups? Can they affect a pupil’s expectations? Plus, Adam touches on the issue with giving a child previous year-level content to work from.
The school of school podcast is presented by:
Subscribe to get the latest The School of School podcasts delivered to your inbox.
Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is The School of School podcast.
Welcome to The School of School podcast.
Are you a math teacher looking for a primary school assessment tool that can give you a detailed look into learner or class achievement? With Insights, it's all in one place. Make sense of assessment data so you can strategically plan and teach lessons. Insights, it's assessment for advancement. Visit mathsnoproblem.com for more information.
Good to have you back to another episode of The School of School podcast. I'm here with Robin and myself. Unfortunately, Andy's not with us today, but very, very better than worthy replacement is our wonderful guest today, Roger Hitchin from Wellington Prep School. Roger, what a pleasure it is to have you here. Our listeners may have heard you before, may have met you before, but for those who haven't, can you just tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure. Hi Adam. Thanks for the intro. Pleasure to be here. Yeah. My name's Roger Hitchen. I work in Wellington Prep School in Somerset, and we're early adopters of Maths — No Problem! We've been with Maths — No Problem! problems since 2015. We've had a good journey with it, which is still very much carrying on transformed our maths. We're looking forward to talking through some of the things that have been thrown up on the way.
But I'm going to lob one in this is like going to be like asking a teacher to throw a grenade into the mix because I think that there are very strong opinions in this topic. So when I ask where, not necessarily, well no, I may as well. Yeah. Where do we sit on streaming or ability groups? So streaming in schools, people that may not know what they mean, like putting children in stream. So they're, I don't know, based on attainment I hope. But we'll see where the discussion leads. But where are you at? What are your thoughts? Where does it ... Yeah, I'll shut up and I'll let you talk. That's what I'll do.
I've thought both. We changed, we've completely changed on it. I mean if I go back 10 years into our school, we streamed, we set from I think year four, if memory says very correctly, year four, year five and year six we were set. We had a higher set. We try not to use the word lower, but it was I suppose, essentially. Yeah we had higher and lower set. That's something that we did. And I guess when I look back now, we didn't think anything of that. That's what we did and our mass results were fine and on we went, really, with it. I think we told ourselves that the mass sets were fluid so pupils could move up a set and they could move down the set. In reality, when I look back, that wasn't easy. It was easy to move children up, but it wasn't so easy to move them down for obvious reasons.
And that would also be a tricky conversation with a parent as well. Because you're moving them down. Why haven't you told us before what is there that we need to do? And of course you could then end up with quite an inflated set where you end up with maybe a large, we certainly had this a couple of times, at a very large math set, a top set that it was felt that they were fine because they would grasp the concepts and they would run with them. And yet the lower set had the support and the help. But they had also the less numbers because they needed the support. So actually it was quite unbalanced in a way. But we drove, we kind of navigated our way through that and obviously in 2015 for us that changed. We came over to massive problem. We looked at it and said, you know what?
This is the way to go. We need to do it properly. And that means the sets go, which is easy to say, but not necessarily easy to do in practise because parents, pupils expect to be in a certain place and teachers have taught that way for a certain amount of time and our results are fine. So why change? But of course all these years later to cut the history lesson out, the school is very much on board. First immediate thing I noticed was those children that have been in the lower set previously instantly felt better. They weren't living down to expectation anymore.
I just wanted to ask you, you mentioned once you brought in maths, no problem. That changed that suddenly the ability groupings vanished. Maybe not suddenly, but over time as you implemented, maths no problem. But are schools still doing this?
I think they are, but I always think the question is, we're saying about but when or what age is it necessary, is it needed, is it appropriate? Ultimately the roads lead to your GCSE at the age of 16. So I kind of understand there is an end goal there in it, but I think it's still a subject that divides opinion a little bit about when it should happen, even if it should happen.
Like I say, when we did away the ability groupings, the pushback I suppose we got a little bit was from the children and the parents so to speak, from what happened. The higher set, where's stretch, they were doing quite advanced work and now they're not going to be do that. And yet they already know that. And of course maybe that's a different argument, isn't it, about extending how you extend pupils. So it was about reeducating, we made that step, but it's not an easy one to make in schools. And I think you're up ... I think schools do still set because it is something that is, they would say is useful or it works for them, it works for their pupils, it works for their parents. So I think, yeah, it's not a hard or fast rule on it, not a hard, fast approach on it. Yeah, it still happens. But appropriateness and when I'm not so sure.
It's an interesting one, isn't it? Because I think I listen to parts of this and think, okay, some things that you said make complete sense to me, Roger. Right? So say you've got a group of children, at least just say for arguments that you got 60 children. And let's just say also for argument's sake that within a school you've got the people who can then say, all right, well these 30 children are doing okay. And so one teacher can have them.
Then we've got another two teachers and then we can have lower ratio groups of 15 and 15. There's part of that. To me that kind of goes, well that kind of makes sense. You've got a group of children here, they're starting to get a bit behind. They've got the teacher there and they can do it. And perhaps that low ratio, if schools have got the capacity to do something like that, then you kind of think, well maybe there's an argument for it. Maybe that's what's needed. Is there some sort of extra input that's needed for whatever reason? And we know that children come to all different places in all different times. I think for me at the heart of it is it all comes back to expectation. So first of all, there's the expectation of the children. So if I know that I'm in the lowest group-
Yeah, there you will stay.
Yeah, I know that. That's it. So what's that? What that's telling me is especially if I've been in the lowest group for six years, I'm always in that same group. So you don't need to tell me, I get it, I know I'm here. Don't you worry about that. Yeah, I don't know what to do, but it's okay. Blah, blah, blah.
And it's irritating. That's just becoming a bit of a badge of honour that's you.
Well I think the thing is that if you get told something often, I know that I wish I could find that. On another episode I'll find the research and cite it. That was talking about meeting expectations and if you set an expectation, children will meet it. But they very on the whole, they very rarely surpass it. So if you set an expectation that's a low one, they'll meet it. They'll meet it. But the idea of them then surpassing it. No, not statistically, not that often. Some children will of course. And there might be other reasons for that. But I kind of think, right? So if you get told you are no good at maths and it's reinforced every day because I know it's all right, I'm in the same group with Dave and Sue and Tim and Tony and it's always us. So we are cool with it.
We get it. What message is that sending them? And I think that's the worrying part for me is it comes back to expectation. Because I think when we look in high schools now, again, it's a different dynamic because you've got hundreds of children all in the same year group. So it would kind of make sense that if it was a really big split, if it was just completely random, the difference between some children may make it untenable to teach to one group. I know people in selective education, secondary education and they've changed to say, right, well because we've already got a process where our thresholds had to be met before we get into school. The setting once in there is ridiculous because we've already proven that we are not as big of a group as some schools.
So I just think for me, I think it's about the expectation. And I think that unfortunately when you asked about does it still happen Robin, I think it either happens overtly and we say yes, we see and that's what we do and it works for our school. Which again, you could question does it work for that child there? If you ask them how it feels to be, and that child might say, it's brilliant. I've never learned so much. This is fantastic. So I'm not trying to just present it in one way because there's arguments for both sides of it. But I-
But would they know any different?
Yeah, well I would argue that if it's done badly, yes because they'd see their mates doing stuff and often that lowest group gets taken out as if you can't even listen to this, you're not even good enough. To listen what your mates in class are up to. That must be tough, I would suggest. But I think that where it's not overt, it is those types of things where it's small groups that don't get to access the same. And where I see that being done badly is because the expectations of the adults that work with them is patently different to the expectation to their children in school. And it's almost like, should we make it comfortable for these children?
It's almost a spoon feed, isn't it, for them?
Yeah. And I just kind of think, I get asked this question a lot when I go out to train. It's kind of like, look, we've got some big gaps with this child. They're, and this is just a term, it's not a term, I'm not going to go into any great detail, but I often get told a child is operating two years below their age group. So they're in year four, they're operating at year two. So I get asked, well should we use a year two book with that child? And I say, okay, will you tell me the trajectory of that? You tell me how that works. So year two, and I'll have teacher that is right for them. That is where they're at. And this is great. So we can do all of their year four using a year two, but SuperDuper great. And what happens in the following year? Well that's okay cause we use the year three book in year five and then we use the year four book in year six.
And then what?
Yeah. And what happens then? Yeah, I know you stop teaching them. Yes. But that child still has to go to year seven and is the expectation that they're a year seven child when they go to secondary school? Or do we have to inform the year seven teacher that actually know you're going to have to use a year five primary school book for your syllabus? You're going to have to do that? Or is it just easy because we don't see it past year six if we work in primary school?
So it doesn't matter because they've been comfortable the whole way through. Now yes, there's a degree of cynicism what I'm saying. Cause I know that there are children that struggle. But I just think when you look at some, I'll go to the Singaporean model, classes of 40 children, one teacher, yet the vast majority of children and not just standard mathematicians. They're incredibly good by most measures. And I think that the thing that I find most often when it comes to setting by ability or attainment is that that becomes the expectation. And that's it then, that's it. You are never going to be, you're just going to be there.
And that can have a knock on, can't it?
Of course it can. Yeah, absolutely. It's like your self worth, I mean if all of us, the three of us went to a language lesson or something, I don't know, you guys might speak languages. Let's just say for argument's sake we don't, we all went to the language lesson and I'm bonjouring away and you're all bonjouring away and we're all bonjouring together. But I'm a bit, I'm taking a bit longer to learn. They go, Oh Robin, you come with me Adam, you are going to keep bonjouring for a bit and we are going to do these things. And I sort of look through the window and there you are and you've got French brie, you got baguettes, you've got all these things. It's all looking fantastic. And I'm like, oh, can I be with them? No, no. After me Adam, bonjour, bonjour, no, not quite. But you're trying really hard. Keep going. Bonjour, will I get a baguette? Do I- No, no, no. Not until we get through the bonjour bit. It's like, oh man, come on. And if I do that day after day, year after year ...
What does that do?
Does that fill me with the love and joy of the French language? No.
No it doesn't.
No. But a baguette would.
Anymore. Yeah, exactly. Give a baguette man. Don't deny me there.
I mean what I like about the maths is that I've always felt that first half an hour or so is powerful. That Vigotsky's idea of the talk and the chat where we started 2015 and I was not selling it to my class, they were a year four class. But I was kind of like saying to them, look, I'm only not even a page header, you here guys, I'm half a page. They nicknamed it chatty maths and they loved that.
The pupils that you've taught talked about there, Adam, they tend to be the quieter ones that I kind of have to sit there and get through the lesson while it is kind of done to them. And suddenly they could talk and they could interact. And not only that, they could actually offer an idea or two. And it was those kind of things that were for the first time, like you say, because they'd been doing their bonjouring that it was almost like Saul on the road to Damascus, the drapes from the eyes were uncovered really and in their worlds. And those first children are obviously a lot older now. But regardless of ability, I still feel and think they need to be exposed to those chat and those ideas because if you're in your lower set, you are not going to hear them.
Yeah. Completely agree.
There's nothing to grapple and grasp with because they're all going to kind of look at each other and they miss out on that rich language that comes from these lessons.
And I think that picking up on the maths one, because this is the thing that I always struggle with too. So for those of you that maybe different people listen to different school systems, but in the UK phonics, we teach phonics and we talk about phases of phonics. So the lower phase things will be like cat box, those sorts of things. And children work their way through. And I sort of think to myself, so if a child's at phase two phonics as a teacher, does that mean that I should only ever use phase two words or am I still allowed to words? They are still allowed to listen to other words that are wonderful and that they can understand. Do we have to limit that? Because it's kind of quite easy to do that in mathematics that you can just, as you said, take that group out, not have that rich language associated with it and just say, No, this is all you're allowed access to.
And I think that we have to assume that if we're exposed to certain things and certain language, of course we pick up on it. And if we are denied that, how's that going to happen? And so I just think with things like with English for example, because we are teaching in it all the time, we're often immersed in it. We get a chance to listen and to take part in those things. But with some subjects that really key and crucial learning and the kind of chance learning as well and the anecdotal learning that might take place from a conversation that you didn't expect to happen. If we deny that, then we are denying opportunities to learn. And that's not to say that these children don't need extra help, that's not where I'm coming from. We should set the alarm bells off. If someone comes to me and says to me, What should we do with a child that's in year four and they're operating year two, I always tell them, pull the fire alarms.
Get in your heads office and say we've got a serious issue here because this child's at risk, real risk of just a billion among different things. So we got to send in the army, we got to go all for it. Not just the comfy bits. But yeah, I find it a really, really interesting debate because I think you can really get passionate on both sides. But for me the key aspect is as long as the expectations are the same for all children that we think that they can all do it and they can all get there. Some might just take a little longer than others, then I think we're okay with the sort of changing dynamics and fluidity with groups and structures of those things.
Yeah, I agree.
That, to me, is the single most important bit.
Makes sense. Yeah.
You then fast forward those children that have had that maths experience in that lower set all the way through and that kind of limit of expectation, they're going to be the ones in the future that will say to their own children maybe in the future, I didn't like maths at school, I was no good at maths at school. And that is still something that you hear today from some parents. You never hear them say, I can't read at school, I didn't like books or I can't really be over with computers. But he's still in some ways acceptable for people to make a joke about, well I wasn't any good at math. So it's hardly surprising that, I don't know, Claire or David, we struggled with it and so they do as well. So yeah, it's still a subject that's open to that ridicule a little bit. It's okay to say that. Which of course it shouldn't be, really.
I think this is one we could have a whole other discussion on because we haven't talked about the kids that, as you mentioned, Roger, were put in the higher group that maybe had to then be moved down in reality but never were moved down because that's a whole other psychological mess. So yeah, we might have to come back to this one in the meantime. Adam je voudrais une baguette.
S'il vous plaît.
Oui. Robin, thank you. I'm not sure what you said, but I'm going to, you've got my enthusiasm back.
I would like a baguette, please. Of course. Then you can get into the next group.
Yeah, we've better stick to maths, haven't we?
You've ignited the passion Robin, thank you.
Sounds good. Okay. Bye everybody.
Thank you for joining on the School of School podcast.