School that abandoned setting brings out best in worst pupils

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The Independent Online

Headteacher Greg Marsden is doing exactly the opposite of what the Government wants, but is getting results. The head of the 500-pupil Lisle Marsden Church of England School in Grimsby has ditched setting (teaching pupils in different groups according to their ability in individual subjects) and puts star performers in the same class as the least able.

The move follows a report by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, which claimed the school's setting arrangements were failing to stretch its brightest pupils. Mr Marsden, who took over after the inspection report, has overseen a return to more mixed-ability classes. He calls it "academic modelling" under which the brightest pupils learn beside slower youngsters and act as role models. The result has been an improvement in standards.

His success will fan the flames of the debate over whether it is better to teach children in different ability groups or to mix them.

Ever since the 1997 election, Tony Blair, has been trying to persuade schools to abandon mixed-ability classes. He says they encourage mediocrity, with lessons pitched at the middle-ability pupil thus boring brighter pupils and leaving the less able to struggle.

But his critics say that putting all the low-ability pupils in one class sends a message to them that they have been written off by the education system. What has not been shown before, is that the brightest pupils can be stretched in mixed-ability classes.

"There is nothing particularly revolutionary about what we are doing here," Mr Marsden said. "The Ofsted report said the upper-ability pupils were not being challenged enough, so we went back on setting in favour of a mixed diet and standards have improved.

"We have to do some fine tuning, arranging where pupils sit. We have found that if you are a lower performer and you sit with somebody who is attaining at a higher level than you then this can raise your aspiration. You can see what can be achieved. Likewise, children sometimes require a bit of confirmation that they're doing well. Once they see, through working next to someone who is finding it more difficult, they twig they are doing well and try to do even better."

Mr Marsden accepts that it is more difficult for a teacher to prepare for a mixed-ability class. "[But] we are not asking teachers to do anything that a teacher in a small rural school doesn't do every day."

And he believes the Government has helped him to implement his changes. The new teachers' contract giving them 10 per cent of time off from the classroom for marking has made it easier for them to prepare for a mixed-ability class.

He believes the Government's pro-setting approach is too crude, adding: "Rigid setting has caused more problems than it has solved. Having moved to a more mixed diet we can see that."

He admits he had difficulty persuading some parents to back the changes but adds "the proof of the pudding is in the eating".

A report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to be released this year is understood to conclude that setting does not lead to raised standards.

Lisle Marsden school does not rely on its "academic modelling" approach alone to raise standards. It has also introduced term targets for all pupils to show them what they should be achieving and how they are matching to expectations, which would win the approval of ministers.

Mr Blair's controversial Schools Bill gets its second reading next week.