Why my heart sinks over the trend for mixed ability maths

I’ve just read an outstanding book.  Mark McCourt’s Teaching for Mastery is an excellent resource for maths education specialists.

What’s so compelling about it is how clearly Mark understands the art of maths education.  One part in particular struck a chord with me.  He states that in order to convert to mixed ability classes from a setted structure, a school needs five or six years of commitment, forethought and funding to sufficiently develop their teacher’s mathematical pedagogy.

In fact, he suggests that headteachers who convert with “just a few day’s professional development” have no right to be leading a school.

I couldn’t agree more.  This trend of moving to mixed ability classes for mathematics makes me sad – and seeing the impact it is having on the students (and teachers) brings a lump to my throat.  The fact is, there’s a massive loss in motivation for students who find themselves being taught material which is non-goldilocks in difficulty and/or pace, yet it’s virtually impossible to hit the right learning benchmark with every student in a class with a range of abilities.  As a result, teaching staff feel demoralised and the educational environment doesn’t thrive.

So in my opinion, I’d take it a step further.  I believe Mark’s 5 or 6 year timeframe is an underestimation in the current English system where school and teachers are expected to fight for themselves in writing or sourcing teaching content.  Apart from the complex specific training required for mixed ability teaching, staff need to be experts in mathematics and mathematical pedagogy.  This is something which takes most people 3-6 years of full time intensive study.  For teachers who are not already specifically maths trained – and Mark reckons less than a quarter of UK teachers have a post-school maths qualification – this could take 15-30 years of part time study.

There is one point in which I disagree with Mark, however.  That’s on the complexity he highlights in moving the other way around – from mixed ability to sets.  I believe that, in fact, teachers who are expert at teaching mixed ability could create learning at least as good, if not better, with a setted class.  And they could do this from day 1 with no training.  That’s because, in my experience, any setted class is still mixed in ability – the range could be less but it can still be wide and represent the single biggest factor hampering learning.  Therefore, a teacher with any experience in mixed ability teaching would be best placed to overcome this first order problem.

So thank you Mark, for highlighting this important point.  I just hope all the heads considering mixed ability teaching for maths read and heed his advice.  There are exceptions – I wouldn’t advise changing a school with successful mixed ability classes and I appreciate that smaller schools are often forced down this route.  But I would urge any other school who has made this change without adequate preparation to immediately change back to a setted structure, before too many pupils – and teachers – are damaged.