How we have punished our low ability children

School days are the best days of your life
School days are the best days of your life. If you’re not less able.

So you have a primary classroom.

You set it up: 15 tables, 30 seats.

You organise it into table groups of 6. Or maybe even 4 if you’re really radical.

Then you think about behaviour management. You need to show the children who’s in control. That child can’t go next to that child. No. Those three won’t work together. Yes. Maybe she’ll help him to focus. Oh – he’ll have to go in the middle so any inspector won’t get to him.

What about ability? Now these 6 are the top group. Yes I know that one isn’t quite up there, but maybe she’ll be dragged along by the coattails of the others. There are the middle tables. And there’s the SEN group. Yup, she’s low ability too, she can sit with the SEN. Yes I know he’s ASD, but he’ll be best with the SEN group to get the extra support. Those ones are low too, there’s not quite 6 of them though. I know. I’ll put that middle ability child there. What’s her name? I always forget her.

The problem with levels and the best-fit approach that I wrote about yesterday, was that you could have children with radically different abilities working on the same learning. For example, say I have some level 2 children in my Year 4 class. I could put them all on the same table and teach them some level 3 objectives to move them on. But some of them would already know some of that level 3 stuff. And some others would have gaps in their level 2 knowledge meaning that actually they need to learn the level 2 stuff first.

And what’s even worse is that by setting up an ability group based inaccurately on prior learning, you limit those pupils to only make small steps from their supposed starting points, rather than having an ambitious end point for what the pupils could achieve.

And I’m not just speaking theoretically here. Teaching in year 4 this year, I have picked up a class where there was a fixed ‘bottom group’ and ‘next-to-bottom group’. Instead of fixing the groups at the start of the year, me and the teacher I job-share with (I’m a deputy head, so not in class full time) have changed the groups (often on a daily basis) based on their learning the day before, not on some broad brush-stroke academic level. This has meant that we can follow up concepts that have not been learned the next day and keep pushing the children on. The consequence of this is that 3 children who had been labelled as ‘SEN’ are no longer – they have moved rapidly towards the expected standard for Year 4. Don’t get me wrong, there are still genuine SEN children within the class who really struggle to make progress for a whole range of reasons. But it is not right for us to lump a load of children together just because it makes our classroom management more straightforward.

Right now, as we hurtle to what looks like a fiasco-of-an-end-of-year assessment across the country, I think we are right on the knife edge between a fantastic, aspirational curriculum and a progress-measures-led doom as school leaders rapidly reinvent levels so that they can justify their own organisations. If the latter happens, pity the supposedly less-able children who simply had the misfortune of being put in the wrong group when they were 5.

Image courtesy of:

The problem with a best-fit approach

Here’s a handy graph, just ready for a best fit line to be drawn through it

It is not often that I read a 50-page government-commissioned document and get wildly excited. But that is what happened when I read the “Final Report on the Commission on Assessment without levels” (September 2015).

I found pages 12-18 particularly inspiring as the commission explains the rationale behind why levels are bad and ‘not-levels’ are good.

This statement was pertinent:

Levels also used a ‘best fit’ model, which meant that a pupil could have serious gaps in their knowledge and understanding, but still be placed within the level.

And this one:

Levels were used to measure both end of phase achievement and lesson-by-lesson formative progress, but they had not been designed to fulfil the latter purpose, with the result that formative assessment was often distorted.

Just as in yesterday’s post, when I tried to explain a character flaw that had held back my practice, here was a practical example of something I was doing day-to-day which was not actually any good.

As a key stage 2 teacher I had experienced this over many years. Children came up to my phase ostensibly as ‘a level 2 child’, but the best fit approach meant that while they could add a pair of 2-digit numbers with the support of a 1-100 number square, they had no idea of any other strategies for doing the same thing, nor really any sense of the the size of the numbers they were dealing with, nor the purpose of the equals sign.

And likewise I must have been doing the same to my secondary colleagues for years: children from key stage 2 going up to key stage 3 being able to scrape enough marks to get a level 4 in a SATs test, but not with the necessary number or problem solving skills to really go any further. In fact at my school, analysis of SATS shows me that number skills have always been high, but problem solving really low – the children have been able to scrape through with good routine number skills, but lack the fluency to really excel in maths.

What is even more insidious about the ‘best-fit’ approach is what it does to ability groups within a class, particularly low ability children. But that’s tomorrow’s topic.

Image courtesry of:


Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

  • Social Slider