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Ability Based Groups: A Radical Experiment

John Simkin

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Article in today's Guardian:


Adam Francis sits attentively at the front of the class. Surrounded by pupils two years older than him, the 13-year-old happily discusses the Macbeth video the class has just watched, seemingly unaware he is part of one of the most radical experiments in England's education system.

Bridgemary Community School in Gosport, Hampshire, has abandoned age-based classes, instead grouping its 1,000-plus pupils according to their ability. The secondary school's radical shakeup has brought grumblings from within the education establishment. Teachers' leaders have questioned its effectiveness and some parents have raised fears of a bullying epidemic as younger pupils are taught alongside teenagers three or four years their senior.

But with the new system almost at the end of its first term, the Guardian has been given a first view inside the school to see how the ability-based classes are working.

As the English group settles down after morning break the head of department, Claire Crane, believes the report card reads: "So far so good."

"It's been like a breath of fresh air," she says. "All the pupils are at about the same level and the younger ones bring a lot of enthusiasm and energy into the classes and that really rubs off on the whole group. It's an energising process for everybody, teachers included."

At the moment pupils up to two years apart are taught in the same class, but in the next few years the school expects to increase the age range, with 11-year-olds working alongside 14-, 15- or even 16-year-olds.

"The main thing is to do the right thing for these students," said headteacher Cheryl Heron, keeping half an eye on events unfolding in the playground through her office window. "That means if they are good enough they are old enough." She adds that no child is held back under the new system.

Five years ago Bridgemary College was deemed by government inspectors to have serious weaknesses, and although it has since made steady progress, with the number of students getting A*-C at GCSE rising from 19% in 2001 to 33% this year, it is still considered by many locals as a sink school. But Ms Heron says that perception is slowly changing, and puts the rising standards down in part to the ability-based teaching groups.

She insists, however, that this is just one aspect of her education revolution. "This is stage four in a five-stage process which we hope will end with the school open 365 days a year, seven days a week, 24 hours a day," she said.

"We want it to be a true centre of learning for this community and this is just a step along that path. Eventually this school will be open to adults and youngsters offering them courses and lessons they want to do, when they want to do them."

Bridgemary had an honourable mention in last month's education white paper and has had a string of influential visitors, including the new Tory leader David Cameron. But Ms Heron insists that is of little consequence. "It's nice to have interest from outside and we have been well supported by the local authority - but this is about giving these children the best possible chance. Everything else comes a distant second."

In the school's hectic corridors pupils seem generally enthused about the new system. "Being with older kids is really good because they can help you with stuff and give advice about the work," says 13-year-old Adam.

Chris Mackett, also 13, says he had been unsure whether he would be able to keep up with the older pupils in his class, but had been surprised by how helpful they had been. "It's just much better because everyone is about the same and wants to do the same sort of stuff."


Under the new system pupils are assessed using government tests taken at 11 which cover the core subjects of English, maths and science. Additional cognitive tests are conducted at school and the pupils are then streamed in each subject, according to their ability.

"We just use the existing data we have on the children's ability, but we use it in a different way," says Ms Heron. "We keep a close eye on how the children are doing and it is a system that is definitely working for these students. You can sense it when you walk around the school."

In some subjects students are also split into separate classes for boys and girls. But Ms Heron denies that the radical changes of the past five years represent an educational gamble for the students. "These ideas have not come out of the blue. We have been piloting the ability groups for the past two years. I would not necessarily push this as a blueprint for every school, although I do get a lot of interest from other heads. But in the end this is bringing real benefits - and sometimes you just have to be bold and and do what you know is right for the students."


Where did the idea come from?

Some private schools teach pupils in some subjects by ability rather than age, but the Bridgemary Community School is the first state secondary in England to adopt the system across the board. According to headteacher Cheryl Heron many schools have expressed an interest although none has formally adopted it.

What are the advantages of teaching by ability rather than age?

Supporters say that because all the students are at a similar level, teachers can focus their lessons ensuring that the whole class is interested and engaged. The brightest pupils do not become bored and less able pupils are not left behind.

Why haven't more schools switched?

Critics say the system is unproven. They claim putting 11-year-olds with 14- or 15-year-olds may lead to social problems, including bullying. They also say older children may lose self-confidence if taught with younger children rather than their peers.

Can other schools adopt the system?

The idea of ability-based classes fits the government's drive to "personalise learning" and Bridgemary got an honourable mention in the recent education white paper. The Department for Education and Skills says heads are free to adopt the system if they get the support of parents and governors.

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Reading this reminded me of the time when Mr Black, the Deputy Head of Dartford Technical High School for Boys, collared me just before assembly to tell me that I, an English teacher, would be taking third-form Chemistry that morning in one of my very few free periods that week. "But I'm not a Chemistry teacher, Mr Black," I said. "You're not teaching subjects, David, you're teaching children," was his reply.

I'm sure that this is a great way of teaching subjects … but what about the children? (This is roughly why we decided to stay in Sweden for our daughters' education, rather than returning to the UK.)

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It's not a new idea. When I was at primary school in the 1950s the brighter children would often be pushed up a year and might even take the 11-plus one year early. In Germany there is the term "sitzenbleiben", which is used to describe the process whereby a child that fails to reach a certain standard in the end of year exams "stays down" and repeats the year. I recall visiting a German grammar school in 1958 where some of the sixth-formers were nearly 20 years of age, having stayed down a couple of years in their secondary school education, and some of these would then go on to university.

It's not such a daft idea. We all learn at different paces, and there are early developers and late developers. I can't see much point in automatically moving up to the next year and thereby having to tackle more demanding work if one is not ready for it.

I can, of course, see some social problems arising, but looking back at my own experience at school these were more easily overcome than the problems of teaching high ability children alongside low ability children, both of which tend to become bored when the teacher is forced to aim at the middle ability range. It depends on the subject area too. Subjects such as modern languages and music - i.e. those that have a major skills component as opposed to a knowledge component - are taught more effectively to a narrow ability range.

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