"If she had her way, all she'd do would be to set." The comment from an LA inspector in the eighties had a certain contempt about it that I didn't understand. I'd just been to the department in question. It was using mixed ability teaching, and the lower attaining children were in a state of extreme confusion, and learning nothing at all. What could be wrong with setting, so that the higher attainers could go a their own speed, and lower attainers be given the additional support they needed? Put another way, what could be worse than mixed-ability?
The experience continued on inspection and through reading reports such as Lord Dearing's. Schools that fast-tracked high-attaining pupils - aka setting - had them achieving high, though not always high enough, grades at 14. If this could be done, then surely GCSE was too easy? Had it been dumbed down in order to cater lower standards expected from mixed aiblity teaching? And had the nationally recommended teaching styles been designed as the best way to teach languages, or the only way to make mixed ability classes manageable?
And then we have inclusion, and the changes to Ofsted in 2005, which removed the specialist element from most inspections, so that inspectors observing language lessons did not know whether children were making the right long-term progress or not. They could, though, ask if all of the pupils in the class were making progress, and criticise the teaching - whether or not they gave a lesson grade - if one or two were not "engaged". These one or two may have been exceptionally able pupils coasting, though all but a couple of inspectors nationally would not know this because they do not know the language. They would more likely be pupils with behavioural difficulties who were not engaged through no fault of the teacher, and may well have been playing up in every lesson, all day long.
The only way mixed ability has of dealing with such pupils is to disapply them from languages, which defeats the point of inclusion. The only way to make a lesson accessible to the whole of a class is to omit the elements that higher attaining pupils can handle and that lower-attaining pupils can manage only with extensive additional practice and support. The outcome is undemanding work, and the classic description is "exposing" pupils to language, without insisting that they understand what they are doing. This is not immersion, but submersion. Simply exposing children to a language in a school lesson has never been shown to enable them to learn at all. Come Y9, and the lower attaining pupils drop out - again, defeating the point of inclusion - and the higher-attaining pupils proceed to GCSE without the skills they need to do so successfully. The knock-on effect to A level and beyond is a perfect catastrophe. Languages are dying on their feet, and mixed ability teaching is the root cause.
Both main poliltical parties have come out against mixed ability teaching, and neither has been able to do anything about it while local authorities have remained in control. The heart of the matter is in an article by Professor Geoff Whitty, (BERA, 2006) in which he argues that the goal of education should be equality, and that researchers should not be concerned with "what works." Well, they haven't been, and we are left with funny kind of equality based on failure. They have not paid attention to what works, and have left us with what doesn't work. It is time to change.
PS. A further note on the influence of Eric Hawkins is here.