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The disaster of mixed ability language teaching

Baldtwo John Bald, an independent educational consultant, a blogger on how children fail to learn foreign languages in mixed ability classes

Before returning to the sixties, two good steps from Cambridgeshire County Council last year.  First, a reduction  in salaries for new education posts at “director” level from roughly £150k to roughly £120k, which still enabled the council to make what they see as good appointments. (Though I still wonder why an authority should have more than one director.)

Second, a saving of around £3m, by not providing supply cover for teachers’ to go on courses in school time. This practice harms learning wherever it happens, and does serious damage in difficult schools. For some of the consequences, see “It’s your time you’re wasting" an account of a supply teacher’s life by Frank Chalk. The title is ironic, as “Mr Chalk” is having his time wasted more than anyone else’s. We make too much use of supply teachers, and their quality (on the former Ofsted seven-point scale) ranges from very good to very poor. From his own account, Frank Chalk’s teaching was mostly unsatisfactory to poor. The French only use teachers designated for headship as replacements.

After last week’s posting on the pugnacious Antony Crosland, this week’s sixties thinker, the late Professor Eric Hawkins CBE,  is seen by his many admirers as an inspiration, a gentleman and a saint. Hawkins was a former grammar school headmaster, who saw comprehensive schools as a way of extending opportunities to children who had not previously had the chance to learn a language.  Nothing wrong with that. 

Unfortunately, like many in the sixties, Hawkins took the academic/non academic divide at face value, and assumed that these new students lacked the intellectual capacity to study languages in an academic way, and so proceeded to extract intellectual content from the curriculum, or, in current terminology, to dumb it down.

The evidence of his approach is contained in two books, Modern Languages in The Curriculum (Cambridge 1981) and 30 Years of Language Teaching (1996, Ed. Hawkins, CILT - Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research).  In his editorial to the latter book, Hawkins describes what has happened as a process of “democratisation”, and says that “comprehensive reorganisation was especially challenging for foreign language teaching because throughout history, languages had never been offered to more than a small and carefully chosen elite of learners.” 

The new learners “lacked not only the verbal skills needed for the secondary course, but also, in many cases, the precious encouragement from home needed to support them through difficult learning…” The latter point reflects Professor Basil Bernstein’s division of language into “restricted” and “elaborated” codes, with most of the population restricted to the former.

As there is obviously no point in giving children work they can’t possibly do, the approach of textbook writers such as Sheila M Smith and W  F Whitmarsh, who aimed to make “the fundamentals of spoken and written French …utterly familiar” was thrown out. Hawkins’ alternative (1981) was to see modern languages as making “a unique contribution to the apprenticeship of citizens of a multi-cultural Britain”.

Add mixed ability, and the road paved with good intentions is complete. Mixed-ability is not, however, Hawkins’ idea – he barely mentions grouping, and describes the equation of comprehensive education with mixed-ability teaching as “muddled thinking. However, a contributer to his book, Alan Moys, states that comprehensive schools “confronted language language teachers with the need to find ways of presenting their subject to mixed-ability classes,” and this is quite true.

Mixed-ability in languages became prevalent through the back-door, mostly promoted by local authority advisers/inspectors, and now often by Headteachers who are more interested in social factors than in standards.  Until the early nineties, these advisers/inspectors had a stranglehold on promotion, especially at the shortlisting stage, and one once criticised a head of department to me on the grounds that “if she had the chance, she would go straight for setting”.

A London adviser has told me that HTs in her London authority have agreed that there will be no grouping of pupils by ability in any Year 7 classes at all.  Sorry for not naming the authority, but I don’t want to get my source the sack.  I have also searched long and in vain for any research showing advantages to
mixed-ability teaching in languages, and have been struck by how systematically languages are avoided in research studies. How this can have happened to such a big issue in a major subject over forty-five years is almost incredible.

At the same time, the element of grouping according to learning needs (setting) has been systematically played down in official accounts of successful teaching. A euphemism employed in the Dearing review was “fast-tracking”, which showed the inadequacy of GCSE by demonstrating that children could get high grades in it in three years rather than five -  one teacher I know of has recently been told to organise a 12 week course to raise the numbers at grade C, and a clever girl I know went from scratch to A* in Spanish in just one year.

The real evidence that smashes the case for mixed ability languages teaching, however, comes from Mossbourne, which sets from Year 7, teaches the children very well, makes sure they work hard, and achieved 55 A* grades out of 60 entries in German and Spanish last year. If you want your school to
get results like that, study Mossbourne, and don’t waste Year 7 in mixed-ability classes.


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