Vertical grouping used to be common—it dates back at least to the Jesuit schools of the 17th century. Put simply, children are taught in groups (or forms) selected entirely on the basis of how much they know in a given subject, irrespective of their age.
Vertical grouping fell out of favour for three reasons: modern educators are obsessed with the ideal of the democratic, age-determined ‘peer group’. Secondly, it is assumed that older children’s self-esteem would suffer if they were taught in the same classroom with younger children. Lastly, it suits the tidy instincts of the bureaucratic mind to put children in arbitrary pigeon-holes.
Mixed-ability teaching is a disaster. Many schools set classes by ability, but they all have to follow the same curriculum—so the brightest pupils are still bored, and the least able are still out of their depth.
Once children fall behind, school becomes a nightmare. Every day they face humiliation and boredom. It’s no wonder that so many of them act up. Likewise, bright pupils in classes which are moving too slowly can become bored and start thinking up new and ingenious ways to wind up their teachers.
At Phoenix, our guiding principle is that all pupils should always be learning. Since teachers cannot really ‘personalise’ learning for 150 pupils every day, the only realistic solution is put them in classes where the other pupils are at the same stage of learning. As often as not, classes will have pupils of different ages—but our experience has shown that pupils very quickly get used to this.
All non-academic activities will be mixed-ability. During prep all pupils will meet in their Houses [insert link], and the most able pupils will help the weakest. We don’t want our brightest pupils to think that they are ‘better’ than everyone else.
Nonetheless, pupils will be grouped by achievement in academic subjects. This is not to say that we will teach the lower sets a dumbed-down curriculum. It may take them a little longer to get through it, but in the end they will master the same knowledge and skills as the higher sets.
In the US, a few Roman Catholic schools have found the secret to reducing the gap between the top and bottom sets. All teachers teach both high- and low-level classes, and they hold high expectations for low-achieving students, teaching the full academic curriculum. This is the model that Phoenix will follow.
This is a far cry from the usual practice in England, where teachers are expected to ‘personalise’ instruction for each and every pupil, and low-achieving pupils are fobbed off with vocational courses that don’t actually teach any useful skills. Most secondary school teachers have around 150 pupils to teach every day. Anyone who thinks that they have the time to produce personalised lesson plans for all of them lives on another planet.