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literature review

Key Questions

Students at RSA Tipton will definitely be placed in sets for Mathematics, how will this impact on the students’ engagement and attainment in the subject?

Students will be taught in a more traditional subject orientated style in contrast to the more innovative interdisciplinary Opening Minds approach, how will they respond to this?

Will the students at RSA Tipton confirm the concerns that occur with streaming, or will the school have equipped them with the competencies to tackle the transition?

Key Concepts

Moving students from a mixed ability way of working to sets leads students to be labelled as a success or failure. This can be highly detrimental to students across the attainment spectrum. As the most able feel pressure to perform whilst those with lower attainment feel their fate as a failure is sealed. This means students often don’t fulfil their potential.

Teaching children in sets means a teacher often uses a more limited range of pedagogy. The result of this is that students often become disengaged and do not perform to their full potential. A subject that may have previously been engaging, when it was taught more imaginatively in mixed ability groups, now becomes arduous. There is a tendency for teaching to occur with a highly traditional style of instruction. This means there is often little acknowledgement given to different students learning styles, or their strengths and weaknesses at different aspects of a subject.

Literature Review

Year 9 Students at RSA Tipton will definitely be placed in sets for Mathematics. Yet, much of the research on this states that setting in mathematics causes children to be pigeon holed as either a success or a failure. These labels often stick, meaning children find it hard to live up to either high expectations or to escape the limited opportunities presented to them. In both cases the result is often to the detriment of students’ advancement in Maths.

A recent study found that when students moved from year 8 mixed ability teaching to year 9 setted teaching for Mathematics, they began to face negative repercussions[1]. Those in top sets felt enormous pressure to perform and often found work too high paced and difficult. This meant that students who had previously enjoyed the subject frequently became disengaged with Maths, as they no longer felt they understood it. Examples of the common problems are highlighted by the following comments from students in set 1 Maths classes. They are taken from a study by Boaler et al (1997) they included: ‘You don’t even get time to think in the maths lessons’, ‘Sometimes they work too fast for me and I can’t keep up with the rest of the class’, ‘Most of the difference is with the teachers, the way they treat you. They expect us to be like, just doing it straight away. Like we’re robots.’, ‘I used to enjoy maths, but I don’t enjoy it anymore because I don’t understand what I’m doing.’[2] In this study top set students were the most negative about maths lessons. With 43% of them saying they ‘never’ or not very often’ enjoyed the subject, in contrast just 32% of students in mixed ability classes responded with the same negativity[3].

The fate of those placed in lower sets is even worse; the same study found that these students faced a range of negative experiences. Low sets were often assigned a continuous change of teachers, and sometimes teachers were allocated who were non-mathematics teachers. By schools assigning the best teachers to the most able students, and often the least qualified to those with lower attainment, they are setting children up for failure. The result is students feeling disillusioned with the system. Examples of the common problems are highlighted by the following comments from students in bottom sets for Maths: ‘We do baby work off the board’, ‘Sir treats us like we’re babies, puts us down, makes us copy stuff off the board, puts up all the answers like we don’t know anything[4]. This clearly demonstrates that students in low sets often find work far too easy, they also feel like they are stupid and unimportant and that mobility to a higher set is virtually impossible.

One of the main advantages of using mixed ability grouping is that a teacher has to cater for a range of levels; this means a teacher is more likely to use a range of pedagogical strategies, as they have to pitch work at an appropriate level for different students. In contrast there is a tendency in setted classrooms to teach as though all the students are the same, that they all have the same level of attainment and work at the same pace. In mixed ability classrooms students are able to work at their own pace as they are assigned different work. In contrast setted classrooms see students set identical work, they are expected to work at the same pace as their peers. This prescribed pace and level of work is often a great source of disaffection for students, as they either find it too fast or too slow. This defeats the whole purpose of setting as the idea is that setting allows all students to work at an appropriate pace and level for their ability level. This frustration with setted teaching is reflected in the study which showed that 40 out of 48 students wanted to return to mixed ability teaching. This was due to the fact they felt the setting arrangement had negatively affected their learning of Maths and their attitudes towards Maths[5].

In conclusion, putting children into sets is often seen as having a polarising impact; it often sees disaffection and disengagement spread through pupils across the attainment spectrum. This is largely due to the fact students feel branded as a success or failure and teaching style often confirms this to them, whether in the form of pressure to perform or in the labelling of a student as a failure. The result is students not performing to their full potential as they often become disengaged by the teaching style and expectations placed on them.

[1] Melanie Nind, Jonahan Rix, Kieron Sheehy and Katy Simmons (Eds), Curriculum and Pedagogy in Inclusive Education: Values into Practice (London 2005) p.43

[2]Ibid p.44/45

[3]Ibid p.46

[4] Ibid p.47

[5] Ibid p.43/44


Key Questions

RSA Tipton has a large percentage of working class boys attending, this is typically a category associated with under-achievement. Will Opening Minds have changed this?

 RSA Tipton have raised a concern that opening minds doesn’t work as well for boys. But can this be seen as a continuation of working class male under-achievement in secondary schools, or is there a specific reason why opening minds is not working as well for them?

The students we will be working with at RSA Tipton will have just gone through Key Stage 3 assessment. Will their results show a similar gender difference to the national average? Or will the opening minds curriculum have had a positive impact on boys’ academic attainment? The real key is to look at the rates of improvement of the pupils, to look at value-added measures.

Key Concepts

Boys are failing to reach their potential; they are consistently outperformed by girls, in year 9 SATS they are outperformed in English, Maths and Science.

Male disengagement and bad behaviour is a huge problem in education today. It is often attributed to boys trying to conform to the dominant masculinity which values ‘laddish’ behaviour’. This is often demonstrated with loud and aggressive behaviour as well as avoiding engagement with academic work in front of their peers.

Boys are seen to be less inclined to tolerate poor teaching, they are deemed to need more structured and formulaic teaching[1].

Literature Review

The 1990s and the early years of the 21st century have been plagued by the apparent failure of many boys to fulfil their ‘potential’, there has been a moral panic surrounding boys under-achievement. The issue of boys’ under-achievement and the gender gap in national testing are perpetually capturing media attention. Yet the statistical under-achievement of boys in schools is nothing in comparison with the statistical over-achievement of men in life.

The issue of male under-achievement can be associated with a seminal work by Paul Willis (1977) which introduced the notion of the culture of ‘laddishness’[2]. The problem of ‘laddish’ behaviour in the classroom context is its negative impact on boys and girls alike. Today a frequently reported problem in secondary schools is that of male disengagement and bad behaviour. In many institutional contexts, particularly schools, there is frequently a pressure to conform to a dominant version of masculinity. This construction of a hegemonic masculinity, is one in which boys strive to construct and mould themselves into a version of masculinity that embodies male power, to become ‘a real man’, ‘a typical lad’. In order to achieve this, loud, physical, sometimes aggressive and disruptive behaviour is an integral expression of many boys’ construction of masculinity.

Work in individual school contexts such as Younger et al (2002) emphasised that more boys than girls are disengaged, that more discipline problems are perceived to be caused by boys, that more boys are excluded from secondary schooling[3]. ‘Laddish’ behaviour often involves the avoidance of the appearance of engaging in academic work, many boys feel it is not acceptable to be seen to be engaged or stimulated by academic work, this often results in them not achieving their potential.

Yet, not all girls conform to the conscientious, diligent, self motivated stereotype. In fact, some girls are taking on the ‘laddish’ attributes of their male peers.[4] The problem of disengagement is not one solely monopolised by boys, there are also many girls who do not reach their academic potential. Plummer (2000) argues that working class girls’ under-achievement is rarely mentioned, that it has been hidden and ignored[5]. In contrast to boys, there are scarcely specialist resources for the treatment of girls behavioural problems.

Despite problems of disengagement across gender boundaries, the fact is girls are still outperforming boys in almost every subject. The gender gap is highlighted by girls increasing outperformance of boys in academic tests. Key Stage 3 results show that girls persistently outperform boys, with a 15 percentage points difference commonly recorded in achievement in Level 5(+) in English[6]. But, the difference in Maths and Science is much smaller.

Can the under-achievement of boys be linked to pedagogies? In recent years there has been a plethora of studies showing that boys respond well to teaching and learning styles that emphasise variety, engagement, and activity based learning[7]. Yet, this is something that the Opening Minds curriculum should do for the students of RSA Tipton. Therefore theoretically male disengagement should not be a huge issue. Studies have also shown that there is a broad consensus across gender lines of what a successful lesson entails[8]. That is a lesson that is well organised and clearly structured with clear teacher explanations, a choice of activity, room for discussion, encouragement, and a disciplined classroom[9].

[1] Mike Younger,  Molly Warrington and Ros McLellan, Raising boys’ achievement in secondary schools (Maidenhead;New York 2005) p.55

[2] Ibid p.24

[3] Ibid p.19

[4] Ibid p.57

[5] Ibid p.57

[6] Ibid p.31

[7] Ibid p.72

[8] Ibid p.55

[9] Ibid p.55