Mixed Attainment Teaching – Advice from Jo Richardson Community School

Guest blog: Sally Pearson, School Lead at The Jo Richardson Community School

Mixed Attainment Teaching – Advice from Jo Richardson Community School

Posted: 20/03/15

In 2013, the maths department at The Jo Richardson Community School in Dagenham decided they needed to approach maths teaching in a new way. They weren't content with the progress that lower attaining pupils were making and wanted a way to implement a focus on problem solving that drew on the latest research.

So in September 2013, the first cohort of Year 7s sat down for their first Mathematics Mastery lesson. Sally Pearson, Maths Mastery School Lead, knew the potential of the approach to have a big impact on pupils.

“The Maths Mastery approach just felt like common sense, like an idea we’d had all along had been crystallised and was now ready for us to use”.

Mixed attainment teaching

But the maths teaching team at Jo Richardson wanted to go one step further.

“We’d always been keen to try mixed attainment teaching. Like most schools we put pupils into maths sets based on prior attainment – but we’d also seen research on the benefits of mixed attainment classes. Starting Maths Mastery gave us that opportunity to try it out”.

“Maths Mastery gives an excellent structure, which gives teachers and students the freedom to experiment confidently, so we felt safer mixing our classes up. We believe that every child can be good at maths – this runs throughout the Maths Mastery approach and we felt that continuing to set the students didn’t fit with this”.

A change in attitude to maths

For the first time ever, their Year 7 cohort was taught in fully mixed attainment classes. One of the key benefits has been a change in attitude.

We’ve banished that bottom set mentality. We constantly reinforce the message that if you work hard you can achieve and improve in maths. Our lower attaining students now put themselves forward for extension work much more frequently and have told me that they prefer mixed groups.”

“A key focus at Maths Mastery is talking and explaining your reasoning, which both lower and higher attaining students can find hard. We’ve found that having all the students working together improves their patience and their ability to explain their reasoning to each other. It’s not about getting the right answer, it’s about providing the explanation – and mixed classes aid that process”.

Closing the gap in attainment

There have been more measurable benefits too. For the first time ever, 100% of Year 7 students reached level 3, and 90% achieved a level 4. 100% of lower attaining students are now making expected progress, compared with just 33% the year before. And free school meal students are now making the same progress as non-free school meal students. Sally explains:

“The gap is now closing – all our students are moving up at the same pace in terms of progress. We’re not leaving anyone behind”.

Advice from Jo Richardson

So what advice would Jo Richardson give to another school who were interested in mixed attainment teaching?

“First is to plan rigorously and well in advance. You can’t plan enough. As a leader you need to plan for the expectations of teachers. As a teacher you need to plan for the various possibilities with your students.

As an extension of that, make time to plan as a team and stick to it. It’s even more important to differentiate effectively and sitting down as a group gives you the time to think that through properly.”

“Second, make sure your senior leadership team are on board and fully supportive. Ours was, but it does feel like a big risk. We know now that it’s helping students but at the start we all needed the confidence and support of senior management to feel comfortable that it was possible to try.”

“Third, don’t do it all at once. We started it with Year 7 and are moving it up the school as Maths Mastery moves up the school. It’s much smoother if you start with students who’ve never been put in sets in maths as they are more open minded from the start.”

“Fourth, don’t do it as a gimmick. You need to be committed to it, see it as an investment and believe in the principles. We want to develop a growth mindset in our students. Maths Mastery was the ideal setting for that and it gave the right structure to try mixed attainment teaching – we were committed overall to changing our approach to maths teaching.”

Pride in their results

Sally would do it all over again tomorrow.

“I’m very proud of the way we’ve made this work. I’m glad we were confident enough to try it. We’re looking forward to further improvement as we continue with Maths Mastery and mixed teaching”.