What do schools really mean by ‘mixed ability’?
Brendan Pavey, Head Teacher at North Bridge House Senior Hampstead, explains what schools really mean by ‘mixed ability’.
The world of ‘education’ is rife with its own language. Words like pedagogy, metacognition, differentiation, oracy – to name but a few – enable those within the educational ‘club’ to have conversations those on the outside may find hard to fathom.
For the most part, this jargon is limited to specialist literature. When we talk to the world outside of education we tend to opt for simpler terminology to help parents decipher what makes our schools special. Phrases such as ‘single-sex’, ‘co-educational’, ‘senior school’, ‘primary school’, and ‘sixth form’ are all pretty straightforward. ‘State’ and ‘independent’, too, are generally understood (though independent of what?). But what about ‘selective’, ‘non-selective’, or ‘mixed ability’, are they equally clear?
My school, North Bridge House Senior Hampstead, is a co-educational senior school for children from Year 7-11. So far so good. We used to say we were non-academically selective. Yet we examine children on entry so when I started as Headteacher I moved away from this in favour of ‘mixed ability’.
Unfortunately, I soon discovered that this did not really make things any simpler for parents. Labelling a school as ‘mixed ability’ says very little about it. After all, a school that didn’t have a mix of abilities would be pretty bizarre. Can you imagine an England football team comprised of players with exactly the same ability as Harry Kane? No matter how academically selective the school, there is only ever going to be one person who is top of the class (despite the wants and aspirations of all parents). Every school is ‘mixed ability’ – it is the range of abilities within a school that varies.
Then we have to consider where a pupil’s abilities lie. An eight-year-old child who may be amazing at maths and English can also be brilliant at the piano, have a passion for history and progress to the top of the class over the next 10 years. Conversely, a pupil who has made wonderful progress in primary school may find the challenges of senior school very difficult and may need to develop confidence in other areas to succeed beyond the school gates.
In over 20 years of teaching, the least rewarding class I have ever taught was one where all pupils were taught to the test, in the expectation that they would get the highest grades but at the cost of nurturing intellectual curiosity and developing a life-long love of the subject. Pupils’ individual learning needs were less of a priority than the school’s league table status. That school would have been described as ‘academically selective’.
NBH is not like that – it is ‘mixed ability’. Or, more accurately, we have a broader range of academic abilities than may be found at other schools that set a very high academic bar for entry. Being an ‘independent school’ enables us make the most of our mixed abilities. We purposefully identify those with strengths in the arts, in music and in drama and provide them with wonderful opportunities to pursue these interests, to celebrate them and through them to build confidence and resilience.
Those who are academically strong are pushed to achieve great things in maths (and we have some of the country’s best mathematicians) and also challenged to cook a great meal or complete their Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. Free from concerns about league tables, we are able to identify the right curriculum for each child; we build their confidence in areas in which they are strong and support them when they need more time to make progress.
The ‘ability mix’ that we celebrate is both within subjects and between subjects. It is celebrated in our many extra-curricular activities. It is celebrated when pupils proudly give tours of the school, when they learn to talk with confidence in front of audiences and when they make a positive contribution to the community.
It may be true that every school has mixed ability pupils, but it is not true to say that every school celebrates this diversity. As a mixed ability school, I believe we have a responsibility to do precisely that – to sing and shout about how wonderful this makes mixed ability teaching. Our education system is so obsessed with categorising and labelling that it’s easy to forget that a good school can cater equally for the pupil who wants to go off to Oxbridge and the pupil who wants to become a chef. A good mixed ability school can do that. And parents have a right to know that is exactly what a mixed ability education provides.