Ability, sets and high expectations

It is a rather disappointing scenario in a number of schools that new to the UK and new to English EAL learners are often placed in bottom sets. There is a number of articles that point to this phenomenon online and offline – this UCL’s Institution of Education one (http://www.ioe.ac.uk/56528.html) is just one of them. Written in 2011, it claims that pupils are routinely placed in low ability sets as their bilingualism, sometimes termed “emergent bilingualism” is confused for special educational needs. Beside the fact that SEN Code of Practice specifically states that “Difficulties related solely to learning English as an additional language are not SEN” (p.85 of the Code), one has to wonder what would happen if we compared the ability status of the same children in the countries from which they had just come. Not all schools in all countries practice such grouping of their pupils; for instance, whilst in countries such as the UK, New Zealand, Israel, Iceland, Russia and Australia this can occur 80% of the time, countries like Greece, Poland and Norway very rarely do (this data is from OECD’s What Makes Schools Successful [2013]). Imagine a Russian student, who used to be in a top set for Mathematics, coming to the UK, being sat in the bottom set. You would have thought they knew their Maths!

This scenario, EAL children excelling in the actual subjects, being still placed in bottom sets because of their language barrier plays out in many many schools. I have seen this happen in Scotland and certainly in many schools in England. Why does it happen? The language barrier issue can clearly cloud the judgement of practitioners – in other words, these children have been reduced to their language barrier only. Nothing else matters anymore. Rather than recognise that top set classes will be richer in higher-level, more academic English language and the new arrivals’ talents and true knowledge will be acknowledged, they are degraded to what is often very low level of Maths, Geography, History or other subjects. What it does to those children’s esteem and self-confidence– let’s not even go there. As children, they might not necessarily be able to fully articulate it, but I am quite certain that they know – or feel – that there are no high expectations of them, and they’ve already been doomed, by their schools, for the life of mediocrity. Already, on their first or second day, they are punished for being who they are.

This goes hand in hand with other EAL-related issues, such as the chronic lack of EAL-sensitive assessment (of any sort) and classifying EAL children as “underachievers” using English standards based on their English native speaking peers. Misty Adoniou in her lecture for NALDIC calls it “unethical”. I agree with that. Equally as unethical is assigning those infamous 4b levels to new EAL arrivals on their entry – mounting unbelievable (impossible) pressure on mainstream teachers to get them to level 5 by the next year.

Now, of course we can and should – and I certainly have – remind schools that putting students into bottom sets on the basis of their language is neither fair nor does them any favours in terms of their language development. But doesn’t it feel a little bit like supporting a beam inside an already collapsing house? It is the concept of ability that is actually dubious.

The concept of ability actually opens doors to putting the children into bottom sets. If ability didn’t pervade almost every aspect of our education system, there would be no question of whether to put the children in bottom sets or not and thus the issue would be effectively removed. There is a wonderful book, by Mandy Swann, Alison Peacock, Susan Hart and Mary Jane Drummond, titled Creating Learning without Limits, which describes a longitudinal research that took place at a primary school where the notion of ability was actively rejected. The approach taken, where all pupils were treated in a non-ability way, turned the school from special measures to outstanding. Children were listened to, children were able to choose work levels themselves without any levels predetermining their capabilities or their worth, they were actively involved in lesson planning with their teacher (increasing their investment in learning). Pairings and groupings occurred not on the basis of attainment or ability, and groupings changed dependent on the nature of activities. Perhaps the most memorable to me is the school’s circle group meetings, which included everybody: teachers, teaching assistants, governors, volunteers and all the children. Hierarchies were removed, and children’s contributions were given equal value to those of anyone else.

The book, in its very first chapter, critiques the “damaging beliefs about differential ability” (p.1), citing DfES 2005 paper Higher Standards, Better Schools for All as saying “We must make sure that every pupil, gifted or talented, struggling or just average, reaches the limits of their capability.” The authors say that this sentence is deterministic and fatalistic. It has put children into pre-determined categories, that there is a limit to their capabilities, and that being ‘just average’ is not as good as ‘gifted and talented’. High and low ability are thought as fixed, then. Now, ‘gifted and talented’ might be gone in England, but “ability” is definitely still here. Most recent Teachers’ Standards ask this of all teachers: “have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs; those of high ability; those with English as an additional language; those with disabilities; and be able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them.”

The online teaching communities, blogs and professional educational articles are full of the calls for developing growth mindset. This article is one of many available on the topic. The idea revolves around the notion that intelligence is not fixed, and rightly so!, and one can always be better and improve. Indeed, Carol Dweck, for instance, says the following:

“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

(source: http://www.stlukes.brighton-hove.sch.uk/thinking-school-curriculum-and-ethos/growth-mindset/

This is all fine, but we can see how the very existence of bottom, middle and top sets violates the very idea of growth mindset – from a student’s perspective. Being put into a bottom set may very easily send a message to an EAL student – you are from another country = you have a problem. Or, in other words, we think you are not able to do Maths because of your language barrier. I repeat: you are not able. Children start then comparing themselves to other children at the school; those children who are middle or top sets. If I were one of them, I would see the school as not only considering me to be unable (despite potentially full schooling history in another country), but also effectively disabling me. And, most of all, not expecting me to do very much.

This, of course, leads me to the notion of high expectations. Because of the damaging wide-open ability door, many schools might choose to put children into bottom sets, from day one locking them into failure. Carolyn Grady writes for TES, “Sometimes able EAL children are put in bottom sets because their English language skills prevent them from producing work to the standard of which they are capable. Demoralisation and frustration can set in quickly” (although one can’t help but notice the phrase “able EAL children” – are there “unable” ones, then?). Indeed! How would you feel if your child moved to Spain only to be told that because he or she doesn’t speak Spanish, her excellent knowledge of Maths learnt in England is going to be completely negated? – and he/she is such a poor child; comes from another country – how can we possibly expect much of him/her? Of course, the lack of high expectations of pupils has been linked to low attainment. It can be a vicious circle: low expectations – frustration – demotivation – behaviour going worse – lack of effort – low attainment.

The very idea that “we are going to put this child into a bottom set because of their English language skills” could be construed as, at the very least, institutionally racist. That is, if the utilizing of “ability sets” at a school is intended to reflect children’s ability in a subject taught, then EAL children’s skills at a subject are seen as lower only because of they are developing their language. In other words, it sends a message that in England, it doesn’t matter that you are a great mathematician or geographer – you can’t do it well unless you do it in English. The children’s history, past attainment and skills learnt – and their identity – are ignored, and children are punished for being who they are. It’s even worse than doing this to adults; children usually do not make decisions about moving countries – their parents or carers do. All this means, of course, that such schools are painfully non-inclusive. It’s painful how often people mistake “integration” for inclusion. . “Integration” is the expectation that learners will fit the existing structures without altering the environment; “inclusion”, on the other hand, is dedicated to removing barriers to full participation for all members (ALLFIE, 2015). In my recently completed MEd study for the University of the West of Scotland, some teachers considered the EAL learners’ linguistic barrier “prohibitive”, did not differentiate for them and rejected the need to cater linguistically to EAL pupils within their lessons, and considered EAL learners’ language barrier to be a problem to be overcome (rather than a difference) – knowingly or unknowingly contributing to the negative “integration” culture of their school – precisely the term they themselves used. It is a logical conclusion that if one believes that the language barrier is “prohibitive”, then you would be tempted to place a child in the bottom set!

In short, I call for the complete elimination of grouping children by ability. It runs completely counter to the idea of growth mindset – something of a buzzword these days – you can’t have both (it’s either one or the other). Fixed ability thinking can limit and slow down learning and attainment; labeling by ability influences how much teachers expect of learners. I agree with the authors of Creating Learning without Limits when they say that it “undermines young people’s dignity, their self-beliefs, their hopes and expectations for their own learning.” (p.135) If they are “grow” (as per growth mindset), they cannot have the idea that the society – for us, in particular school society – considers their “ceiling” (=ability) to be at a certain level above which they can’t possibly grow.

So what can you actually do to have high expectations of your EAL learners?

  • check what your students can actually do in your subject – find an assessment in your subject in your subject (e.g. Maths), check how literate they are in their first language (ask them to write a story in their L1)
  • use collaborative learning in your lessons – involve them in working with other students – socially and linguistically inclusive; have a few EAL learners in your group – don’t put them together – make sure they are sat with English language native speaking students, who can be good language models for them
  • use their first language – Ofsted does say bilingualism is an asset! – you can’t claim that bilingualism is advantageous and then ban it at your school at the same time. It’s an obvious way to acknowledge your EAL learners’ identity and find out how much they know of the content of your subject. As they develop the English language, you can change the proportions of English and their language.
  • ensure that their background and identity are valued within your lessons – make sure EAL learners are not “othered” in your school
  • use a range of EAL strategies to remove the language barriers for them, so they can demonstrate their subject skills (why not check all the Great Ideas pages at the EAL Nexus website?)
  • do not allow your school to cluster EAL learners in one “nurture” group – this is segregationist and certainly not inclusive!
  • if they are new to English, think of how else they can show their understanding. Receptive language skills (reading, listening, understanding) develop earlier than productive skills (speaking and writing) – if your students are still going through the silent period, what other formats could they use (other than writing/talking) to show their understanding? Could you use some computer apps? Glogster? Storyboard That? PowerPoint? Could you use highlighting? Colour coding? Images? Flashcards? Multiple choice questions? Just don’t let them get away with not giving you an answer!
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