Europe basked in the Age of Enlightenment during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was an intellectual, philosophical and cultural movement, best précised as a shift to using reason, science and humanism to achieve ‘progress’ – rather than a reliance on authoritarian dogma and blind faith. Precise beginnings and endings of this ‘Age’ are sketchy. Some academics attribute the start with Renè Descartes’ Discourse on the Method (1637), others with Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687); some date its end with the 1789 outbreak of the French Revolution, others with the start of the nineteenth century and the death of philosopher Immanuel Kant (1804) – to whom I’ll return shortly.
Irrespective of definitive ‘starts’ and ‘ends’, our recusants above ensured something happened. And that ‘something’, to borrow from psychologist Steven Pinker, “brought us to where we are now”, with the knowledge that “when we build institutions of power, we must root them in reason, science and humanism if we are to progress” (Enlightenment Now, 2018; Fry and Pinker: The Enlightenment Today, 2018 respectively). One doesn’t have to uncoil the threads of inference too far to deduce Pinker’s injunction: “institutions of power” (and, therefore, of influence and of responsibility: governments, businesses, schools, for example) must imbue their practices with research and scientific rigour if, crucially, they are to act in the best interests for their populous, employees or pupils. And few people would expect otherwise – surely?
Join me in the classroom
Fast forward from the Enlightenment circa 200 years, and I’m teaching my recalcitrant year 11s (‘ability’ set: 8 of 8) the context of J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. Join me in that lesson right now, about a third of the way through (you can sit at the back, but watch out for Aaron: he smoked ‘something’ at break):
(A pupil’s arm darts up to the flickering strip lighting): “Sir?”
(Bracing myself: it’s been a struggle today.): “Yes?”
“Well, ya na sets, like?” (The pupil referring to ability sets.)
“Well, it’s a bit like this Inspector Calls thingy, like, isn’t it?”
(I’m running with it.): “Inspector Calls thingy, like? What do you mean?”
(The pupil clears his throat; the class tune in.): “Well, this play’s set in 1912 init? And that was when people were like in propa strict classes weren’t it?”
“Spot on…’”(I’m now hooked! He’d remembered last lesson.)
(He continues… unprompted.)”So people at the bottom of society stayed where they were [at the bottom]; people in the middle could move; and people at the top had more of a choice init?”
“I supp—” (He cuts me off.)
“And that’s like us an’ sets init? Bottom sets never get to move up and just feel stupid; middle sets can go up or down cause they’re cleverer, and the top sets get the best teaching and are challenged more.”
I’d just been ‘enlightened’.
Schools’ use of ability sets in the UK is prolific. Exact statistics vary, however, most secondary schools in the country opt for ‘setting’ children based on their ‘ability’. Moreover, Education DataLab author John Jerrim argues:
“England particularly stands out in terms of setting […] which is now used […] in almost every secondary school [leading to] much higher rates of within-school ability segregation than in other developed countries” (2019, my emphasis).
So, where’s the reason? What’s the science? And is it humanistic?
Durham University is an apt bastion at which to start.
In 2013, Professor Steve Higgins and colleagues concluded that:
“the evidence is consistent that though there may be some benefits for higher attaining pupils in some circumstances […], these are largely outweighed by the negative effects on attitudes for middle and lower performing learners” (Higgins et al. The Sutton Trust, 2013).
The last 30 years of research
Higgins’ research is far from scant, and he and colleagues affirm the “evidence is robust and has accumulated over the last 30 years of research” (Higgins et al. The Sutton Trust, 2013). Indeed, one can track Higgins’ claim:
Adam Gamoran (1992): “ability grouping rarely benefits overall achievement […]”
Alan Kerckhoff (1986): “students in low ability groups gain less over a five-year period than they would be expected to gain if they had not been separated […]”
Robert Slavin (1988): “As early as 1929, Luther Purdom referred to the ‘great mass of literature’ [on ‘ability’ sets] dating back to 1917. He complained grouping decisions were too often based on personal impressions rather than hard evidence.”
Just residing within the twenty-first century, we can track a ‘Renaissance’ of this ‘robust evidence’ (regarding ‘ability’ sets):
Francis, Taylor & Tereshchenko (2020); Ireson & Hallam (2005); Burris & Welner (2005); Bigler, Brown & Markel (2001); Hewstone, Rubin & Willis (2002); McSherry & Ollerton (2002); Dunne et al. (2007); Kutnick, Sebba, et al. (2005); Cuban, Kirkpatrick, and Peck (2001); Ruthven (2009); Welner & Burris (2006); Banning-Lover (2016).
Ubiquitously, the reason and science prevail (albeit, esoterically – perhaps).
‘Life’casts an invisible hand over many children. Gnarled and arthritic, this ‘hand’ is unforgiving. It’s capricious yet consistent as it deals the child’s fate. These children are our most vulnerable: our school refusers, our ‘fighters’ or recurring ‘big hitters’ and, often, the children most commonly cleaved into the ‘lower-ability’ sets, shackled to their algid rungs at the bottom of the school’s Great Chain of Being.
As I write this, the UK is treading water in its worst cost-of-living crisis “since the 1950s” (The Big Issue, September, 2022), meaning children as young as 14 are skipping school to earn a crust for their struggling families. Some families’ plights are as such, that their children are missing school because they can’t pay for school uniform or dry clothes due to the soaring food and energy prices, respectively (The Journal, February, 2023).
Moreover, the North East has the highest percentage of child poverty at circa. 38%, with London and Yorkshire and the Humber on its heels (35% and 34% respectively: Action for Children, July, 2022 – data for 2020/2021). Significantly, these figures reflect poverty as it “[fell] back in 2020/2021 due to the government’s pandemic support measures”, so the forecast for coming years suggests ‘poverty is expected to continue rising’ (Action for Children, July, 2022).
Not ‘naughty’ but frustrated and angry
I work with and for these children every day. It’s a privilege. They are not ‘naughty’ or ‘deliberately rude’ (certainly no more than you’d expect given the curse of adolescents); they are confused, angry and frustrated, an animus exacerbated by teachers’ loyalty to myopic ‘policy’; they feel ‘boxed off’ from others; they are sick of ‘suits’ barking and pointing, imprecations that are absorbed into the rhythms of each school day. They feel scared in this white-collar microcosm into which they’ve been squeezed, a ‘utopia’ (designed by ‘others’) that bears no resemblance to their outside ‘living’ world(s).
A student of mine recently epitomised the above point so much more eloquently. Permit me to, again, take you to my very same Year 11s from before – only this time a little later in the year (minus Aaron, who’s now been excluded).
I had taken the class (‘Ability’ set 8 of 8) out onto the school field to work on some – much needed – speaking and listening skills. We were about to sojourn in an activity that involved getting up and swapping seats with another person if my ‘instructions’ matched the students’ experiences. For example, if I said “all boys with black socks […]”, then all boys wearing black socks would stand up and race to swap seats with their peers. The last person sitting down was out. Yes, first aid was administered.
On this particular occasion, I blurted out “all boys whose dad wears a tie to go to work […]”.
The wind uncoiled in the sky, slithered down, and sliced through our irenic activity like a cut-throat razor.
One of my boys surveyed the bemused faces around the circle, stolidly stood, looked across at me – arms outstretched, palms facing the sky:
“Sir, you’re talking to 16 lads who haven’t got a fu*#ing clue who, or where, their dads are!”
Again, I’d been enlightened.
My boys – under my tutelage only seconds previously – had just taught this suited neophyte a lesson he’d never forget: that reality can only ever be postponed, not completely denied.
Turning over to the Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, and her 2022 report into ‘family breakdown’:
“23% of UK families are headed by a single parent (of whom, some 90% are women), compared with an EU average of 13%” (Geldards, September, 2022). Moreover, rewind, say, 13 years, and we can see that the ‘picture’ (the statistics) has changed very little. Steve Doughty, writing for the Daily Mail (June, 2010), reported that “nearly 1 child in 3 is living without their father or mother”, with “more than half rarely [seeing] their missing parent.”
My young Year 11s on that windy field are all living, breathing manifestations of these reports, all personifying these tragic statistics. That’s not to say, however, a child can’t have a stable upbringing with only one parent – of course he/she can. But it’s just harder. It squeezes more. The gnarled and arthritic hand still pervades.
Back to Souza:
“A stable and supportive family, whatever form that takes, can be a child’s future success. Children with happy families do better in exams, go on to get better jobs and have higher hourly income […]. Family can insulate us from life’s adversity and challenges” (Geldards, September, 2022 – my emphasis).
And so can school, for that matter. School can “insulate [children] from life’s adversity and challenges”. Yet, ‘ability’ sets, arguably, perpetuate these ‘challenges’.
Given the bleak circumstance(s) of the aforementioned, is it any wonder some children (often, our most vulnerable) seek out ‘county lines’ for some semblance of solace?
Protecting the most vulnerable and the importance of student-teacher relationships
Figures published by the Department for Education reveal “12,720 children in England were identified by social services as being at risk of criminal exploitation by gangs in 2020/2021” (Commission on Young Lives – Oasis UK, October, 2021). Furthermore, more children were at risk because of gang involvement, so the statistics were likely to be a great deal higher as there was a “31% drop in referrals via schools during the period when schools were closed twice to most children”. The need, therefore, for strong teacher-student relationships has never been so great if we are to protect our most vulnerable members of society.
I recently wrote about the toxic nature of ‘zero-tolerance’ behaviour management in secondary schools up and down the country (published in North East Bylines, February, 2023). In my article, I summarised my research drawn from neuroscience, psychology and cognitive development, highlighting the mercurial (and often irrational) nature of the adolescent brain, yet some educationalists attempted to reduce me to a ‘wannabe psychologist’ and my perspective to one of wanting to be ‘friends’ with the students. And, regrettably this seems to be common parlance – the go-to ‘counter-argument(s)’ – for those practitioners who see teacher-student conduct as the false dichotomy of you’re either ‘strict’ or you’re their ‘friend’, the latter being a convenient ‘catch-all’ label for those teachers who fail to build strong and meaningful teacher-student relationships. I should add that, thankfully, such ‘common parlance’ tends to reverberate around social media platforms more so than schools, thus this fallacious incursion of virtual ad hominem is nothing more than convenient, one-dimensional diatribe to obfuscate their own personal incredulity. From a starting point of absurdity in reducing relationships to such simplism,one only arrives at a terminal point of chaos. In fact, they and their ‘straw men’ could not be further from the truth.
I need the students to trust they can speak to me. I don’t need to be ‘friends’ to do that. I need them to know that, whilst I can’t ‘keep secrets’, they can always talk to me. The door is ‘always open’. And if it’s not, then they can boot it open. This trust is often grown, for me, by opting for dialogue over detention – by finding every opportunity to talk to the student – on their level – one-to-one, away from the influences of their peer group. I choose to relate, not manipulate. I choose the ‘long-term goal’, not behaviour policy ‘tips and tricks’. And the reasons why this approach is so important should be explicit hitherto, but just in case, I’ll turn over to Mind, a charity for mental health. Established in 1946 and figure headed by Stephen Fry (since 2011), Mind seeks to “stand up to the injustices – in healthcare, in work, in law – which make life harder for those of us with mental health problems.”
Mind consulted with over 2,870 young people for an inquiry conducted in 2021. The report was called Not Making the Grade: Why Our Approach to Mental Health at Secondary School is Failing Young People (June, 2021). The report suggests children’s mental health is being neglected by secondary schools across England, and that “too many young people […] are being denied vital mental health support at school”. Moreover, of these 2,870 young people consulted (in addition to parents/caregivers, mental health professionals and school staff), Mind found that “nearly 7 in 10 (68%) young people reported being absent from school due to their mental health [with some reporting] having their mental health problems treated as bad behaviour, [resulting in] being sent to isolation, [being] physically restrained, or excluded from school for this reason” (June, 2021, my emphasis).
Other findings from Mind’s report:
- 3 in 5 (62%) young people received no support from school for their mental health.
- Nearly half (48%) of young people had been disciplined at school for behaviour that was related to their mental health.
- 1 in 4 school staff (25%) were aware of a student being excluded from school because of their mental health.
- More than 1 in 6 (17%) young men with mental health problems had been excluded (either permanently or temporarily) in comparison to fewer than 1 in 10 (7%) young women.
Not Making the Grade: Why Our Approach to Mental Health at Secondary School is Failing Young People (June, 2021).
Granted, we are teachers. We are not social workers. However, we must resist being slaves to our own cognitive biases, such as fundamental attribution error (judging others on their personal/fundamental character, yet judging ourselves on the situation); we must challenge group think (due to our desire for conformity and harmony in the group – ‘social media’ included – we make irrational decisions, often to minimise conflict); and we must be honest when the Dunning-Kruger Effect drives our decision making (those who are lacking in competence do not have the skills to accurately recognise deficient performance). In other words:
We must stop judging teenagers’ behaviours as character flaws and accept their ‘Apollonian-Dionysian Totality’; we must gain cognitive distance from the (social/professional) ‘group’ and make rational, informed decisions, irrespective of congruency; and we must recognise we may sometimes act irrationally because of our own incompetencies.
Dialogue not detentions
We need dialogue and not detentions, perseverance not punitive punishment, relationships not wrath; we must use the language of ‘attainment’ not ‘ability’. And, fundamentally, we must forge opportunities for all young people to climb their own educational flightpaths, to turn left, and to take their own first-class seat.
Schools are ‘institutions of power’, borne in the Industrial Revolution for a very different world to what we have today. We need to recognise this dichotomy.
Necessity neither invites nor requires cooperation, so our ‘enlightened predecessors’ (Immanuel Kant, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke – to name a few) fought against authoritarian dogma and blind faith. They used reason and logic; they took cognitive distance and observed what worked and what didn’t – much like Finland today: ‘ability’ sets are actually illegal, and teachers are expected to hold a MA before they can teach, a higher rung on the ladder of academia that will promote a greater understanding of research-informed practice (arguably). Yes, we cannot just ‘lift’ another nation’s systems and culture and expect the same results. Of course not. But with respect to ‘ability’ sets, I think we could certainly reap some of the benefits, not least for reasons of equity.
Proponents of the use of logic, (including Roman scholars before Kant et al., and the Greeks before the Romans), should repudiate our blind faith in ‘ability’ sets because it’s defying the very logic with which we have been predisposed, our only ‘universal good’ if you like: our capacity to use reason.
Kant et al. would cringe at our yielding to people in positions of power, such as stakeholders, school leaders or even Ofsted when it claims mixed-ability classes are a ‘curse’, a declarative likely to make “headteachers rethink their practice of mixed-ability classes for fear of being marked down in future inspections” (Daily Mail, September, 2012).
Our predecessors would laugh at our fallaciousness and absurdity in following ‘habits’ just because it’s always ‘been this way’. They, Kant in particular, would grimace at our lack of ‘moral duty’ in favour of pragmatism. They would challenge our ignorance when we claim a child’s performance on a test at one or two points in their lives should sequester them from opportunities open to others. They would accuse us of gross apriorism (an invincible ignorance that pervades UK schools), given the wealth of reason and logic available at our fingertips. And, whilst they may sympathise with schools’ lack of time and the burdens pressing down on our pedagogy, they would seek ways to create time for the sake of a more equitable solution.
They would challenge us – just as we should challenge us.
They would question us.
They would dare us… to look with our reason as they turn us away from the darkness of ‘ability-speak’ and pivot us towards a better ‘sense of duty’ – towards the fecund lights of logic.
And collectively, they would chant: