A powerful objection to setting is that teachers deemed more effective are often placed with higher sets or borderline groups, while those students who most need great teaching are taught by those less able to provide it. When given the chance to manipulate groups as Head of Key Stage 4 Science however, Holly Youlden (’13, Yorkshire and the Humber) did the opposite. In the process, she set the example of what could be done among her year group.
Holly did not set out to be heroic: “It wasn’t an ideal situation. We had a member of staff on maternity and the long term cover really struggled with behaviour management. Year 10 can be quite bolshy and at the time he was really, really struggling with them and results were really poor.” Some students were being referred or excluded on a lesson-by-lesson basis. Holly felt students’ achievement came down to her: “If somebody has got to deal with the poor behaviour of Year 10, who better than the Head of Year 9 and 10. So at least it meant that I was the one accountable for it.”
Although Holly’s class was doing well, she felt that it would be “better for more students” if she moved some of her “calmer, harder working and better behaved” students out of the class, replacing them with some of their more challenging and disruptive peers in other classes. She collaborated with her colleagues to identify appropriate choices and “shuffled them all into my class”.
Holly hoped that it would relieve her colleague and help settle the class, although she admitted that it was initially “a little bit of a worrying concept”. “We gave them a fresh start and we didn’t tell them why. I just said ‘We think the groups aren’t working and that we just need to change things around a bit’. “They agreed with me, because everyone said that it wasn’t working.” Holly sought to treat the change as a fresh start, “not as a ‘You are in here because you are bad, and I’m going to be terrible to you.’”
Holly described the result as “really positive” for the most part. Many students’ behaviour improved significantly, which Holly attributes in part to having the chance “to be in a positive environment again” rather than being labelled as a troublemaker. “It’s still not the easiest class”, she notes, least of all when teaching them for a double period. “But the atmosphere in there and the attitudes are much, much better, so thankfully, it worked.” Her mentor Simon described the result as “fantastic to watch”. Her group “drastically improved”, he said: “These kids shouldn’t be as enthused, they weren’t as enthused and she’s got them eating out the palm of her hand really, and they like it and they want to do some work.”
Simon described Holly’s effort, consistency and expectations acting to convince students that she cares. He also explained that her example had helped to demonstrate to her colleagues what was possible.