Mixed prior attainment teaching: why it worked for us

4 Mar 2019, 5:00

In 2011 Rosendale primary was looking for ways not only to close the attainment gap between pupil premium and non-pupil premium children, but also to use evidence-based practice to ensure we maximised potential attainment for all pupils.

The Teaching and Learning Toolkit compiled by the Education Endowment Foundation highlights that collaborative learning, metacognitive strategies, feedback and oral language interventions all have a high impact on children’s learning.

Research also suggests that children explaining learning to other children is extremely effective in deepening the understanding of high prior attainment pupils. As a result, many schools, including Rosendale, historically used “talk partners” to try to achieve this. Teachers would ask children to talk to each other, typically saying something like, “Tell your partner why you think this is the correct answer”.

However, we noticed that the children who needed to talk and practise often remained silent. So, the question we posed was, “How can we implement collaborative learning and classroom discussion in a way that impacts children’s achievement?”

Our starting point was to visit other schools to look at what worked well – and would suit Rosendale. We eventually landed on Kagan Cooperative Learning, a system of pedagogy used by a school in the north west of England that promotes cooperation and communication in the classroom.

We decided to implement this system across the school, and contracted a consultant to deliver training. We set aside two INSET days to have days one and two of the four-day programme delivered to all staff. At the end of the first day, we agreed that all children in key stage 2 would sit in mixed prior attainment teams of four from the start of the term. By the end of the first training day, all the teachers had put their children into heterogeneous teams. Targets were set and the senior team took responsibility for making sure these were met and for providing any support needed.

The very children who needed to talk were remaining silent

Over that academic year, we continued with lots of in-class support, including coaching from Kagan. Twilight sessions addressed common issues, as did “fixing” classroom practice during the coaching sessions.

Some of the main elements of the programme include: seating all children in heterogeneous teams of four; developing classroom relationships and synergy through team and class building; using structures such as a “timed pair share” to ensure that all children participate equally and are accountable for their learning. This gives each child the same amount of time to talk. At the end of the set time, the child who is listening has to process what they have heard. It is then their turn to share while the other child listens.

We regularly reinforce to staff that we need to use timers to make sure all children get an equal opportunity to talk, and that we no longer use hands-up because we want all children to engage. Training therefore focuses not only on the “how” but also on the “why”.

We also practise what we preach. In our adult learning sessions, we sit in mixed teams so that all the staff work together. We use simple structures, such as a “rally robin” or a “timed pair share” in assemblies, and, at the beginning, looked for the use of specific elements of the new pedagogy to make sure that all our feedback focused on that.

Six years on we still have monthly training sessions and regularly evaluate our training. Since its introduction in 2011, mixed prior attainment grouping has had a positive impact on all pupils. In key stage 2 the number of children reading at age-related expectations increased by 9 per cent from 2011 to 2016, in writing the increase was 20 per cent and in maths it was 10 per cent.

Research articles
Law, et al, Early Language Development

Summary of research on Kagan Structures


The EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit

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