The problem of multi-level teaching – Keir Bloomer

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Much attention has been paid recently to the incidence of multi-course or multi-level teaching; a form of organisation in which pupils studying different courses are taught in the same classroom by a single teacher.

It has to be acknowledged at the outset that this is not a new phenomenon.  Even fifty years ago, it was not uncommon to see a single pupil sitting alone at the back of an S3 or S4 class which was studying for the newly-introduced O Grade examinations.  Usually the loner would be aiming to retake a Higher or perhaps gain a pass in a new subject in S6.  He or she usually received a little of the teacher’s attention while the class was working on its own and often handed in some written work at the end of the period to be marked.  It wasn’t an ideal arrangement but it certainly didn’t provoke the kind of concern that is evident today.

Why should it?  The main class didn’t lose out.  And, in any event, the number of pupils involved was very small. 

Today’s situation is very different.  A previously marginal practice seems to have become routine.  The number of pupils being taught in multi-level classes appears to be rising rapidly.  In many schools, two or more classes which would previously have been treated as quite distinct are being taught together.  Thus, groups of Higher and N5 students may be in the same room with the teacher struggling to deal simultaneously with two sets of content and widely varying levels of difficulty.  Three levels in the same room is far from unknown.

The changes in examinations brought in as part of CfE implementation are often unhelpful in this context.  Under Standard Grade, in a significant number of subjects, it was fair to say that Foundation, General and Credit passes represented different levels of attainment on a common course with common content.  No doubt teaching the wide spread of likely success presented challenges to the teacher but not greater than those presented by a mixed ability class in S1 or S2.  Now N4 and N5 are different courses.  They also have very different assessment regimes.  Nevertheless, it is commonplace for the two to be taught in the same classroom, sometimes with a Higher group present as well.

There are few, if any, teachers, pupils or parents who regard this as the optimal arrangement.  Some may see it as viable, perhaps the best that can be achieved in difficult circumstances.  However, none would choose it.  This raises the vital question, “Why should teachers and pupils have to accept classroom conditions that everyone admits fall far short of the ideal”?  The burden of proof is very much on those who create such circumstances at school level or, even more so, on those at national level who have acquiesced in their becoming more common.

John Swinney has defended the current practices by suggesting that headteachers who have allowed the spread of multi-level teaching in their schools have done so in the interests of preserving or extending subject choice.  This argument has some merit.  There are certainly circumstances which can arise at school level – teacher shortage is an obvious example – where continuing to offer an important mainstream subject is dependent on accepting that more than one level will be taught in the same classroom.  It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the subject areas in which teacher shortage is most evident (maths and science) are also those in which multi-level teaching presents greatest problems.  Furthermore, it is unlikely that every instance of multi-level teaching can be explained in this way.

In any event, the justification raises important but difficult questions.  What priority should be accorded to subject choice as opposed to other curricular considerations?  Is it more beneficial to offer three sciences than to provide two under superior teaching conditions?  Is it acceptable for one class to be taught in a multi-course environment while another has access to a teacher focused on a single course?  How are pupils selected for the first as opposed to the second arrangement?

These questions in turn raise others that are even more fundamental.  Deciding on curriculum structure and course options is a matter of choices and priorities.  Schools can opt to maximise choice but the consequences are likely to include more multi-level teaching, increasing instances of non-economic sections in S6, larger classes in earlier years and so forth.  What are the considerations that schools should take into account in making their decisions?

In a perfect world, schools would be confident when putting a subject on offer in S2 or S3 that they will be able to ensure that subject’s availability at all levels up to Advanced Higher.  They will wish to ensure that classes of viable size are taught separately at each of these levels.  In the new, more flexible senior phase, they will want to make sound arrangements for a variety of pathways with levels such as N5 and Higher being available at more than one stage.  This is a tall order.  If compromises have to made, which groups of pupils should be given priority?  Is it more important to have separate N4 and N5 classes in S4 or to be able to offer N5 in S5 and S6?

All of this suggests that the present fluid approach to the senior phase requires a very careful approach to the design of the curriculum in the early stages or, at the very least, at the earliest point that pupils are presented with significant choice.  It is important that all schools should be able to offer access to main stream academic courses.  It could, of course, be argued that this should not take priority over offering a range of vocational and personal development choices.  However, I would argue that the essential function – and the chief area of expertise – of schools is to provide young people with access for as long as possible to those studies which maximise both career choice and personal development.  This means an intellectually enriching experience through academic study.  From the end of S4 onwards there are other – probably superior – options for those whose preferences and talents lie in other directions.

This seems to return us to the view that, before offering a course option, schools should be reasonably confident of being able to provide the most appropriate classroom setting for the study of that subject at all levels from SCQF 4 to 7.  Is this an issue that the forthcoming independent review of the senior phase will consider?

Keir Bloomer is chair of the Commission on School Reform