No need to stress – we’re in a Finnish classroom!

By Research Associate Dr Anna Mazenod

Mannerheimintie Helsinki

In our last blog we shared with you some of the key features of the Finnish education system. This was in preparation for our project team visit to my native Finland to observe teaching and learning in secondary schools. The three Helsinki schools (Taivallahden peruskoulu, Töölön yhteiskoulu and Helsingin normaalilyseo) we visited delivered teaching in mixed-attainment classes.

Over a two-day visit we observed five teachers in action in their classrooms. What struck us the most was the calm pace of the lessons and the relaxed attitude to learning. This relaxed attitude to learning was shared by the teachers and the students, and permeated the classrooms and the school corridors. What was also noticeable was the emphasis on ‘chalk and talk’, and the relatively unstructured lessons. In our brief discussions with the individual teachers all stressed the importance of encouraging independent learning, and seemed to view themselves primarily as facilitators of learning. This was in the context of classes that were relatively small in size (the largest class we observed had 23 students). The lack of national level assessments of learning until students are aged 17-18 was identified by some of the teachers as helping to create an empowering and stress-free school environment for students.

Helsingin normaalilyseo classroom

During our visit we were fortunate to meet with some colleagues from the University of Helsinki and to compare notes on our research in schools in England and in Finland. It was interesting to hear the Finnish colleagues’ concerns about the direction of travel for the education system that is still highly regarded internationally. This brought into perspective the challenges of making sensible comparisons of different education systems, and how the position of the observer as an insider or an outsider within the system can influence what they see. The calm atmosphere in the classrooms for example felt very normal to me, familiar from my own childhood experiences of going to school in Finland. Other members of the project team were however quick to note, e.g. the low level of noise in the classrooms and in the school corridors that might be unusual in a typical English school. We learnt that whilst mixed-attainment classes are the norm, an element of setting has been introduced in some parts of the country through special emphasis classes. Maths with special emphasis, i.e. maths with an extended curriculum, is a popular option. Selection for these special emphasis classes is undertaken through aptitude tests that students can sit aged 12.

We are thankful to the schools and the teachers who welcomed us in their classrooms, and to the Finnish academics (Professor Elina Lahelma, Dr Sonja Kosunen and Dr Anna-Leena Riitaoja) who were willing to spare us time from their busy schedules. Our Finnish visit was an enriching one for the project and will help us to reflect on the impact of cultural settings on education policy and education systems in practice.

KCL staff observing lesson

Top image by Otso Kivekas, Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 3.0 ( Middle and bottom images by John Barlow

Schools in Finland: A Bite-Size Overview

By John Barlow

Ahead of our project team’s visit to observe lessons in schools in Helsinki, Finland; we looked at some of the key features of the highly regarded Finnish school system:

  • Finland’s comprehensive school system covers the 7 to 16 age range, with the basic education programme delivered in year classes from 1 to 9.
  • Compulsory schooling starts in the year when children turn seven and ends when the basic education programme has been completed, or when 10 years have passed from the start of compulsory schooling.
  • Schools are mainly run by local authorities, with less than 2 per cent of children attending private schools.
  • There are no single sex schools.
  • Basic education is governed by legislation, national core curricula and decentralised local curricula.
  • The core curriculum is drawn up by the National Board of Education, the national agency for the development of education. This forms the basis for local curricula which are designed by the education providers, in most cases the local authority.
  • Schools have certain freedoms in determining their own teaching arrangements. Teachers can use the learning materials and the teaching methods they prefer. There are no nationally chosen textbooks, nor is there any vetting of textbooks. There are no inspections of schools.
  • As a rule, schools do not select pupils. Every pupil can enrol in their local school. They are also able to choose a different school in their locality.
  • .The basic education is free for all pupils, as well as school meals, learning materials, health and dental care, and travel to and from school.
  • All teachers are required to posses a Master’s degree.
  • For the first six years pupils are taught by a class teacher who teaches all or most subjects. During the last three years, most subjects (including maths) are taught by specialised subject teachers.

All information adapted from the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture (

The location of the basic education programme in the wider Finnish education system

The location of the basic education programme in the wider Finnish education system

Running professional development sessions for teachers – and a project update

By Research Associate Dr Antonina Tereshchenko

Teachers take part in an exercise on differentiation in Manchester, 2016

Teachers take part in an exercise on differentiation in Manchester, 2016

Here at the ‘Best Practice in Setting’ trial, we are fortunate to work with 126 secondary schools across England. In July 2015, 64 schools were randomly allocated to the best practice in setting intervention group. We have 60 maths and 45 English departments and over 9000 Year 7 students take part in the intervention group. The geographical representation of the participating schools is impressive – we have hubs in Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Exeter, and the Waterloo and Euston areas of London where close to 100 teachers attend reflexive professional development workshops.

We have structured the interactive workshops around research evidence input, discussion, group work and reflecting on efforts in school to raise expectations, improve student engagement and provide a rich curriculum to all sets. A lot of effort had gone into developing research evidence summaries for teachers to provide the synthesis of the best research on the topics relevant to the intervention. The topics we have explored so far include: (i) high expectations, (ii) mindsets, praise and feedback, (iii) rich curriculum for all sets, and (iv) differentiation.

Teachers participating in the workshops take the lead in cascading the content of the sessions to colleagues within their departments to ensure best practice in teaching sets across the school. We learnt that many departments were already emphasising high expectations and growth mindset. What was challenging for teachers was to agree on the definition of the rich curriculum, as well as how to ensure that students in lower sets receive the same curriculum knowledge as their peers in higher sets. Among the most commonly named strategies was teaching the same topics to all students and aiming to develop the same set of skills to ensure that students could move freely between sets and cope with more demanding work.

We are extremely thankful to the teachers for their participation in the project and are looking forward to discussing their progress in improving learning outcomes of all students during the final round of professional development workshops in September 2016.

Next month our project team will be travelling to Helsinki, Finland to observe teaching practice in a number of Finnish secondary schools. We will also be meeting with academics from the University of Helsinki to discuss and learn more about issues around mixed student grouping in Finland’s respected secondary education system. We’ll write up and share our experiences with you in May / June.

Student self-confidence and grouping in English and maths

By Dr David Pepper 

Dr David Pepper

The Best Practice in Grouping Students project is not just about attainment in English and maths but also about wider outcomes of learning, including self-confidence. We think that how students are grouped for English and maths could affect whether they think they can really succeed in these subjects. This in turn could have implications for their engagement and persistence with challenging English and maths tasks. These learning outcomes – self-confidence, engagement and persistence – are targeted in international surveys such as PISA.

Our concern with wider learning outcomes was one important reason for asking schools participating in the project to help us conduct online questionnaire surveys of their Year 7 students (the cohort the project is targeting) and their English and maths teachers. Although perhaps not a transformative use of technology, the fact that our questionnaires were online hugely increased the efficiency of the surveys. Until quite recently, we had to print and post copies of questionnaires to schools and then face an anxious wait for completed questionnaires to be posted back.

Now that schools are online, services such as SurveyMonkey make it easy for them to access questionnaires – notwithstanding the need for teachers to notify parents and book the ICT suite. And, as a researcher, it is reassuring to log into your survey and see the number of questionnaire responses multiplying in real-time. Indeed, thanks to the efforts of teachers, parents, carers and students themselves, we received 750 responses to the teacher questionnaire and 13,000 responses to the student questionnaire. By comparison, the OECD’s PISA 2012 paper-based survey was completed by 4,000 students in schools in England.

One thing the internet hasn’t changed is the importance of piloting questionnaires with teachers and students. Part of our approach to piloting was to sit down with a small number of students in our pilot schools as they responded to draft versions of the questionnaire. Their feedback resulted in important modifications to questionnaire items, notably clarifications to what we meant by sets, streams and classes. However, since we’ve been able to progress directly to checking and analysing the survey data without the need for any laborious data entry, we already know that some Year 7s aren’t sure whether they are in such sets, streams or classes for English and maths.

The grouping blindness of some students is an interesting finding in itself but further analyses could explore what this means for students’ learning outcomes in English and maths, including their self-confidence. Other analyses will compare the learning outcomes of students taught in sets, streams or mixed-attainment groups as reported by their English and maths teachers. This will provide a baseline for comparisons between our intervention and control groups, including the effect size of our interventions, when our questionnaire surveys are repeated in summer 2017.

Mixed-attainment grouping: the pilot school experience

Pilot Schools Session at KCLBy Dr Becky Taylor, Researcher Practitioner

From September 2014 to July 2015, before we started our randomised controlled trials, the Best Practice in Grouping Students team spent a pilot year working with schools and preparing for the main study. We were delighted to have six brilliant schools on board – three schools that practise setting in Year 7 and three schools that practise mixed-attainment grouping.

The pilot year of the project does not contribute to the final evaluation of grouping practices, based on our randomised controlled trials, which will be reported in January 2018. However, our pilot schools played a vital role, helping us devise the professional development materials and research instruments that we are now using with the schools participating in our main study.

At the end of the year we invited the pilot school teachers to join us at King’s for a celebration and they were kind enough to share some of their thoughts from the year with us. In this blog post, we are sharing some of the reflections made by teachers from the mixed-attainment grouping pilot schools:

‘So many students come to secondary school believing they are ‘bad at maths’; mixed ability gives them a fresh start and a chance to change that mindset.’

‘It’s fantastic to see the students supporting each other, learning together and making progress together.’

The comments above come from schools and departments where mixed-attainment teaching is well-established. One of our pilot schools did make the change from setting to mixed-attainment in Year 7 maths last year and they were delighted with what they found:

‘All students mimic the behaviour of high-attaining students.’

‘There is a reduction in the anxiety of learning maths.’

‘I noticed an improvement in independent learning behaviour compared to my previously set Year 7.’

‘[There are] exciting light bulb moments in class that emerge due to [having] no cap on what students are expected to learn or achieve.’

That is not to say that it was easy. Mixed-attainment teaching was new to most of the maths teachers at the school, so they needed time to develop confidence with teaching a broad range of attainment in each group and to design appropriate resources. On top of this, students and their parents asked when they were going to be put into sets. However, the head of department reported that by the end of the year, the teachers ‘love it and comment on the benefits of learning!’

We are now preparing for our next professional development meetings with project schools, taking place over the next few weeks – it will be really exciting to catch up with teachers and hear how they are getting on.

Two Weeks at King’s: Reflecting on my Teach First Summer Project

By Brad Clark

Two weeks is not a long time – especially not when it comes to understanding a large, multifaceted endeavour like the Best Practice in Grouping Students project. Having just finished my first year of Teach First, finally able to exhale for the first time since the previous September, I found myself faced with a number of obligations intruding on my summer ‘holiday’: wrapping up PGCE requirements, going to a wedding in America, planning for the autumn term, and finding time to recharge after a long and trying year. Luckily, I managed to fit my Summer Project at King’s College London into those two weeks – and for me, it has already made a huge difference.

I was fortunate in that Professor Becky Francis, Dr David Pepper, Dr Antonina Tereshchenko, and Dr Becky Taylor all took the time to both make me feel welcome and to explain key aspects of their project. As one can imagine, a multi-year research trial taking place across over a hundred schools could easily be an unwieldly thing; in speaking with the team, however, I got a very strong sense of how the project was positioned in order to greater inform our understanding of best practices in schools. Much of the published literature already attests to the neutral, if not negative, effects that setting and streaming can have. The goals of this trial – seeking to discover why attainment grouping tends to have these effects; attempting to mitigate unfair treatment across different sets; aiding teachers who may find the transition to mixed attainment classrooms daunting – clearly show a desire to push for greater understanding of the issues involved. And not a greater understanding of esoteric topics, but real findings with the potential to positively impact the lives of countless children.

For my part, I learned a tremendous amount. In working with the team, I’ve been forced to consider how I might better use evidence from academic research in my own classroom. It led me to challenge any and all of my preconceived notions regarding education. Many of the ‘sacred cows’ of education came in for greater scrutiny, such as assessment for learning, differentiation and growth mindset. Some passed through, relatively unscathed. Far more have taken new shape, as I looked deeper into the data and findings that support some of the biggest ‘buzzwords’ in our field. I also enjoyed seeing the workings of such a large academic project from the inside. I gained a greater knowledge of both the quantitative and qualitative tools in a researcher’s arsenal and, perhaps more excitingly, saw how they could be married to create a comprehensive view: the power of numbers to identify and analyse phenomena occurring in schools throughout the country; the qualitative side to better explain the human element – how students and teachers understand themselves as they go through this process of secondary education.

Two weeks represents both the blink of an eye and – in representing one-third of my six week summer holiday – a sizable chunk of time. I feel lucky in that, while it may feel like it was over in hardly a second, the experiences I’ve taken from it will have a grip on me for some time to come. I have no doubt: both my practice as a teacher, and my understanding as a student of education, have benefited from these past two weeks at King’s.

Overview from Project Director Professor Becky Francis

Professor Becky FrancisThe lower progress and educational attainment of students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds in comparison with their more affluent peers is a longstanding problem. Research has shown that students from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to be over-represented in lower ‘ability’ sets and streams – and that young people in lower sets and streams make less progress than do their counterparts in higher attainment groups. Hence these socially-disadvantaged students may experience a ‘double disadvantage’, which impedes narrowing the gap. Research has also suggested some possible explanations for the lesser progress of those placed in low ‘ability groups’: including being taught a different curriculum at a different pace, poorer quality teaching and low expectations for their attainment.

Our project seeks to address these challenges. ‘Best Practice in Grouping Students’ is an Education Endowment Foundation-funded project investigating which methods of grouping secondary school students are most effective in improving their educational attainment and engagement; with particular attention to improving the performance of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. The project interventions are specifically designed to improve the educational attainment of these students by ensuring their progress is not detrimentally affected by poor practice and to assess the relative effectiveness of different methods of grouping students.

We have different interventions that ensure all students are equally able to access high quality teaching and a rich curriculum: ‘Best Practice in Setting’, and ‘Best Practice in Mixed Attainment’. Best Practice in Setting aims to remedy the poor practice identified by research as being associated with lower sets. Best Practice in Mixed Attainment aims to ensure good practice in mixed attainment teaching contexts. This latter intervention is of significance as studies have shown that students with low attainment make better progress in these mixed groupings than do comparable students in low ‘ability’ sets and streams.

Building on the experiences of a pilot year working with six secondary schools to develop and test the intervention delivery, we are now in the main phase of the project. Working with 139 secondary schools (either allocated to intervention or control groups) since summer 2015, we are delivering professional development to support good practice, and administering large-scale surveys of students and teachers to capture their experiences. The project runs til summer 2017, at which point outcomes of the trial are evaluated and reported by NfER. We look forward to reporting our results, and providing schools with the evidence they need to ensure equality of opportunity in implementing their student grouping practices.

Professor Becky Francis

Project Director, King’s College London