Case study - Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Science

Setting, streaming and everything in-between

Theo Spalding-McIntosh Head of Biology, School 21


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The science department at School 21 has moved from attainment based grouping to qualification based streams. Historically, teaching has been in ability-based sets. The highest set was previously reserved for students taking the triple award qualification with the remaining sets consisting of combined science students grouped by ability. This change is a result of continual thinking about how to ensure science teaching and learning at School 21 is more equitable.

The murder of George Flloyd held a mirror up to the priorities of the profession

The Covid 19 crisis and school closures, alongside the murder of George Flloyd, held a mirror up to the priorities of the profession, particularly whether education in its current format is equitable. The closures provided us with extra time to carefully consider the changes that could be made to individual teaching practices and structures within the school. What follows is an initial case study into a structural change implemented at a departmental level.

As a Science faculty, we are aware of some of the equality and diversity issues in science education. These include the underrepresentation of females in Physics at A-Level, the lower attainment of students from an ethnic minority background, and the lack of diverse representation in the national curriculum. When considering the reasons for these issues, we have often been limited to thinking about the practice of individual teachers as a solution. For example, discussing how bias may manifest in teaching practices, eventually leading to groups of people being marginalised. However, now we are also thinking about changing the structures that contribute to these issues.

The sobering reality of attainment based grouping is it remains to be a practice that actively harms groups of students based purely on their background. When race, gender, or socioeconomic status are considered, a commonality is that in lower attainment groups; ethnic minorities and students receiving free-school meals are overrepresented.

Ring fenced time to discuss our practice

To begin with, it was necessary to consider the purpose of our actions from the perspective of a structural entity (science department) and as individuals (teachers). We were then able to question our purpose(s). Are we aiming to provide a science education that reproduces the status quo? Are we aiming to produce the next generation of scientists and engineers? Are we aiming to provide an education that creates opportunities for all students, regardless of their backgrounds?

As a group of experienced teachers, we ringed fenced time to discuss our setting practices. We researched relevant literature and interrogated the practices of high attaining schools. The question that was (and still is) increasingly difficult to answer, despite our best intentions – “How do we support all students to meet our expectations?”

All classes should be ‘nurture groups’

When considering students that are eligible for extra support, often answers will revolve around nurture groups. Named in a way that suggests growth as well as extreme care, the idea is that the most experienced teachers will provide an environment where students can achieve success and growth over time. Again, this sounds idyllic but when critically considered, it is clear this statement should apply to all classrooms. When reflecting on the purpose of the nurture cohort, there should be a conclusion that teaching and learning practices and the environment will be different. However, it is this difference that should receive the most scrutiny.

Differentiation by outcome could lead to the implicit lowering of expectations

The practices of differentiation of outcome and differentiation of support were the next areas to be explored. An interesting point of conversation related to whether differentiation of outcome could lead to a model of deficit thinking about students. This discussion led to an agreement that consistent differentiation of outcomes for students could implicitly lead to different expectations being held by teachers. To avoid this becoming a significant issue, it was agreed that differentiation by support would be our preferred pedagogical approach. This choice supported the shift toward more equitable practices and provided the opportunity to reflect as a team on teaching and learning practices.

Hearing students describe their experiences was painful but necessary

Although consciously attempting to move away from ability-based grouping, the reality is that having nurture groups signals that students are grouped by ability. This forced us to consider the student experiences attached to ability-based grouping. Anecdotally, there was a consideration of our own experiences of teaching ability-based groups, as well as the recollections of our own experiences of being taught in ability-based groups. However, most importantly we asked the students about their experiences of ability-based grouping. Interestingly, some students agreed with ability-based grouping, referring to lessons being more challenging in high ability groups with better behaviour. However, students that had experienced learning in lower attaining groups provided an insight into the attached social and peer stigmas of being in these groups. In addition to stigma, students also commented that being in these groups affected their perception of how challenging the subject was. Also stating that setting affected their perceived competence in the subject. Hearing students describe their experiences of science in this way was painful but necessary. It forced all parties to reevaluate the structures we had been complicit in maintaining, as well as the long-term impact on student’s self-perception.

Next steps

So what did we do next? We knew that mixed ability groups were necessary, but we also wanted any groupings to be balanced in terms of gender and ethnicity. The solution was to craft a set of design principles for grouping students, allowing us to be explicit about how and why students are grouped in a particular way. After agreeing on the principle of balance in terms of gender, attempting to avoid overrepresentation in terms of ethnicity, and finding productive partnerships in terms of individual students. We also consulted with other subject areas and teachers about the dynamics of our proposed groupings.

Our initial review of the department’s streaming practices has been positive. However, as with all projects, the feedback gained over time will be important. We have retained a flexible approach with student groupings. Each half-term we discuss if students should be moved to different groupings. Often this considers if a subject specialist will teach students in the nurture cohort. Ensuring students are receiving support underpinned by expert subject knowledge. Now our aim has shifted towards observing and reflecting on the new practices. In time a fuller review and re-iteration will take place, hopefully moving towards more equitable outcomes for all students.

In collaboration with @DiverseEd2020, this blog series, is a way to showcase a range of voices, giving space to share examples of practice, personal reflections, and calls to action #DiverseEd

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