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What does good differentiation look like?

(77 Posts)
catkind Sun 14-Jun-15 11:05:19

DD is due to start school Sept 16, and is showing signs of being very ahead in academic stuff, e.g. she's reading fluently now.

She's very different from DS and I wouldn't rule out sending her to a different school, though obviously it would be less than ideal. What are we looking for in a school? What questions should we ask?

Phonics worries me particularly as DS spent a lot of time in reception learning phonics, and DD knows as far as I can tell everything he learned in that time. Should she wait for the others to catch up? Or be taught on her own? Or is there some middle ground? I'm worried that she will get into bad habits in reading and spelling if she isn't taught phonics at the level where she's at. Perhaps that's a daft thing to worry about and she'll just pick it up the way she's picked up reading so far. But then again it seems a bit arrogant to say she doesn't need teaching.

Maths I am more able to cover at home, though I guess there will be less time around school than there is around playgroup for her to follow her interests.

So, what do we actually want, ideally? I'd like to go to open days in September-October and ask questions, but what questions, and what answers are we looking for? And I guess I'm thinking about reception-year 1 as that's all we've seen so far with DS, but also what do we need to think about for further up the school?

Mistigri Sun 14-Jun-15 11:32:19

I don't think there is a single right answer to this. Both my children could read before school, and DD could write/ spell well too.

My DS benefited from whole class phonics, even though he could read, because it reinforced the phonics rules and how to use them in spelling. I think going through basic phonics again, in a more formal way, set him up to become good at spelling later in school. He is a very able student, but I couldn't say whether he is gifted (he probably is by the UK definition).

For DD whose ability is an order of magnitude different (had been an independent reader for a long time before school entry, has a phenomenal memory for spellings), teachers made a valiant effort to differentiate, but it wasn't especially successful because at that age she had a very limited ability to work alone on the sort of materials that would normally be appropriate for a reader of her ability (she had the reading age of a teenager but the concentration and life experiences of a 5 year old). For a while it was occasionally noticeable that she had missed out on some phonics, but honestly you wouldn't know it now (she is 14) as she can spell perfectly in three languages!

One thing I would say is that school systems tend to work on favour of girls with strong verbal abilities like your daughter and mine (especially if they have good social and listening skills). I do not worry at all about my daughter who despite attending bog-standard schools with little effective differentiation is doing extremely well.

getinthesea Sun 14-Jun-15 18:45:58

With hindsight, the single question I would have asked is 'tell me about your most able pupils and how you have accommodated them'. If they can give you clear descriptions of children who are advanced, and good, specific examples, they will probably cope. If they say something woolly about 'we cater for all children' then I'd be worried.

Phonics: you don't really know until you get there. Some children need the reinforcement for spelling, others work out the rules for themselves.

Our experience is that reception is fine, because it is mostly play and there is much more freedom for the teachers to pull her out and do work at her level. Year one was harder, because there is much more of a sit down and do your work ethos, so it is more difficult to differentiate for the truly able, and Yr2 was dreadful because she could do everything they wanted her to and more. Yr3 was sunlit uplands in comparison thanks to the topic-based freedom of KS2.

One thing I would say though, is that if she is reading fluently at - I'm guessing here - 3 or so then she is likely to be very able indeed at a level which is going to make schooling quite difficult. Obviously I don't know what your personal situation is, but if it was at all possibly I would be approaching a private school and talking about early entry into reception for Sept 2015.

AlternativeTentacles Sun 14-Jun-15 18:51:25

'How will you engage those that are ahead with phonics?'

catkind Sun 14-Jun-15 19:54:31

Thanks, interesting range of experiences there. In DD's favour, she is generally inclined to be a happy child and muck in with whatever's going on, hopefully this will make things easier for her wherever she ends up.

I definitely like the concrete question about existing pupils. Good interviewing technique - ask for an example when not how would you handle smile Still not sure really what answer I'm hoping for.

Yes, 3.3 or so getinthesea. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of private school offering around here. I admit I have considered early entry as a possibility, but think at the moment fine motor is a stumbling block as that's behind her other skills. Even there she's stronger than DS was when he started school, but I think to advance her I'd want her to be well ahead across the board. It's tempting in some respects, she's also very tall and fits in better with the school risers at playgroup rather than the other 3 yr olds. My secret master plan is to spend the next year teaching her to be a musical virtuoso wink wink, joking, but it'll hopefully be a diversion and fun.

RandomHouseRules Sun 14-Jun-15 22:44:16

I think the questions above are good suggestions. Find out also what reading scheme and maths programme the schools are running. I only know of the programmes at the school my DC's are at but for phonics, with DS who sounds similar to your DD, they use Read Write Inc and this allows for mixed-age similar ability groups. DS therefore has done RWI from (almost) the start of reception with a mix of y1 and y2. He still reads (at home) books ahead of some of the rest of his group but the level has been about right for writing and spelling and after some initial teething problems this approach has worked well. For maths we have had slightly more difficulty in our case with the first term or two not really adding much but as the teachers have got to know DS better they have been giving him some really interesting things to do and he has become seriously enthusiastic about maths games. We are still within the flexibility of reception though and I must admit to being a little concerned about next yr as I know (from classroom experience) that he will not have much to learn from the y1 maths curriculum in particular. The current trend with maths is not to teach ahead (e.g. Give a y1 child y2 maths topics) but to deepen knowledge in the same curriculum area. In my limited experience this is easier said than done and may boil down to how experienced and confident individual teachers are - you could ask about how the school handle a child who starts the year already meeting/exceeding expectations in a particular area.

I am really anti moving kids up a year - I know several people who did it and only one for whom it was positive. I know it works for some but it isn't a risk I would take. I have however made sure that I have got to know teachers at school, and that we have positive relationships so I feel I can raise questions informally anytime and so far when i have felt unsure about whether DCs needs are being met I have had a good dialogue and response.

JustRichmal Mon 15-Jun-15 06:46:49

My dd was failed by primary education to the point where we took her out of school to home ed. What I would have done differently is not being fobbed off by teachers' reassurances or their assertions that I was mistaken about my dd's ability. I would have stayed talking until they got the idea that I would not leave until we had worked out something concrete for what would be happening to educate dd.

I would have backed everything up in emails so there was something in writing. It is no use a teacher telling you she is level 3a at the end of year 2 and then at the end of year 4 another teacher telling you 3a was progress because the year 2 teacher was just saying that.

I would have wised up sooner to the fact that "adding depth to dd's learning" meant giving her a more difficult worksheet to get on with by herself and not teaching her anything new.

Your experience could well be different from mine, as so many others on this forum have had good differentiation by their dcs' schools.

var123 Mon 15-Jun-15 06:54:55

Descriptions of how the school have handled their most able pupils is a good one.

A copy of their G&T policy is useful (do they have one - if not then that's a clear warning). If its vague all children to their potential with no clear procedures for identify these children, then that's another. (Try the websites first to see if you can download).

IME the least experienced teachers did the least differentiation, NQTs being the most unlikely, whatever their willingness and enthusiasm. In practice, maybe differentiation would mean that the teacher would split the class into thirds and every child would get the same as the others in the third. Six sets is obviously better than three for those who are most able. (So have a quick peek at who is likely to be teaching your child and how much staff turnover there is!)

However, you already have a child in school so you know how admissions works. How many schools are there where you could actually get a place for your DD in because I think this will help you narrow the field considerably?

var123 Mon 15-Jun-15 07:05:21

And be aware of how the person you ask about what happens to g&t children will react to your questions. They don't know your child at all, or you, so there is the possibility that you are boasting, or you have hot-housed your child or are deluded and/ or are giving them clear warning that you are likely to be a demanding parent.

(I believe you but teachers always prefer to make their own judgements for new children. Sometimes they even insist on this when the child is only moving up a year with the rest of their class and they see the previous teacher every day in the staff room!)

So, you need good diplomacy skills!

Mistigri Mon 15-Jun-15 12:45:56

Teachers definitely like to make their own judgements. This tends to work in your favour if you have a child who is verbal and sociable (it is more difficult with less verbal, shyer children).

I agree that younger less experienced teachers tend to be less good at differentiating although this is not always the case (they are also less set in their ways!).

I don't agree that very able readers are destined to need special, selective education. I think there is an element here of parents anticipating issues that may never arise. DD was a fluent reader at 3, and had read a range of children's classics before school entry - the school and the ed psych who assessed her anticipated all sorts of issues which never arose, and she remains in the ordinary school system albeit accelerated one year.

getinthesea Mon 15-Jun-15 13:31:52

I've been thinking about this a bit, and have a couple of questions. Firstly, what's her comprehension like, and what kind of books is she reading right now?

Also, is she at nursery, and if so what do they say? With hindsight, I wish that we'd listened harder to the advice that both nursery and school gave, but they tend to couch it very gently, so it's sometimes hard to interpret.

DD's job-share reception teacher used to say that she thought DD would be better off in a smaller school. Funnily enough, I met her on the street last week - 18 months after we moved DD to another school - and she said how pleased she was we'd done this. She told me then that she knew that the school couldn't cope with her - in Reception she was past the level of the top class in the school for literacy - but wasn't able say that in so many words. So listen carefully to anything you are told.

I don't think there is any rule with teachers. Our worst year was with a teacher so experienced that he was jaded or just couldn't be arsed.

mistigri I know you've said this before about most children not needing anything special, but surely a year's skip is special treatment? Although it's almost impossible to get in a state school here.

Mistigri Mon 15-Jun-15 20:19:05

We're in a system where differentiation is almost non existent - your only option is to skip your child. It is in many ways much less satisfactory than differentiation, since it's really not uncommon by the end of UK primary to have children working at least a couple of years ahead of the "expected" level for the age.

Of course very bright children do need some differenciation (however this is achieved) - but I don't think that they automatically need special, selective schools. Some may indeed do better in this environment, but there is no automatic link between high IQ and need for a special educational setting. And the problem is that the right setting for one isn't necessarily right for another - unlike your dd, mine did better at a larger school with more friendship opportunities and a wider spread of ability.

AliceAnneB Mon 15-Jun-15 20:24:59

Perhaps consider a Montessori primary/elementary. As they work in mixed age groups it's much easier to stretch a gifted or very able child. That way she wouldn't be penalised socially by being moved ahead a year. In my experience a mixed age group class works best for such a child.

var123 Mon 15-Jun-15 21:16:05

IMHO you should be thinking about the entire primary school experience, all the way up to age 11 and which secondary school your child can get into!

I didn't do this but I learned to wish I had.

Anyway, saying that, I am guessing that you might be like me and you can just about imagine your child up to the age of 7.

So, reception won't teach your child much of the 3Rs. But it will teach sharing, turn taking etc which is obviously useful.

Year 1 could allow the children to go at their own pace. However, think what needs to happen to move up a book level? Someone has to assess your DC at each stage so that they can move on, and that's the rub. If you have to wait ages for the TA to get round to assessing your DD (say once a month), then she can spend a long time stuck on a level that she mastered the first night.

Also, it seemed to me (in my time as a parent helper) that the more able get assessed less frequently than those who might require more support. Those who really needed support might be listened to every day or so, others once a week, but the really able only got touched once a month.

So, there's your question: how often do you listen to the top group read and, on average, how many times do you need to hear them read and answer questions from a particular level before you move them up to the next level?

Ditto the assessments for maths. Mastering something was not DS's problem. it was gettign to stand in front of the TA and show that he'd got it.

For Ds2, year 1 worked beautifully (older, experienced teacher who actually seemed pleased to have a "little sponge", as she called him, in her class).
Then he hit a wall in year 2 when the NQT said at the start of the year that he was too far ahead and he'd have to re-do everything because the only alternative was to teach him year 3 things and that wouldn't do at all. That was the moment we learned to start dealing with feelings of boredom and how to fill the time each day after he'd done all the work, and all the extension work too.

PiqueABoo Mon 15-Jun-15 22:25:50

"We're in a system where differentiation is almost non existent "

So are we, or rather differentiation is often a bit of a smokescreen.

I think it can work to a reasonable extent in primary where some vocational teachers do work very hard to review everything today in order to differentiate tomorrow. But my experience suggests differentiation doesn't work at secondary because of all the different teachers and the relative rarity of marking.

You could argue that my Y7 DD is almost skipped ahead for being a summer-born.

catkind Tue 16-Jun-15 02:56:37

Thank you all for taking the time to share experiences. There are lots of points I want to answer and will come back to do so.

Starting with some easy ones for now.
How many schools we have to choose between? We're lucky, we do actually have a choice, or would have done in recent years at least. 3 relatively accessible options, there may be more state options if we extend our range of search. If we go out of town there are possibly private options including montessori.

What does DD read? Picture books mostly, and random stuff around the house and town. Comprehension - good in the sense she's reading for the stories. I don't know why else a 3 yr old would read really. I haven't tried quizzing her on the kinds of things that come up in school comprehension.

NotCitrus Tue 16-Jun-15 06:28:53

My ds is in Y1 at a large 90-intake school. The teachers who visited before he started warned he might complain about doing phonics "all the time" but that most likely he would be doing the 10-15 minutes a day with the whole class, then his own reading/writing and other activities. After the first term we heard about "phonics group" which was about 8 kids from the 3 classes doing advanced reading/spelling games and apparently involved making a pirate walk the plank. Then "maths club" started - now in Y1 that's 8 kids plus a couple from Reception. There's also an after-school programming club that advanced kids get invited to (all the boys invited attend but several of the invited girls don't, sadly). And all the kids have a literacy, numeracy and other learning targets for each term and a certificate if they do it. Very sweet to see ds sharing a friend's joy at meeting his reading target - ds sighed that his main target was eating new food...

Lots of topic weeks - the whole school did half a term on human rights and each class did a campaign, lots of themed work, so ds and those who can read are expected to do actual research in the school library on dinosaurs or mountains etc.

So far, very happy with the school and doubt he'd be learning much more in a prep school (except cricket and swimming - dn the same age is at a prep), and he'd hate the uniforms and sport and it would be even further to travel.

getinthesea Tue 16-Jun-15 08:59:51

The only reason I asked about the comprehension is that there is a condition called hyperlexia, where children can read fluently but not necessarily understanding all the content, and it's often associated with ASD. But that clearly isn't an issue.

mistigri I don't think anyone on this thread has said that bright children need segregated education, I certainly haven't. The only reason I suggested looking at private schools is because this is pretty much the only way you will get a grade skip in the UK. I do think that bright/gifted children need proper differentiation, and I agree with Pique that this is doesn't happen as often as it should.

var We had exactly the same happen in Year 2, given to us in almost the same words, except by an experienced teacher.

var123 Tue 16-Jun-15 12:06:55

Maybe I've been falsely blaming inexperience then?

I imagined that teachers start out full of enthusiasm and optimism, but limited by experience in what they can achieve. Then gradually they gain experience and either get better or completely lose the initial enthusiasm and settle into a more comfortable routine where they find a balance between working hard for the children every minute of the day and having time for themselves. That's just what I imagined and it could be completely wrong?

Ds1 had 3 NQTs: Y2, Y3 and Y5.
Y2 was nice but had no class control and other teachers were doing intervention is her class from Christmas onwards just to get some very unexciting SATS results. She left teaching after 2 years.

Y3 was lovely. She had much better class control and I think she was genuinely fond of all the children in her care. She's now in her 4th year of teaching and children still tear up when they think of having to leave her class to move up a year.

Y5 is a horror of shouting, swearing, angry desk-thumping, inconsistent rule making. She was one you survived rather than learned from. She's still there - maybe she'll mellow with age?

var123 Tue 16-Jun-15 12:08:12

Sorry that should be DS2 had 3 nqts.

getinthesea Tue 16-Jun-15 13:40:22

There's another trajectory, where they are experienced and think that they have seen it all - particularly with regards to bright kids - before.

I've come across two of these. One was fine, the other wasn't. He said that her GCSE grades would be fine, so what were we worrying about? She was 7, and bringing back notes she'd written in school about how boring maths was.

But in the end I think they are just people and there are as many ways of being good, or not, as there are individual teachers.

DD's current teacher isn't an NQT, but is still quite young and has the gift of talking to the class on their own level, while still being in charged. We're going to miss her next year.

catkind Tue 16-Jun-15 17:59:10

Still catching up...

Yes, very aware we will be being judged too if we ask these questions. And really hoping I can find a way of asking that isn't in front of other parents too, that would be awful. In a way DS's school may be easier to talk to, as they know he's academically strong and that we're not deluded about that. [and that far from hothousing, we're a bit of a slouch about homework...]

var123 Tue 16-Jun-15 18:59:03

getinthesea - unbelievably we got the been there, done that, got the t-shirt attitude from the Y5 NQT when she was in her second week! confused

catkind Tue 16-Jun-15 22:07:15

NotCitrus, that sounds fab.

Actually, known and appropriate targets would be a wonderful thing to have. No sign from either school we've experienced so far. Perhaps targets is a good thing to ask about as that doesn't even have to say anything specific about G&T.

Going to look up G&T policies now, that's another easy one that hadn't occurred to me.

catkind Tue 16-Jun-15 22:17:17

var123 and getinthesea, that's shocking about your yr2 experiences. Did you try to challenge it with headteachers or anything? Surely not even pretending to teach them isn't acceptable by any measure.

Going back a few posts, var, you're quite right, I don't have much of a clue about what later primary looks like these days. I'm looking at SATS results for a good number of level 6's. Guess I could ask the same questions about how they support their current high achievers?

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