Classroom design

classroom 3

This project was conducted by The Dawnay Primary School (Kayleigh Hewitt-Lee) and St Thomas of Canterbury Primary School (Mary Petley).

Scope of the project

  • Students will be sat in mixed ability groups to assess the impact of more confident students being able to support those less confident (thus prevent a gap from opening).
  • Students will also be sat in rows in order to ensure their focus throughout the lesson is on the teacher at the front of the classroom.
  • The research project will be trialed with at least 1 class for a minimum of 1 term.
  • A case study produced to reflect on the project with specific examples and evidence (and research where possible).



St Thomas of Canterbury

  • Initially undertaken in a Year 6 class and two year 5 classes for the first term.
  • Extended to include two Year 4 classes and a Year 2 class for a second term.
  • Prior to the start of the project St. Thomas’ was not using setting for maths but there was ability grouping within some classes.

The Dawnay

  • Initially involved four classes in this project. These classes are: Year 1, a Lower Junior class (mixed Year 3 and 4) and two Year 6 classes
  • Prior to the start of the project The Dawnay were setting for maths in KS2 but not in KS1.


Monitoring Impact

The effects of this project have been monitored through drop in visits, lesson observations, work sampling and pupil and staff surveys.

Unfortunately, due to the removal of levels and the requirements of the new NC it has been difficult to compare the outcomes of mixed ability teaching with stream maths lessons, this is because we do not have a cohort to compare them with. We also felt that it was difficult to compare the results of St Thomas and The Dawnay as the two schools have different catchment areas and therefore a different entry point for pupils.


What we found

Within the year 1 classroom the children are used to being taught in mixed ability groups. The teacher immediately found that whole class teaching suited the children in her class as they enjoy working together and helping one another. During an observation it was noted that the mixed ability teaching was helping to bridge the gap between the more able and the least able children in the class.

classroom 4Throughout the project the children within the year one classroom were very positive about their learning experience within mathematics. During one of the student surveys one of the children noted that it was fun to work together. Another children who found maths more difficult said that working with other people was helpful as they had two brains to use.

The Lower Junior teacher who participated in the project was in favour of the approach in September however at the start of the term he found it a challenge to teach the children in a mixed ability layout as the spread of ability was extreme. He felt that the core and less able pupils were supported well within his lessons but the more able children were not being extended, especially in relation to the new NC requirements.

classroom 3In addition to this some of the children within the lower junior classes found the change from streamed maths to mixed ability maths a challenge. The more able children, in particular, perceived that their learning was not being challenged and some found that the learning was repetitive. During our first student survey some of the more able children in this class they also make comments that reflected the same feelings of the teacher. One of the comments for a child stated that she could do the maths being taught and although she didn’t always get every answer correct she didn’t feel it was challenging. As the project has advanced the children are now more positive about their experience of mixed ability maths lessons and feel that their activities are now set at a challenging level. The Dawnay have found that assessment materials from NCETM have provided them with activities to deepen the children’s learning, in particular the more able, and as a result more children are accessing mastery level in mathematics. During our last student survey we took the same 8 more able pupils that we took in our first survey. Six out of eight children said that they now enjoyed their mathematics lessons. Two of the children said that they enjoyed sitting with other people. A different child said that they liked the challenge cards (NCETM Mastery Assessment Material) they were given as it meant that he had to think about the problem differently.

As the project progressed the teacher found that the mixed ability teaching has given him more flexibility with his class and more time is able to be focused towards the teaching of mathematics as children can be ‘drip fed’ their learning throughout the day. The teaching of mixed ability maths has developed the children’s collaboration skills and they are able to work together with their learning. This has particularly helped the children with their reasoning skills.

The project also ran in two upper junior classes at The Dawnay. Within one of the Upper Junior classes the teacher found the classroom layout a barrier to the children’s learning as the classroom’s space was limited. She found it difficult to set up and deliver her lessons using this model due to the lack of space. The teacher tried many different classroom layouts and found that the seating needed to be adapted. Pupil discussions show that the children very positive about mixed ability seating and observations show that there was an increase in pupil support and engagement within lessons. Now the teacher knows the children better, she feels that if she were to reintroduce the rows, it would be more successful and this is something that will be tried this term.

In the year 5 classes at St. Thomas’ the children were used to working in table groups, but now the majority prefer sitting in rows as they recognize it makes it easier to both see and hear the teacher. This was also supported by the class teachers and through observations. The children were very comfortable discussing their work in mixed ability pairs and saw asking a learning partner as an alternative step to waiting for a teacher to help when they are stuck on a question. Although the children did not recognize it, this method of working benefitted both learners. While supporting a less able child, the more able was using and developing their mathematical language and their ability to explain how to problem solve. In areas of Maths, such as ‘Time’, different children can struggle or excel; the mixed ability teaching has made it easier to match the level of challenge for each child in the different areas.

In the year 6 class at St. Thomas’ the teacher tried out several classroom layouts. She found the main benefit of being in rows facing the board was that the pupils were more focussed and involved in discussing problems and ways of solving them. However, the difference of ability within her class was very wide and this kind of layout did not make best use of adult support within her class. She adapted the design so it could include a small cluster of tables to be used for a focus group for the least able children when a teaching assistant was available. This is what she feels works best with her class and she is keen to take it forwards. Pupils are confident about mixed ability teaching and choosing the correct level of challenge for themselves.


Key Advantages

classroom 1

We have seen significant improvements in:

  • Behaviour
  • Concentration
  • Noise level
  • Independent work
  • Confidence in discussing learning, using mathematical vocabulary

There have also been some improvement in:

  • Contribution to discussion, especially from the less able.
  • Learning partner work


Key Challenges

We have encountered some challenges with:

  • Space
  • Furniture
  • Manipulatives
  • Teacher organisation


Pupil Voice

All children in Years 2, 4, 5 and 6 were asked to complete a survey at the end of the Easter term, including the classes that were still sitting in groups.

84% of children at St Thomas of Canterbury and 92% at The Dawnay felt that facing the board helped them follow the lesson better.

Here’s the results of some further questions:

classroom 10 - pupil voice

classroom 11 - pupil voice


Teacher Voice

classroom 7 - staff voiceclassroom 8 - staff voiceclassroom 9 - pupil voice


Next Steps

The Dawnay:

classroom 5 classroom 6

After a successful first time that has seen positive responses from pupils and staff The Dawnay will be continuing with mixed ability teaching for mathematics. The staff at The Dawnay have enjoyed participating in the project and feel that the mixed ability teaching benefits the ethos and learning environment of the school. Through the research the school has found out that the schools in Shanghai have a much different learning environment to their school in terms of displays. As their next steps the school is interested in finding out whether the displays in the classrooms affect the learning of the children.


St Thomas of Canterbury:

After the positive response seen in the top two years at St. Thomas’ we would like to develop this project further by introducing it to classes in the Lower Juniors and KS1. We feel we need more time to share our findings and compare the effectiveness of this teaching style at different stages of learning.

Display was mentioned by several children as something you can use to help you when you don’t understand. It would be useful to find out more about which displays, if any, are best at supporting Mathematics.


Click here to download the powerpoint from the spring conference Session 2 – classroom design

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