Making Spaced Practice Count

This week’s teaching forum was with maths teacher Morwenna Treleven. Morwenna has been thinking about how to tackle the issue of having to get students to remember a large amount of content, in preparation for terminal exams.  This has coincided with completing the first year of a school-based masters and thinking about an area of interest for her dissertation for year 2.  Following a presentation last year by science teacher Phoebe Bence on using ‘Ankiapp’ to support spaced practice, Morwenna introduced ‘pause lessons’ every week, to review previously covered material – but she wanted to go further with this.

In their blog ‘Tips and Tricks for spaced LearningPaul Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen describe spaced practice:

“This is what it comes down to: Tackling learning in various short sessions works better than learning that same thing in one long session.”

In 1885 Hermann Ebbinghaus ran a limited study (on himself) where he taught himself nonsense syllables and then tested himself on them days after the initital exposure to them, recorded how many he remembered, reviewed them again and then repeated the process over time.  This resulted in the now-quite-famous ‘Ebbinghaus forgetting curve’ (see above).  Essentially this suggested that spacing out the reviews, with an increasing gap between them, helped him to remember the syllables.

Morwenna has looked at using this ‘spacing effect’ in her maths teaching.  She has been exploring ways of working out when is the optimal time to return to topics once they have been taught and in relation to the test in that topic, in order to maximise the spacing effect and help support recall.  She describes how she has done this:

(Wolf, 2008)

“Ebbinghaus  used 7 time intervals when recapping, 20 minutes, 1hour, 9 hours, 1 day, 2 days, 6 days and 31 days. The first 2 intervals apply to learning in lesson time; the third is irrelevant when teaching as lessons do not fit into the 9 hour time frames. We can start from the 1 day interval, though this is rarely possible.  2 days, out of Ebbinghaus’ 31 days, calculates to 10% of the total days, 6 days calculates to 20% of the total days. However, by elongating Ebbinghaus’s ‘review time frames’ to plan in the recap sessions and by using Wolf’s (2008) graph (above) of the forgetting curve, using a 60 day time frame, Glienster (2017) gradually increases the ‘percentages of the total days’ each class will have between tracking point tests. The exception to this is this first review; this comes 3 days after the first taught lesson, to compensate for 1 day rarely being possible with the timetabling of lessons. The second review takes place ‘15% of the total days’ after review one, elongating Ebbinghaus’ 10% and compensating for the first review taking place after 3 days and not 1. The third review is ‘25% of the total days’ after review two and the fourth is ‘35% of the total days’ after review three. This will take the class to just over 75% of the time between the initial teaching of that topic and their test. There will need to be a degree of flexibility to adjust these percentages to fit to each class and their lesson timetable.”

In order to implement this somewhat complex approach in a manageable way in the classroom, Morwenna has been using a spreadsheet that calculates from the day of initial teaching, when the review should take place (using the calculations outlined above i.e. when should the review be as a percentage of the time between initial teaching and the test on that topic).  She is currently trialling this with a Y7 and Y9 class and has been doing it since September:

The spreadsheet does this for all new topics that are started (this extract just shows one – product of prime factors).  As can be seen, sometimes the review will be covered as a quick quiz at the start of the lesson, on other occasions it will be a homework and towards the end of the period and closest to the test, as a whole review lesson.  Each topic is reviewed four times, with an increasing space of time between each review.   Morwenna is finding this spreadsheet useful in terms of her planning, as it reminds her when she should be reviewing each topic – keeping this in your memory as a busy teacher would be difficult for most busy teachers!

After one term of trialling this, Morwenna is seeing some promising results.  Test scores have improved with the Y7 and Y9 classes that she is trialling this with, and the students appear to be more confident when it comes to remembering things.  Other teachers who are trialling the approach are also reporting the same effect.   These are very early days though.  The trial will be continued over the course of a year, with the results being compared to a control group of students, who are not experiencing this approach.


Spaced Practice – The Learning Scientists

Spacing effects in learning: A temporal ridgeline of optimal retention – Cepeda et al, 2008

Increasing Retention Without Increasing study Time – Rohrer & Pashler, 2007

Posted by Shaun Allison


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Bright Spots

This morning, Shaun Allison and I had the pleasure of popping into several lessons across Durrington High School. The school felt noticeably calm and purposeful, and the challenging and therefore engaging lessons that were occurring at this time undoubtedly contributed to this excellent learning atmosphere.

In geography, Ben Crockett was making his year 10 students ‘think hard’ with a knowledge quiz. This retrieval practice involved questions from different topics, and Ben challenged his students even further by interleaving questions about topics that they studied at the very beginning of the year with work they had covered in more recent lessons. Likewise, further along the Humanities corridor, Tim Brinded was making effective use of the six learning strategies in history by asking his students to draw images in order to help them understand and explain new information – a great example of dual coding.

Along the corridor in Business Studies, Pete Kelly’s year 10 class were also retrieving knowledge from their prior learning with some targeted questioning. Pete then deepened the students’ thinking even further through elaboration, using prompts such as ‘why’ questions and asking students to explain why an answer is correct or how it can be developed. In drama, Tod Brennan’s class were benefitting from instant and pinpointed feedback in their rehearsal of a whole-group piece, thereby demonstrating some of the effective feedback strategies suggested by the EEF marking review.

Upstairs in MFL, the KS4 classes were busy preparing for assessments both in the near future and for next year.  Tim Gilbert was supporting his students’ preparation for their year 10 French assessment; this work had been carefully planned through reviewing what had been most challenging for students last year and thus making these areas the focus points for lessons. In Spanish, Dannielle Walters’ class were also preparing for assessments (this time for questions they will encounter in a year’s time), and were able to work independently due to the succinct and precise feedback they had received for the work in their books. By providing this feedback and giving clear opportunities to respond, the students clearly felt confident in organising knowledge and ideas so that it will be useful for their future learning. It is clear that the MFL department have planned their curriculum so that every lesson enables students to move a step closer to achieving their end goals.

Downstairs in PE a very vibrant and energetic Year 10 boys volleyball lesson was taking place in the gym. Tom Pickford explained to us how the boys had developed multiple skills through the short volleyball programme, for example how to control the power in their movements and think about their formation as a team. Although volleyball is in many ways a more complex sport to master compared to previous ones practised in PE, the boys were clearly engaged and able to rise to this challenge. This was a great example of how teachers’ high expectations enable our students to perform at their potential and beyond. It would also be remiss to not mention the gripping game of petanque in play just outside the gym. Always ready to model a task for students, Mr Allison limbered up and gave his best shot, but was easily ‘smashed’ out of the game with a killer bowl from Ms Haynes.

Finally, in English, Kelly Heane’s year 7s were working hard on a DIRT task following an assessment on an extract from Dickens’ Great Expectations. Again, the high expectations of students were clear to see in this lesson, not only in the choice of content but also through Kelly’s modelling of the level of writing that she was expecting her students to produce in the lesson. With challenges such as these being set and achieved early, it is evident that these students will have very successful futures at Durrington and beyond.

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Planning Extended Writing Step By Step

This week’s teaching forum looks at ways that teachers can support the planning of extended writing. I spoke with English teacher Emma Rose who has developed a number of brilliantly simple yet devilishly effective planning approaches.


Many students struggle to plan coherent and organised extended essays – even if they have secure knowledge and understanding of the content to be written about it. The problem appears to be one of transfer. In other words, how can students’ knowledge be adapted to meet the genre requirements of the extended essay and the assessment criteria of the task ? This is not only a blind spot for students. Many teachers struggle to articulate the micro-steps their students need to take – from reading a question, to generating ideas, to forming a coherent plan, to writing an answer. This is perhaps a symptom of the dreaded ‘curse of the expert’. As good writers ourselves, we forget what it is like to be a novice.

Emma has realised that the main solution to this problem is to teach each step clearly and to give students multiple opportunities to practise. The new English literature GCSE offers up some potentially tricky question types. For example, students are given an extract from a text – perhaps a couple of paragraphs from A Christmas Carol – and asked to write an answer that refers to the extract and elements from the rest of the text.

Emma has thought very carefully about the thought process students must go through to be ready to attempt the task. First of all, she has developed a scaffold that students use every time they approach an extract. This is the example her students use when approaching a Macbeth extract:

  1. Label any words which link to a theme e.g ‘Stars’ (Fate), ‘heaven’ (religion)
  2. Look out for imagery –similes, metaphors, personification
  3. Look out for symbols – light, dark, religious symbols
  4. Quickly annotate the lines you do understand in modern English
  5. First word and last word
  6. Repetition of words or ideas?
  7. Punctuation – exclamation marks, rhetorical questions to show emotion
  8. Make character notes – what do we already know about the characters in this scene?

Emma introduces this at the start of Y10 and uses it consistently for two years. She also adjusts the same scaffold when approaching questions about other texts – i.e. A Christmas Carol – and is thinking about how it could be further adapted for unseen poetry tasks. It provides a framework for generating ideas that, in time, her students begin to internalise for themselves.

Emma has also developed a simple approach to planning. Once they have generated ideas, her students create a two part plan – ‘in the extract’ and ‘across the text’:

Again, Emma has thought strategically about how her students sequence their thinking. They complete the ‘rest of the text’ part first as this is likely to open their schema on the text, giving them more ideas to write about when looking at the extract.

So, what makes Emma’s deceptively simple method so effective?

It is consistent. Students grow in confidence as they become more and more familiar with the scaffold. Emma sticks to her guns and resists the urge to change it each time as she knows that this is likely to lead to unnecessary confusion.

It is repetitive. Regular repetition over time allows for the spaced practice required for durable learning. Students also speed up over time too.

It is simple. Students have an awful lot of content knowledge to learn. Procedural knowledge scaffolds must provide a light touch so that they do not place too much strain on the limited capacity of the working memory.

It builds confidence. Emma never rejects her students’ planning ideas. Instead she shows them how to link and adapt their ideas to suit the question.

It shines a light on implicit processes. Emma has modelled out how her student think and has adapted her teaching to cater for this.


Emma’s ideas show, once again, the value of a less is more approach to teaching. The clarity of the strategies helps to increase Emma’s effectiveness as a teacher, but decrease her workload in the long run.

Written by Andy Tharby.

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Explicit Vocabulary Instruction as a Whole-School Literacy Strategy

Whole-School Literacy: Where to Begin

Last week at Durrington High School we spent a part of our INSET refocusing our whole-school literacy strategy. This began through comparing literacy to a toolbox that students can, and should, have available in every curriculum area. In order for students to be successful they need a wide repertoire of literacy skills, or many tools in their toolbox, and to be able to select and manipulate these appropriately for the task in hand. Literacy tools include skills such as spelling, punctuation, exploratory talk, reading comprehension etc. – in fact, the range of literacy skills that are imperative to success are myriad. However, in order for any literacy intervention to have impact the field has to be narrowed, or, in other words, we need to teach students how to confidently wield one tool at a time. When deciding the literacy tool that will be most effective at for Durrington at this time, and therefore the main focus of our whole-school strategy, the evidence seemed to point to one area in particular: Explicit vocabulary instruction.

What Vocabulary Should We Teach?

Over the past year, the staff at Durrington have spent considerable time getting to grips with the Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 hierarchy of vocabulary. Tier 1 vocabulary comprises words that are learned through everyday common language use, for example book, cat, and smile. Tier 3 words are those that are tightly associated with a specific domain and usually only acquired as the need arises. In schools, we often call Tier 3 words our subject-specific vocabulary. Finally, Tier 2 words are those that are more prevalent in written language, contain multiple meanings and are important for reading comprehension, for example measure, fortunate and tend.

When it comes to deciding which tier of vocabulary to use for explicit vocabulary instruction the research evidence does not offer any clear-cut answers, although there appears to be wide consensus that vocabulary instruction is of particular benefit to disadvantaged students. Marzano, for example, strongly advocates the explicit teaching of Tier 3 vocabulary as a means of increasing students’ background knowledge through secondary experience. Marzano argues that this is especially important for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds where exposure to knowledge and educational experience may be more limited. Conversely, Beck, McKeown and Kucan promote the explicit teaching of Tier 2 vocabulary, claiming that these are words that students are likely to meet in different contexts, and so can help them to layer different dimensions of meaning and understanding to a text or situation. Consequently, at Durrington, we decided to incorporate both Tiers 2 and 3.

Academic Word List

The next step in shaping our strategy was to help curriculum areas start to make judicious decisions about which Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary to teach. From previous dialogues and reviews we knew that Tier 3 vocabulary was already an integral part of lesson planning and delivery across the curriculum. Tier 2, however, was a murkier area for teachers, many of whom felt overwhelmed by the vast quantity of Tier 2 words at their disposal. At this stage, it was important to emphasise that the most effective vocabulary to teach is not prescribed, and so teachers have to make decisions based on their knowledge of what Tier 2 words students are most likely to encounter in multiple contexts in their subject and beyond. A further factor to consider is which words will support students in accessing more challenging conceptual ideas. A useful basis for these decisions is Averil Coxhead’s academic word list. In 2000, Coxhead published the findings from her research into the most frequent and widely-used words used in core academic vocabulary. Coxhead’s research is based on a corpus of 400 written academic texts, equalling about 3.5. million words in total. The texts range across 28 different subject areas and four disciplines: Arts, commerce, law and science. Included on the list are only the words that appeared at least 100 times in the corpus as a whole and at least ten times in each of the four disciplines. There are 570 words overall, for example analysis, estimate indicate and variable. Whilst there are a multitude of worthwhile Tier 2 words outside of the academic word list, this can be a useful starting point.

Explicitly Teaching Vocabulary is More than Just Using Vocabulary

Finally, for going forward and ensuring successful outcomes from this whole-school literacy strategy it was crucial to clarify what is meant by explicit vocabulary instruction. Often, vocabulary is introduced to students through modelling, most frequently through the teacher’s own language use. This modelling is vital and a necessary part of the students’ exposure not only to new vocabulary, but also privileged discourses. However, for explicit vocabulary instruction, students must also make use of the vocabulary themselves, practising using the words in different contexts and on numerous occasions both verbally and in writing. The three strategies that we are adopting to ensure explicit vocabulary instruction across the school are:

  1. Sentence stems: Students complete a sentence stem that contains the new word. For example, I used the evidence to… .
  2. Test sentences: Provide some sentences that make sense with the vocabulary and some that do not. For example, I followed the method to cook the pie or The pie was a method.
  3. Images: When introducing new words ask students to draw a visual image that will help to explain what the word means.

Drilling down into how well these three strategies have been embedded across departments will form the next phase on this whole-school intervention, with the ultimate aim being that when it comes to vocabulary, every student has the right tool for the job.


Bringing Words to Life, Beck, McKeown and Kucan, 2013.

Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, Marzano, 2004.

Fran Haynes


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Classroom culture: high expectations and challenge

Growing a strong classroom culture is the aim of every teacher.  In order for this culture to mature and bear fruit, it must be rooted in challenge and expectations.  In this week’s teaching forum, geography teacher Hannah Townsend shares her reflections on what she has done over the past four years to develop the highest possible standards in her classroom.

Picture2The starting point for Hannah was to separate out expectations and challenge.  She explained that this was problematic as the two are so completely intertwined.  However, after wrestling with the chicken-and-egg nature of the two concepts she decided that her particular culture started with high expectations.  Once established these then allowed her to set and maintain high challenge.

Hannah is a particularly reflective teacher and as well as drawing on her own experience, she read a series of papers that helped her connect the dots between her own practice with the research evidence.  These are included as a bibliography at the end of this blog.  Her reflections are summarised below:

High Expectations:

  • Always modelling warmth, respect and enthusiasm.
  • I set the tone from the moment I greet the students. All uniform issues are dealt with prior to entering the room. I give a warm welcome regardless of whether it is a class that can be challenging to work with or not.
  • I welcome them with phrases such as: ‘hello, nice to see you… in you come, starter is on the board… books out, lovely to see you… let’s come in quietly… I saw you won in the football match on Thursday… did your mum pass on my praise call?’
  • I also tend to go to the door at the end of the lesson and wish everyone well but also be specific: ‘I am so pleased with how many times you put your hand up Leon… excellent effort today Charlotte… thank you for working so hard… have a lovely evening/rest of day… you were far more focused.’
  • Clear routines for behaviour.  I thank students for meeting expectations but don’t over-praise.  Praise should be valued, and have the effect of encouraging them because they believe it is earned.
  • Clear instructions – what do I expect in terms of noise level? In terms of quality of work? In terms of tier 3 vocabulary?
  • Being consistent – I use clear phrases to determine the behaviour I would like: silent work, quiet work (can whisper about work no louder) or occasionally allowed to talk.
  • Giving ‘high profile students’ the opportunity to get it right – I give them small jobs at the start so they can get small praise from the outset; this can be simple such as ‘thank you George and Carlie for handing out the books’.  I thank students for getting it right but never praise students for achieving the basic expectations.
  • I often call home. Particularly for students who often get it wrong.  They rarely get praise calls for going beyond getting the basics right – so I aim to give them an opportunity to go beyond and then call home.
  • High expectations as a teacher isn’t just about your teaching classes, it’s so important for the form group too. I’ve established clear routines for my form – I greet them, they come in quietly getting their equipment out.  If they have an issue they initially discuss it at the door and then they are silent once I walk into the room. They know I value this time and that I treat it like a lesson.  Something is always planned for them to do, whether that is group chat activities (like circle time), flash card spellings or discussing current affairs.


  • You can only challenge students if you know the material yourself:  “Teachers cannot help children learn things they themselves do not understand.” (Ball, 1991, p5).
  • I challenge by getting students to upgrade their vocabulary when articulating verbal responses. I expose them to a wide range of tier 2 and 3 vocabulary during lessons. I don’t simplify terminology at KS3: they learn the correct terms and I model this through my explanation. My year 8 and 9 classes learn GCSE standard sequences of landform formation and are taught how to use A-level terminology.
  • I read up on new areas and observe other teachers within the department.  I attend the revision classes that other teachers in the department deliver and usually learn a couple of new things that can then feed into practice.
  • I use GCSE structures and knowledge in KS3 lessons and A-Level knowledge in GCSE lessons.
  • I always evaluate my own practice – how could I challenge my class more? Was there too much scaffolding? Did I overload them with tier 3 vocabulary? Did I give them enough time to practise?
  • For key stage 3 I have been able to implement more challenge tasks by presenting new material in small chunks and practising in-between so that students have an opportunity to practise skill, evaluate and ask questions. With the basics such as learning the continents, year 7 had been tested on this a few times to fully embed the knowledge.

Bibliography of Hannah’s reading:

Expecting the Best For Students: Teacher Expectations and Academic Outcomes.  Christine Rubie-Davies, John Hattie and Richard Hamilton.  British Journal of Educational Psychology (2006), 76, 429–444

Powerful Learning, Powerful Teaching and Powerful Schools.  David Hopkins (2000)

Principles of Instruction, Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know. Barak Rosenshine (2012)


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Effective CPD – Subject Planning and Development Sessions in Maths

Last year at Durrington we introduced a new approach to CPD – Subject Planning & Development Sessions.  The idea behind them is very straightforward – once a fortnight subject teams meet and discuss, what are we teaching over the next fortnight and how do we teach it well?  We have adopted this approach because:

  • It’s CPD within the context of the subject – modelling something effectively in PE is not the same as modelling something in science.
  • It’s within the context of what they are teaching now – the work that is done in that sessions, will directly impact the teaching that takes place in lessons over the next fortnight.
  • It encourages teachers to talk about their teaching and learn from others, especially when it comes to thinking about student misconceptions, mistakes and challenge.
  • It’s not a one off event – the work that is done in each session, will be further developed in the next session in a fortnight, and then again in another two weeks and so on.
  • It reduces workload – rather than everybody having to struggle together to plan the same sequence of lessons, why not plan it and share resources together?

How do departments use this time effectively?  Here’s an example from last year in science.  Tonight, maths exemplified this approach to CPD perfectly:

  • The GCSE papers from this summer have been analysed and fractions have been identified as an area of weakness.
  • Fractions are scheduled to be taught over the next fortnight to Y8, 9 and 10 – so this is an area of focus.
  • Fraction questions from the 2017 GCSE paper were collated – alongside the percentage of students that gained full marks in each question.  This allowed the team to identify the specific types of questions where students performed poorly.
  • The team then had to answer these exam questions in groups.
  • Following this, they had to discuss in pairs how they would then teach this effectively, with a focus on addressing the mistakes that students had made.
  • Whilst they were doing this, Curriculum Leader Kate Blight circulated and prompted her colleagues to think about misconceptions and common errors that students made – and how they could overcome this, through their teaching.
  • The group then came back together and shared the strategies they had discussed.
  • This then resulted in a bank of agreed effective strategies for teaching fractions e.g. using bar modelling to support students with visualising the question.

It’s easy to see how this CPD session will directly impact the teaching in maths over the next fortnight.  This is not the case with a great deal of CPD that happens in schools.

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Bright Spots: high ability


This week Shaun Allison and I walked around the school and visited several lessons focusing on the teaching of high ability students.  We dropped into English, maths and science top sets, observing the teaching and learning strategies that were being employed.  Most teaching at Durrington is delivered to mixed ability classes, however we do still have top sets in our core subjects.  The EEF toolkit provides evidence that for the highest attaining students, being taught together can be beneficial, although for all other students mixed ability teaching is most effective.  As a school we are still grappling with how to get the very best from our H and H* students, and the aim of this bright spots blog is to highlight some excellent examples of how this can be done.

Head of science Steph Temple was completing a walking talking mock with her Y11 class.  Her teaching showed several of the hallmarks of metacognition (the subject of a recent blog on our Research School site which can be found here) as she guided the students through annotations of exam questions.  Key to this was revealing her own thought processes as she encountered the question and checking understanding across the class by punctuating what she was saying with regular questions.  Initial questions also contained prompts for elaboration, a key skill in helping high ability students deepen their understanding.

Also in science Martin Reene was teaching Y8 students about plant reproduction.  One aspect of this lesson that was clear from the outset was the high expectations Martin set for the class.  He referred several times to the material being covered being of GCSE standard and how adept the class were at dealing with it.  He supported this through his explanation, ensuring he did not shy away from tier 3 vocabulary or the complexity of the processes he was explaining.  He was also not afraid of allowing this teacher talk to continue for an extended period of time, knowing that with this class the students stayed with him through this and as a results were more likely to be thinking about what he was saying.

The final science teacher we saw was Ian Canavan, who like Steph was teaching a Y11 class.  Ian was using a concrete example of a torch to explain energy transfer, thereby strengthening student understanding of this abstract concept.  As with all classes we visited, evident in this lesson was the attentiveness of all the students in the class and their commitment to what they were asked to do.

There was only one top set English lesson being taught, on this occasion by Bridget Norman.  The Y11 students were responding to written feedback and completing revisions and improvements to their work.  The teacher feedback was exceptionally precise and detailed, giving students clear formative comments that they could act upon during the lesson.  Each target was linked to a specific instruction as to the literary technique they could employ to improve their writing.  The mark of success of this activity was the output of the students, with those questioned showing a sophisticated understanding of what they were being asked to do.  Bridget was clearly playing on the ability profile of the class to set the challenge high as to what she expected in terms of the second draft.

Finally we visited maths, first dropping in to Julie House and her Y9 class.  This class were engaged in completing a GCSE exam paper, again demonstrating a culture of high expectations.  What was notable here was that the class contained a number of students who, in other contexts, had failed to meet expectations on behaviour and attitude.  However, in the culture of Julie’s classroom they were given licence to inhabit a more focused and academic version of themselves.  This could be a further advantage of top set teaching.

In Kathy Hughes’ Y9 class we witnessed another common characteristic of the best high ability teaching: accurate and useful peer feedback.  Peer feedback can be counter-productive in that the teacher loses control of the feedback being given, meaning it can be wrong and inconsistent.  In this particular lesson the students were questioning each other and helping their peers reach the correct answers by sharing their thoughts and workings on difficult problems.  Again this is a result of culture, and when properly managed and nurtured can lift the atmosphere of the class and drive their learning.

Overall, their was much to consider after this bright spots walk, not least the value of teaching high ability students separately.  This does not have to lead to strict setting of seven sets.  It could mean one top set with six groups with a mixed ability profile.  Ultimately we are committed in general terms to mixed ability, but for some subjects it seems top sets may still have a place.

Posted by: Chris Runeckles

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