Why setting children by ability does more harm than good

Yesterday afternoon I was rudely awakened from my post-Gove reverie by the announcement that Nicky Morgan plans to effectively force schools into setting pupils by ability. Twitter was aflame with indignation, tempered only by those who were sure the papers were over-reacting. Morgan herself was quick to refute the claims soon after, but I cannot help but wonder whether that was prompted more by the backlash the news received than the lack of truth at its core. And exaggeration or not, I’m not prepared to leave this one alone – particularly when Cameron is so clear on his own views about the issue: “I want to see setting in every single school. Parents know it works. Teachers know it works… But it still hasn’t happened. We will keep up the pressure till it does.”

When you put it like that it appears there’s not much to argue against. If everyone knows setting works so well, then why indeed are all our children not taught in ability groupings? The thing is of course that, like most things in education, it’s not actually that simple. It may seem obvious – separate the brighter kids from the ones who are struggling so that teachers can pitch their lessons more effectively – but in reality it doesn’t quite work that that. I’ve got plenty of anecdotal evidence to draw on here, but first let’s look at the research.

The Educational Endowment Foundation, in its analysis of setting or streaming as a potential intervention to raise achievement, concludes that overall it has a slightly detrimental effect. On average pupils taught in ability groups will be one month behind similar pupils elsewhere at the end of a year, with the only positive impact (equivalent to one or two additional months progress) being seen in higher attaining pupils. Significantly negative impact on achievement is seen in pupils who are mid-range or lower attainers, summer born or from ethnic minorities.

And it’s not just the detrimental impact on achievement that we should be concerned about. This might fly directly in the face of Cameron’s claims, but even more worrying are the myriad of other impacts setting by ability has on our children.

In her 2002 book ‘Ability Grouping in Schools’, Susan Hallam delves deeper into this, analysing research carried out over almost a century to conclude that:

‘concerns about underachievement, lack of pro-school attitudes and exclusion have tended to be approached by calls for more differentiation by ability or attainment. Such moves are not supported in the research literature. Indeed differentiation by ability/ attainment has been associated with limited access to knowledge by some pupils, domination of pedagogic practices by teachers, preferred teachers for ‘elite’ pupils and enforcement of social divisions among pupils’

Students put in lower ability groups struggle with their self-esteem, which then impacts on their motivation and performance – a situation only made worse by the allocation of less experienced or less effective teachers to their classes. Every teacher I know has tales of bottom sets made up of mostly boys, with a disproportionate number of pupils of lower socio-economic status and a high incidence or special educational needs and challenging behaviour – and these experiences are fully supported by the research that has been carried out.

But what of the higher attainers? The ones who would otherwise be held back by those badly behaving boys, have their thirst for knowledge hampered by the need for teachers to attend to all those individual needs? Well I would argue that they, too, are ill done by to be grouped with others of supposedly similar ability. My experience of teaching top sets has shown me that pupils can become arrogant, ultimately underachieving against their individual potential because they feel that the label they have been given shows they don’t need to work as hard as everyone else. At the other end of the scale it has also shown me bright students lacking in confidence who feel that they don’t belong in the top set, who will happily take their place at the bottom of that particular ladder when if they were taught in a system which valued the individual they may have been more keen to play to their strengths.

The thing with mixed ability teaching is that you can’t do it unless you recognise that all the students in front of you are individuals. Of course that is true in any classroom, but teachers can be lulled into a false sense of security if they are told that the students in their charge fall into a set – that there is parity in how they will perform as learners.

One of my favourite ever classes was a mixed ability group who were studying for GCSEs in English and Media. The target grades in that class ranged from G to B, and the personalities ranged from introverted high achievers to poor attenders with challenging behaviour. I had to design my lessons around each of their needs – to pitch each different task at the level that was going to best help each individual in that class achieve their potential. That process was illuminating in itself, because there was not one child in that room who was universally high or low ability. Some were better at analysing literature, others at creative writing; some excelled in creative thinking, others in their artistic ability; some listened perceptively, others spoke engagingly and eruditely on a range of topics.

I am confident that each pupil in that class left with a strong sense of what they were good at, and also the areas in which they needed to improve. They learnt not to judge others on face value, that they had much to gain from listening to their peers as well as much to offer in supporting them. And the actual grades they achieved ranged from E to A*, with a good proportion going on to study English or Media in sixth form.

In a literature review carried out in 2005, Kutnick et al express their concern about the narrow scope of the educational outcomes that are considered, saying that ‘in general a narrow range of learning outcomes has been researched with little concern for critical thinking, creativity and meta-cognitive and transferable skills’. 

I would add to this concerns about equality, about social mobility, and about mental health. Ultimately I believe in the importance of each pupil being able to genuinely discover their potential through learning, not through a label imposed on them at the start of their educational journey.

But even if we put all this to one side, even if we focus purely on academic achievement, then the fact remains that setting children by ability does more harm than good.

In contrast, research shows that mixed ability teaching can:

  • provide a means of offering equal opportunities
  • address the negative social consequences of structured ability grouping by encouraging co-operative behaviour and social integration
  • provide positive role-models for less able pupils
  • promote good relations between pupils
  • enhance pupil/ teacher interactions
  • reduce some of the competition engendered by structured grouping
  • enable pupils to work at their own pace
  • provide a sense of continuity and security for primary pupils when they transfer to secondary school
  • encourage teachers to acknowledge that the pupils in their class are not a homogenous group
  • encourage teachers to identify pupil needs and match learning tasks to them 

(S.Hallam, 2002)

Or to put it another way:

‘I love group discussions and I admit I get really excited and a surge of energy to participate. In GCSE English we had mixed ability students in class and I enjoyed it. Helping and telling others what I know about the task or stimulus helped me to remember as I was going over it out loud. I learn the best in discussions or debates as I hear what other people are thinking and it gives me a different or an altered view and the ideas just seem to flow one after another in my head.’

(A* GCSE English student, 2009)

For me this sums up the key benefits of mixed ability classrooms – where students become collaborators in each others’ learning and teachers adapt their pedagogy to include, challenge and engage all learners.

Of course not all schools or classrooms or situations are the same, and where mixed ability works for one teacher and one group of pupils another may thrive on setting by ability. But to claim that setting should be happening across the board? I am afraid, Mr Cameron, that I do not see the logic in that.

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