Setting by Ability – Why?

If you read my blog regularly, it may not surprise you to read that I have always been against setting and grouping by ability. For one, it never is truly by ability but by a set of attainment or exam results which cannot be a completely accurate judge of a child’s ability. For another, in thirteen years of teaching I have never seen any evidence of setting achieving what I’m constantly told it is meant to achieve.

In ‘Grouping pupils by ability in schools’ by Ed Baines, another essay in ‘Bad Education. Debunking Myths in Education’, the writer tries to make the case that setting is done for all of the wrong reasons and, in some circumstances, can be detrimental to the education of some. Ability grouping is the most common form of setting in Secondary schools in the UK. It seems to be accepted – and here I can only talk about my own experiences – that it is ‘best’ for all kids as we can focus on individual needs more appropriately if there is less of a disparity in ability in one class. The data doesn’t seem to back that up.

What Ed Baines has found is that, in the higher ability groups, overall average effect seems to be negligible. There is evidence of slight improvements in some cases – when a curriculum is specifically designed for that ability group –  but more often than not there is very little or no effect. In some circumstances the pace of curriculum coverage can cause some students to fall back in higher ability groups.

In lower ability groups, setting can prove disastrous. The pace of work drops as it is believed that lessons need to be more structured and repetitive for lower ability groups to function. This breeds boredom and disengagement at a time when creativity and inspiration is needed more than ever. Add to this the removal of the advantages of working with those who are more able and you can see who gets the bad deal here. It doesn’t help that, as Baines found in his research:

‘… schools may tend to allocate the most knowledgeable and experienced teachers to the high ability groups and the less knowledgeable or experienced teachers to the low ability and difficult classes.’

Which, when you consider that the main argument for setting is to give everyone the best opportunities, seems to be self-defeating in the extreme.  What appears to happen in these less able groups is that a culture of negativity towards learning flourishes, entrenching social divisions and low expectations in both students and teachers.

The more successful setting by ability seems to happen with ‘Within Class Ability Groups’, which is rare in Secondary school but very prominent in Primary. The ability to differentiate group tasks with the advantage of changing to mixed ability peer groups seems to be the most successful model.

So, in the face of this evidence and very little which proves the opposite, why do we do it? Politicians argue that this is what the better off parents want. The old Private school argument without the cash. We want our kids to be removed from bad influence. It possibly makes teaching and planning for teaching easier for teachers. It seems vital that school leaders are seen to be addressing these issues and, on paper, setting seems to make sense.

However, Ed Baines argues, the evidence suggests that, educationally, it doesn’t work. There may well be evidence to the contrary but we at least need to be having a mature conversation about why we persist with it in most Secondary schools.

37 thoughts on “Setting by Ability – Why?

  1. Good stimulus for that ‘mature conversation’ we never seem to get round to Kenny. The first department I taught in back in the 1970s had a fantastic PT who resisted all pressure from the HT and others to introduce setting, at least beyond S2, and the results (that is, exam results, were at least on a par with other departments and comparable schools. However, he had a conviction that by setting according to ability (or to be more accurate, a small sub-set of abilities), a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ would undermine the efforts of even the best teachers. Interestingly, despite the research which exists to demonstrate at least that the case for setting has not been made, its popularity has grown in the past forty years, and in many secondary schools it is now the norm from S1.

    • Thanks Bill,
      It does seem – and I’m trying not to speak form personal experience which becomes merely anecdotal – that there is little or no evidence to say that it works educationally at least. I saw your later comment that, if it is exam results which drive our schools, and I suppose that is probably the case, then setting well help you to get where you want to go. But in terms of progress it doesn’t work for all. We need to try and have the conversation without getting riled when others question our assumptions. If there is evidence out there to prove the opposite I’d be interested to read it.

  2. The problem of the lower sets becoming the ‘sink’ sets for the intake and low achievement and aspiration becoming a self fulfilling prophecy is always something I have seen as a very real problem with setting. Being told you are rubbish at something is a sure fire way to make sure you are rubbish at it, and being in the bottom set shouts ‘you are rubbish at this subject’ louder than anything. The students in the bottom sets for every subject (and quite a few are), are thus written off before they even open their books.
    Thanks for posting this and drawing people’s attention to an important issue.

    • Thans for your comment Matt,
      I think, what seems to be clear, is that those in ability groups may have a better chance to pass the exam at the level for which they are entered, but this ignores the fact that labeling them at twelve may have already narrowed their opportunities at fifteen/ sixteen. As I’ve said, I’m trying to avoid anecdotal evidence as this is difficult to transfer. All available evidence, which I’ve seen, suggests it doesn’t work,

  3. We decided to set our S3 by ability this year and it has been broadly successful, the aim being to best prepare the pupils for what is going to be a challenging transition into S4.

    The ‘top’ class have been able to engage with texts that are generally regarded as more challenging than would be appropriate for an S3, and as such are being prepared for a Nat5 in S4 (which pupils in the other two classes are unlikely to attempt). At the same time the ‘bottom’ class have been able to engage in a hugely creative project which allows them to explore almost every Level 3 outcome in the CfE curriculum and has really stretched their skills (this is the smallest of the three classes).

    In terms of who teaches which class, I have the most able class (despite being by far the least experienced) and my PT (with 30+ years experience) teaches the middle set.

    I should stress that the classes were not formed based on the results of any assessment; instead we based our decision on the overall progress, engagement and skills of each pupil (crucially behaviour was not a factor).

    I understand the arguments against setting by ability and in many cases agree with them but I think in this particular instance we made the correct decision (although the picture will become ever clearer when we see how they all get on in S4 and S5).

    • Hi James, thanks for your comment,
      I wouldn’t begin to question your own experience and totally get where you are coming from here. However, the discussion I am interested in is about educational progress rather than suitability to pass a particular exam. it seems that our system labels kids at an early age which, all the evidence suggests, limits their chances of reaching a higher level than that. Tell a kid their target is a ‘B’ and they’ll aim for a ‘B’ and very rarely pass that. But I digress. Perhaps I feel uncomfortable when you say that a class have been able to engage with work. How do you really know that EVERY student is making progress? Again I’m only reacting to the evidence I’ve read nothing anecdotal. Until I see something concrete I can’t really see that setting does much more than make things easier for teachers,

      • With regards to my class I’d be very confident in being able to give an accurate picture of the progress of each individual, and coupled with an overview of the work they produce think it’s quite clear that they have made progress. Obviously some are doing better than others but I have set out to make my s3 class very very challenging this year and narrowing the ability range has certainly helped facilitate that (to be honest I really just see it as an extension of effective differentiation).

        I really think that the problems associated with setting are in fact down to how the teachers respond to it rather than the children, as this is surely the thing that entrenched the “can’t do” attitudes of ‘bottom’ sets.

        I’d also argue that there is nothing wrong with taking actions that make things easier for teachers so long as the thing that is made easier is the delivery of a focussed education appropriate to each individual pupil.

  4. Is the problem not more about inadequate planning of appropriately challenging, and differentiated, exercises for “lower ability” classes than the principle of setting? The idea of setting, to me, seems a logical extension of a view in which I wouldn’t teach 16-year-olds in the same lesson as 6-year-olds: there is too large a gulf in prior experience/understanding/competence between these groups. The act of ‘setting’ puts together children of more similar experience/understanding/competence. A pupil on target for a grade D requires different tasks to develop than a pupil in line for an A* grade. So, when there are there large numbers of “grade D” and “grade A*” pupils, it makes sense to form whole classes focused on these different tasks. But ALL the pupils should be pushed and challenged to develop their learning as best they can. If the teacher of the “lower-ability” class resorts to low-challenge tasks and a “can’t do” attitude, then THAT is the problem which should be addressed.

    • I did say in the post that ‘There is evidence of slight improvements in some cases – when a curriculum is specifically designed for that ability group – but more often than not there is very little or no effect’. Unfortunately the evidence suggests that this is not happening so you’re right, the problem lies with planning. Everything you say seems to be logical but this doesn’t transfer to the classroom. My post was not a personal polemic, although it does reflect opinions I’ve had, but a reflection on some of the evidence I’ve read. If there is an opposite view out there backed by evidence then I’d be happy to be contradicted on that.
      What I would add is that a student at fifteen aiming for a “d” may only be aiming for a “d’ because they were set at eleven. why not an “A’?
      Thanks for your comment

  5. There does seem to be something wrong with our education system. I taught in inner city schools where perhaps one or two in a year achieved sufficient qualifications to go on to university. The progression of the rest of the year group was actually left very much to chance.

    • I’d just wish that we were more honest. We set because it makes things easier for us, not for the students. We might like to think otherwise but it just ain’t true, i’m afraid,
      thanks for your comment

  6. Mr Baines’ research doesn’t seem to focus on the negative effects of having people in unchallenging classes. The lack of achievement and frustration generated by being in a class where all lessons are aimed at the ‘middle’ because members of the class won’t understand the lesson if it’s aimed too high isn’t mentioned. Many of these pupils become disillusioned with education, lose confidence in themselves (because they know pupils in the other sectors are being pushed) and don’t go onto achieve what they could. What Mr Baines didn’t mention is the fact that setting does allow the higher ability kids to register far higher grades – as shown by Northern Ireland’s successful (for the top ability at least) education system.

    The problem is more the fact those who don’t get into the high ability classes lose belief in themselves. Perhaps looking at this problem and individualising education more would be an answer, but, in my experience, pupils do suffer from being in mixed sets.

    • As far as I could see, and I do stand to be corrected if I’m wrong, but Baines’ evidence suggests that there is little educational benefit to setting suggesting that mixed ability classes have much the same levels of progress. Even in so called ‘top’ sets there are students who are left behind because the pace is too great for them. We’d like to think otherwise but there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. I keep looking and would be happy to be convinced though.
      The argument that some get better’ grades’ is relevant if that is the sole purpose of our education systems.
      Thanks for your comment,

  7. Very interesting blog. As a primary teacher I have seen the opposite in my classroom. The class that came to me were already in “groups” that were set by ability and the children were very aware of using it as an excuse, e.g. “I’m in the red group, I can’t do that.” I have seen a change in attitude by not categorising individual pupils, and giving them the choice to choose for themselves, i.e. Everyone will be able to do x, most people will be able to do y and some people will be able to do z. I have seen children who would never have had a chance to attempt the “harder” work choosing to challenge themselves and have a go. We wouldn’t put people into sets in the working adult world because it doesn’t work so why do it to children? Could you imagine going in to school and being told, “you’re teaching the lower set class this year and there will be no professional dialogue with the teachers who are teaching the higher set classes….”?

    • I beg to differ ‘We wouldn’t put people into sets in the working adult world because it doesn’t work so why do it to children?’
      As soon as people join the world of work their qualifications determine what ‘set’ they are in.
      All teachers are not paid the same. Supply teachers are paid at the bottom of the scale regardless of experience. They are in the ‘bottom set’. Someone with no qualifications is in a set where they cannot join the GTCs for example. Football is in divisions. Golfers have a handicap and play for medals according to their handicap. I am not a pro golfer .. I accept what I can do and do my best to get better. Children should learn to accept that everyone cannot be good at everything.
      Setting in schools mirrors society. Those in the bottom group should be given work that is challenging, but not impossible, for them to do. Nothing is more soul destroying for a child than being forced to jump over a bar that is set to high.

    • Thanks Kellie,
      i did make the point that Primaries are much more equipped for ability groups than secondaries. As for your final ‘quotation’ well unfortunately that is what happens a lot of the time. The difference for me is that on any given day I have 150 kids in front of me at different times. Much harder to differentiate that lot. ‘Within class’ ability groups so work but difficult to organise in the Secondary School,
      Thanks for your comment,

  8. I am a university professor who, as a middle-school student, was fortunate enough to be placed in “A-division” classes (the most advanced of a four class division for each grade). There were at the time, perceptions among both students and parents that such structuring carried with it a privileged vs. slow-learner stigma. I am sure that this was true for some people. I am also sure that such perceptions are just that, perceptions; they really amount to nothing of any importance beyond simple pride. I am fortunate; I realize this. I had always been bored as a student until the multi-division system was instituted in my school. The system created challenges that quite simply were not present before, and fostered in me a desire to learn that has stayed with me to this day. As others have commented, the world is also a similarly structured place; there’s no denying this, so why foster an education system that not only is a poor reflection of the real world, but is also structured to produce productive citizens as if they all have equivilent talent? People are different and have different abilities; we need to accept this and get on with teaching that challenges to appropriate levels.

    • Thanks David,
      What you say would seem to make perfect sense. My post however was related to the research which suggests that educationally there is little benefit to setting, even at the top end. If there are other reasons for setting then I think we should be open and honest about them. if we have an opportunity to tackle social and economic division in society then we should tackle that also. Of course, ‘People are different and have different abilities’ but everyone has the potential to be better than they are and we shouldn’t put a ceiling on those who need to be challenged. Evidence suggests that setting does just that,
      Thanks for your comment,

  9. I think the problem is with permanent groups. I’ve started doing “mini-seminars” – some of which are chosen by me and some of which are scheduled by students.

    During a workshop time, I might offer a seminar on paragraphing. I’ll allow students to sign up (many surprise me by signing up). Some know from a previous individual workshop conference that they need to learn about paragraphing. They come even though they don’t sign up. Once the students have attended the seminar and demonstrated progress, they become the class “experts”.

    If you do this in all classes (tech and writing and math and science and social studies), every student attends multiple seminars and becomes an expert in multiple areas.

    When students are in permanent groups, they get a label. When they get targeted learning seminars, they have some of their small learning gaps filled.

    • Hi Janet,
      Yes, I think mini -seminars is a good idea but it becomes difficult when you have five classes with thirty in each and you only see them for fifty minutes. Large Secondary schools call for crowd control above anything which, I think, is the real reason for setting, at times.
      As always, thanks for your comment,

  10. Mindset is a huge problem here. Students know they’re in the bottom class and that has a knock-on effect (“we’re rubbish at this”). Teachers know they’re teaching the bottom class and that has a knock on effect (“just copy that down”).

    Schools have got to decide where their priorities lie. If the sole focus is on exam results then the most experienced and able teachers will be asked to teach Higher and they will, in turn, devote a disproportionate amount of their time to the planning of these classes. The likes of Int-1 will be an after thought, given to new teachers or afforded less planning by experienced teachers than the more important Higher classes. I fear that this may be the case in a high number of schools, and that Mr McEnaney’s school above may be in the minority:

    “At the same time the ‘bottom’ class have been able to engage in a hugely creative project which allows them to explore almost every Level 3 outcome in the CfE curriculum and has really stretched their skills (this is the smallest of the three classes).”

    HMIE have said that students are achieving in Scotland, but there’s too big a gap between those that achieve and those who don’t: If schools continue to place much of their emphasis on their high achieving the pupils then that gap is not going to close any time soon.

  11. I can see the arguments for setting, but in practice I certainly prefer classes that are not set by ability and in which the teacher, as a professional, can direct the pace, challenge and differentiation of tasks as necessary. I have taught in schools where the classes were set by ability, but all it created were sink sets where the pupils had neither the motivation to achieve nor the good role-models of successful learning. For us, mixed ability works – the higher achieving kids can be challenged; they can support some of the weaker pupils and there is a far greater ethos of success is a good thing. Learning logs, traffic lighting and co-operative learning are all useful ways to promote indivudual progression and achievement and we’re seeing far fewer kids comparing themselves negatively towards others in the class, which they would if they were ‘just in the bottom set/group’.

    • Thanks Grant,
      Agree with every word. The problem comes with established assumptions about setting. while it makes things easier to manage, there is very little benefit from it, even for the better sets. I’ve repeated that mantra all the way through the discussion here. Not my opinion but facts.
      thanks for your comment,

  12. A lot of the conversation is alluding to the fact that setting mirrors ‘British’ society (or if you prefer English, Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh). There are still major economic and social (including religious) barriers in place in some areas which leads to ‘sink’ schools and not just ‘sink’ sets. Teachers need to have the courage to overcome this by their conviction that every child deserves the best whatever their circumstances. My daughter who is in Y8 in England tells me that she and her peers are more interested in their individual NC target levels than the names of their maths sets. The only difference in her ‘top’ set, which she is in, is that it covers topics more quickly than ‘lower’ ones – the big debate in higher ability maths in England is about enrichment rather than acceleration and avoidance of early entry to GCSE when not appropriate in all circumstances.

    • ‘Teachers need to have the courage to overcome this by their conviction that every child deserves the best whatever their circumstances.’
      Good point. It all depends on whether we see exam results as the be all and the end all of our school system. I don’t and feel we have a responsibility to get the best out of all of our children. Setting doesn’t do that.
      thanks for your comment,

  13. I’m interested to know whether or not you think it appropriate to have 16 year old Higher maths candidates in the same class as 16 year old Intermediate 2 maths candidates, given that these are two completely different courses? If you agree with me that it makes sense to put these two groups of youngsters in different classes, then I would say that you don’t really have an issue with setting, rather you have an issue with premature setting. When is too early? I just don’t know.

    • Hi Robert,
      No idea about maths but I do teach Higher classes in English which have kids who drop down to Int 2 and vice versa. My point might be to say that perhaps not setting early on would lead to more getting Higher. Some know they won’t get into a higher class by the age of twelve. Let’s not pretend otherwise I think it is always too early to set. And, as my post attempted to make clear, there is no evidence to say that it works effectively. It helps us to plan and mange, makes it easier on the teacher. If ,as you say, you have classes doing completely different courses then is that really setting?
      thanks for your comment,

  14. This is an important debate and you raise a good question here. My fear is that this is often (too often) simplified to ‘setting good’ vs ‘setting bad’. There are many variables. I’d argue that setting in Maths is simply necessary because the content diverges significantly with the level of difficulty. In English/Humanities, the case is less clear. In all cases, the structure of setting is important. For example, 5 sets could be top to bottom or 1,3,1 or 1,2,2 or 1,4 and so on. Each model would be determined by the needs of learners in that cohort, avoiding sink-group ghettos. The research evidence is too general and, as Hattie points out, only tells you what has gone before – not what should or could happen. The key question is this: which model will maximise outcomes for these learner here in this exact context. I don’t believe general rules apply. It is a mistake for a school to pitch itself as ‘against setting’ unless there is evidence that the highest attaining students in MA groups are achieving the very highest levels comparable with any similar learners anywhere. It is not easy to deliver that without some setting in some areas.

    Gosh – sorry, longer that I’d planned! But a good debate. I have my own bias, I’ve worked at my selective school for nearly 5 yrs. I still feel learning happens here that is not replicated for similar students in other contexts…at least, I’ve never seen it. Matching ‘top set’ learning in a mixed ability setting is the challenge – if it can be done.

  15. I don’t seem to be able to reply in-thread, so here’s my reply to Kenny’s reply to my comment!…

    I meant to say Int 1, but that’s by the by.

    I think there is some evidence to say that setting-by-prior-learning in maths is effective beyond age 14 in maths (but I can’t quote chapter and verse). I am genuinely open-minded about this issue. I see the “sink class” argument, but I also see the great benefits for the “bottom set” I currently have in S1 which has 11 pupils, each of whom gets so much more of my attention than they would in a mixed class of 26 (which is what it would be).

    I agree that setting pupils in sets of similar age with similar prior learning is problematic for many reasons. But it irritates me when people (and I’m not sure you’re doing this) seem to think that there is somehow something more natural about lumping together pupils of similar age with mixed prior learning, and that setting-by-prior-learning therefore has to justify itself as a deviation from the norm. Mixed-prior-learning-same-age is just another way of categorising pupils, which is also problematic, perhaps disadvantaging those who are either especially mature or especially immature for their age. Why not just put pupils together in random collections of mixed ages from 5 to 18? Surely that is the most “natural” way to set. What is the justification for deviating from this to put pupils of similar ages together? I find it hard to answer that question without using the logic of setting-by-prior-learning.

  16. In reply to Tom, I do think ‘top set’ learning in a mixed ability setting is the challenge and it can be met. In English, I say this with certainty; it takes skilled and nuanced pedagogy, but it is doable on a daily basis with thought and planning. Of course, in English, many students are highly skilled at speaking and listening, but flounder in writing. If is about differentiating between the different skills of the different students. For example, with questioning, I select a student with slightly less ability to answer an open question first, before asking for challenging feedback from a student of equal or greater ability and so on. It is a case of teacher expertise and knowing your students really (and knowing your pedagogy). As with most things in education, shown by Hattie amongst other evidence, is that setting, class size and other structural factors are less important than skilled teachers and pedagogy. Mixed ability: with outstanding questioning, feedback, open ended tasks and clear outcomes, strategic collaborative learning a looping and foregrounding of key skills and knowledge is the optimum model (but even that is imperfect – alas we are dealing with children who are changeable, creative, brilliantly unpredictable and difficult to group perfectly ever, in whatever fashion! And thank god for that!).

    To be clear, morally I believe more in mixed ability grouping and I believe that mindset and the ‘fluidity’ and constant changeability of ability mean that fixed setting is not the most effective model for encouraging student motivation for the greatest number.

    All that being said, in the last couple of years I have become far less dogmatic in that opinion. Of course, context is everything. We have diverse school intakes, subjects have different needs, and groups of teachers have different levels of skill. I would say that a flexible setting model has become much more appropriate, such is the diversity in most schools. For example, we have mixed ability in KS3, with some setting and some mixed ability at ks4 (crucially with different curriculum pathways to better personalise provision). Ks5 for us is naturally mixed ability. What is key is that with any of these models, the flexibility to move students is the essential thing – not what model best fits all on a permanent basis. Also, on a yearly basis I am seeing differences that require more personalised groupings – again making the debate between setting or mixed ability less relevant. I have not become wholly relative with my morality, but simply pragmatic due to many of the experiences outlined in this comment stream.

    Lastly, this flexibility of viewpoint and grouping models also fits alongside my viewpoint: that the actual grouping is less important than the attitude of the teachers in that particular school towards that grouping model (I think I first heard this from the sage Dylan Wiliam). If teachers back the model then it is much more likely to work and have a positive impact – so once again it comes back to the relative context of the school.

    Sorry for the epic response, this topic has been something that has something’s I have grappled with mentally and emotionally since I became a teacher.

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