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.