I feel genuinely torn about this. On the one hand I am aware that there really isn’t any solid research evidence that setting (or streaming) has much effect on students’ attainment and some evidence which seems to suggest it might be actually detrimental. On the other I want my student to have the best possible chance of success in their GCSE exam in January and some sort of setting appears to be the best way of accomplishing this aim.

Here’s an overview of the different types of selection that goes on in schools:

  • Banding – putting pupils into broad ability bands
  • Streaming – splitting pupils into different hierarchical groups which stay together for all lessons.
  • Setting – putting pupils of similar ability together just for certain lessons.
I’ve never worked in a school which does anything other than set and can’t honestly comment on the efficacy of banding and streaming except to say that they seem to have fallen out of favour and had been largely consigned to the history of education’s dustbin. However, the Sutton Trust report that streaming is on the rise once more with a whopping 32% (!) of 11-16 year olds apparently being taught is streams. Add to this the 92% of students who report being taught in sets for at least one of their core subjects and that suggests that it’s actually mixed ability teaching what’s snuffed it.

So, what of mixed ability teaching? Has research discovered that it’s no cop? In fact numerous studies have shown that mixed ability classes help the less able without holding back their more able counterparts (Newbold, 1977). The Scottish Council for Research in Education did find some evidence suggesting that setting is effective in maths, but their concluding message was that, “there is no consistent and reliable evidence of positive effects of setting and streaming in any subjects, or for pupils of particular ability levels”. Note: that’s ny subjects, even maths.

Researchers have found that “even top sets can have negative impacts on students’ achievement”. And the Institute of Education say that ability grouping have “rather little impact on overall attainment” and that “the greater the extent of structured ability groupings, the greater was the degree of apparent stigmatisation of those in lower-ability groups”. OK, so, it definitely doesn’t work for ‘bottom sets’ and isn’t particularly effective for ‘top sets’. So, why do we do it?

Well apart from government’s dogged insistance that is a Good Thing, the main reason that mixed-ability teaching appears to be on the wane is because it can be bloody challenging. Teachers find it knackering, and highly motivated pupils find being taught with their less motivated peers a real drag. Professor Eric Bolton, the former senior chief inspector of schools in England, said few teachers could do it effectively. He believed that “most teachers aim for the middle: The bright children are frustrated and the ones at the bottom get left behind”. Not good.

And why is it that schools are less likely to set for English than for maths? Mainly it’s because in English work can be more easily ‘differentiated by outcome’. This means that everyone can be given the same work on the same subject, but be expected to produce work of differing quality. But this sort of differentiation can (and does) lead to the kind of low expectations that Bolton warns about.

So, is motivation the key to setting perhaps? In our faculty we had a series of heated discussions about the pros and cons of setting by mindset rather than ability. What if our ‘top sets’ were stocked entirely with students with growth mindsets? What if we grouped fixed mindset children together and worked on their motivation and self belief? I’m sure you can imagine some of the debate. With uncharacteristic caution, I’ve recently set up a small trial group of students who show sufficient motivation to work hard and justify the investment of putting them in a small group with an exceptional teacher. The next exciting step will be to select a group of growth mindset students with C/D targets and attempt to get them A/A* results.

Another possibility is to look at the concept of ‘readiness’ rather than ability. Fearghal Kelly suggests on his very fine blog that the notion of ability is inherently flawed and we should look instead at how ready students are to complete assessments etc. and move away from our preoccupation with how able we perceive students to be at given points.

Anyway, in preparation for the new GCSE English Language exam in January, we felt that the differently tiered papers were sufficiently different (whilst at the same time managing to be confusingly similar) that students needed to be resorted into Foundation and Higher classes. I don’t know whether this is the right thing for the students but it certainly makes teachers lives a lot easier. Our plan is to return students to mixed ability groupings after the exam. Yes, I can see this is a fudge and that I’m occupying a position which is determinedly on the fence but the hard reality of students’ life chances surely has to take some sort of priority over educational ideals?

Ofsted are no help at all. Their official line is: “there is no clear statistical link between the extent of setting in schools and the attainment of pupils”. Right. So. We’ve only the evidence of our own senses and consciences to guide us.

Please feel free to let me know your thoughts.