Opinion: Setting in Schools


There were reports a little while ago that the new Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, was going to make setting compulsory by making it necessary for the attainment of the Ofsted grade of Outstanding. This has subsequently been denied by the Department for Education. However, it highlights a decades-old debate about whether pupils should be segregated according to ability.200px-Question_exclamation.svg

Comprehensive education was set up based on the ideal that pupils from all backgrounds and abilities should be in the same school together and taught in mixed ability groups, ending the segregation inherent in grammar and secondary modern schools. This also did away with streaming, in which whole year groups were put into ability groups for every subject. This ideal gradually diminished as schools began to realise that such segregation based on ability did not work.

It is argued that setting helps those with high ability but leaves those with low ability behind. Low attaining learners fall behind on average by one or two months a year as a result of lower confidence from setting and a lack of belief that effort gets results, says the Education Endowment Foundation. They also say that “setting has a long-term negative effect on attitudes and engagement of low-attaining pupils.”

Experienced teachers are aware of these effects. Low ability groups are often referred to as ‘sink groups’ as low ability often equates with negative attitudes. These groups contain many pupils who are disaffected, disinterested and disruptive. They achieve so little that being there at all seems a waste of time. Their attitudes suggest that education does not work for them. Those pupils in the same group who are well behaved and conscientious have poor learning and low achievement because of the negative attitudes and disruptive behaviour of others in the group. This negative behaviour is not altogether surprising. The pupils will know what sort of level of achievement their ability will produce in any individual subject. So if their prospect is gaining D grades or lower they know that these grades have little value, and they ask, what is the point of doing these subjects?

Experienced teachers also know that middle ability pupils do not suffer to the same extent by being in ability groups. The magic C grades are realistic outcomes for many of these pupils. Attitudes and behaviour tend to be better and an overall more positive environment exists which allows the teacher to teach effectively. Those who want to learn are less likely to be held back by disruption.

High ability pupils do nothing but benefit from being in a top group. They are not slowed down by lower ability pupils, and can work at a faster pace. Historically they cover more material in the same time and sit a higher rather than foundation paper. Attitudes are the best in the year group and a very positive work ethic exists.

Having mixed ability groups may have a positive impact on the attitudes of the lowest ability and their achievement but it is at the expense of the rest of the group particularly the highest ability, as it is a less stimulating environment. If pupils in the same group are working towards different level exams it makes teaching to these exam criteria almost impossible as the teacher is trying to cope with an enormously diverse range of abilities and outcomes. It can also make the higher ability pupils disillusioned.

The need for setting changes as the pupils get older. Teaching can usually cope with mixed ability until pupils are about 13 or 14 years old where the differences between them become more pronounced and the subject matter becomes more difficult. Setting is really essential by the time year 9 is reached, and not doing so starts to cause serious damage to higher and middle ability pupil prospects.

So setting is to be encouraged but left to the individual schools to organise as they see fit. It should definitely be happening by year 9. However, this still leaves the difficult question of what to do with the lowest ability pupils. There is no point in trying to force them through the same system and the same subjects as everyone else. In these groups you will find pupils who cannot read and write properly and whose numeracy is poor. Their general life skills are often very poor too. Why do such pupils study a foreign language or do double award science when these other subject and skill areas need so much attention to get up to a functioning level? However much the education system likes to think that it caters for everyone, it patently does not. The lowest ability pupils need to concentrate on Maths, English and life skills, followed by trying to establish what kind of a role or job they might wish to have in society and then giving them the opportunity and resources to head in those directions instead of coming out of school with poor language and numeracy skills and a bunch of E and F grades at GCSE.

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Andrew Bateson is 57 years old and initially trained as a Geologist. He has been a secondary school teacher for 22 years teaching Chemistry and Science to 11 to 18 year olds. Previously he worked in the Ceramic industry in research and development and then management. He has experience of both the independent and state sectors, teaching in single sex and mixed sex schools. As a Union Rep., he followed educational policy closely throughout his teaching career. He has retired from teaching to continue working with OOL and to retrain as a Psychotherapist.

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