Schools have been advised to think about minimising the use of setting and streaming for their pupils because of “risks” associated with the practice.
Landmark research by academics from the UCL Institute of Education and Queen's University Belfast has raised a series of concerns about allocating pupils to classes based on their ability.
Researchers found that almost a third of pupils were misallocated to maths sets, and black pupils were two-and-a-half times more likely than white pupils to be put in the wrong maths set, compared with the attainment demonstrated by their Sats results.
The group has also found that disadvantaged and black pupils are more likely to be placed in bottom sets; teachers who are highly qualified in their subject are less likely to teach lower sets; some young people in lower sets feel limited or “babied” by their teachers; and those in lower sets have less self-confidence in the subject.
Professor Becky Francis, director of the UCL Institute of Education, told Tes that “given what we know about the risks, minimising setting and certainly streaming, if possible, is something for teachers to think about”.
Setting 'is symbolic violence'
One paper from the team, published in February, called setting "a form of symbolic violence" that "imposes an ideology that legitimates and naturalises relations of inequality between dominant and less-powerful social groups".
When it comes to alternatives to setting, former Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has previously railed against “the curse of mixed-ability classes without mixed-ability teaching”.
This week, he told Tes: “Mixed ability can work, but unless you have got good teachers who know how to differentiate effectively, then it can go badly wrong, having a class where you have got potential Oxbridge candidates in the same classroom with youngsters who have difficulty with basic skills.”
He added: “I believed in setting because I found, particularly with young teachers, and most of my teachers were under 30, unless they are really, really skilled in teaching in a mixed-ability way, then mixed ability did not work."
According to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development research, over 95 per cent of students in the UK “attend schools where students are grouped by ability across classes”.
The practice is also thought to be popular among parents, so much so that the 2010 Conservative manifesto promised to “encourage setting so those who are struggling get extra help and the most able are stretched”.
And this week YouGov released the results of a poll of children showing that the majority would rather be in sets than in mixed-ability groups.
Tomorrow Tes will publish a commentary from the leader of the research team, more outcomes from their work, and practical advice for schools and teachers on setting.
You can read more about the findings about setting in tomorrow's Tes magazine, available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here