Main text: Caroline Roberts

Photographs: Getty

Additional research: Sarah Jenkins

The Issue returns on January 27. On January 6 we start a three-week series on motivation

Did you know?

* Education Secretary Ruth Kelly said in this year's education White Paper: 'We will further encourage setting and grouping pupils by ability'

* Teachers tend to see sets as homogeneous when, in fact, they are still mixed-ability groups of pupils, albeit in a narrower range

* Some top set pupils find the pace of lessons stressful, while those in bottom sets often feel that teachers' expectationsof them are too low

* Researchers at London University's Institute of Education found the overall impact of setting on GCSE results appeared minimal

* Research published this year shows lower-achieving pupils make better progress in mixed-ability classes,while setting benefitshigh-achieving pupils

The question of whether pupils should be grouped by ability is guaranteed to provoke passionate debate among teachers. There are those who believe mixed-ability teaching underlines the value of all pupils and ensures equality of opportunity. Others feel this is impractical and pupils are best served by narrower ability sets, where work can be pitched at an appropriate level. The Government has made its own views plain. The 1997 White Paper Excellence in Schools states: "Unless a school can demonstrate that it is getting better than expected results through a different approach, we make the presumption that setting should be the norm in secondary schools." This year's White Paper reinforces this policy, with Education Secretary Ruth Kelly saying: "We will further encourage setting and grouping pupils by ability."

Many middle-class parents support ability grouping, although often there is an underlying assumption that their child will be in the top set. But is setting really the key to raising attainment and, if so, how should schools go about it?

What are the main grouping options?

In streaming, pupils are grouped according to their all-round ability and remain in the same groups for most subjects. Based on the outdated notion that academic ability is fixed, streaming is rigid and rarely used these days. Setting, where grouping is based on ability in a particular subject, is more popular. Its supporters argue that high achievers can be stretched in top sets, while a more structured approach with greater teacher intervention can be used in the often smaller lower sets. Support staff can also be deployed easily when pupils with learning difficulties are concentrated in one or two groups.

Mixed-ability classes are formed either on a random basis or, more often, so that a range of abilities is represented. Those favouring mixed-ability teaching point out that it is an egalitarian approach and that setting labels pupils and can have a negative effect on attitude and achievement.

Within-class grouping is a compromise where pupils of similar ability are seated together to work on differentiated tasks. Pupils can move easily between groups when appropriate, but this approach often requires them to work more independently and can be difficult for one teacher to manage. It is much more common in primary schools where teaching assistants are readily available. In vertical grouping, pupils of different ages but similar abilities are taught together. This is most often used in special schools or small primaries with insufficient children to form a class for each year group.

Changing approaches

Streaming was the norm in many schools throughout the 1950s and 1960s. A 1964 survey found that 96 per cent of teachers taught streamed classes and that working-class pupils were over-represented in lower groups, which were often taught by poorly qualified, inexperienced staff. By the 1970s, growing concerns about social equality led to mixed-ability teaching becoming more widespread. However, the 1990s saw a swing back to grouping by ability. This was partly due to Government pressure and partly to the introduction of the national curriculum which, it was thought, could be more easily delivered in ability groups.

Nowadays the choice is between setting and mixed-ability teaching. Subjects such as maths, science and modern foreign languages are more likely to be taught in sets as the content is seen as hierarchical, with pupils being unable to progress to the next level without having acquired the necessary building blocks of knowledge. Exam tiers at GCSE, such as in maths where pupils must be entered for either foundation, intermediate or higher papers, also mean that setting is more practical (see case study).

Mixed-ability teaching is more likely to be retained in subjects such as English and the humanities, where it is easier to engage with a topic at different levels. However, the highly structured nature of the national literacy strategy has resulted in a move towards more setting in English.

An increasingly common compromise is one top set with several parallel mixed-ability groups.

Does setting raise attainment?

Although there has been a lot of research, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions as so many other factors can affect attainment. Teachers'

attitudes can also influence results; if they believe strongly in a particular system, they have a vested interest in making it work. A 2001 study by Dr Judith Ireson and Dr Susan Hallam, of London University's Institute of Education, focused on 45 secondary schools nationwide, some mixed ability, some with sets and others with a mixture of the two. The researchers found that, in maths, pupils who were high achievers at the end of key stage 2 tended to make better progress in sets at KS3, while lower achievers made better progress in mixed-ability groups. The type of grouping used at KS3 appeared to be of little significance in English and science. However, at KS4, high-achieving pupils in science were found to do better in mixed-ability groups, whereas lower achievers did better in sets.

Overall, the impact of setting on attainment at GCSE appeared to be minimal. The study also found pupils tended to have a better academic self-image in schools that used a mixture of setting and mixed ability, as opposed to schools where setting was predominant. It was notable that, in the latter, lower-ability pupils were less likely to go on to further education.

Research published in October by academics at the universities of Brighton, Sussex, Cambridge and London found that while gifted pupils made more progress when taught separately, those in low-ability groups could become demotivated. "There are no significant differences between setting and mixed-ability teaching in overall attainment," the report concluded. "But low-achieving pupils show more progress in mixed-ability classes and high-achieving pupils show more progress in set classes." The report added that the debate about setting and mixed ability had become polarised and did not reflect the variety of methods for setting used in schools.

Why is mixed ability so frowned upon?

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, says many teachers regard mixed-ability teaching as a reaction against selection in the days of the 11-plus. "It arose from a desire to sweep away discrimination rather than being derived from any sound educational principles." He points out that observational studies in schools have found that, in mixed-ability classes, teachers' time is too fragmented by the demands of different groups and, when teaching a whole class, there is a tendency to aim for the middle ground. Many teachers agree that catering for a wide range of abilities within one class can be challenging and time-consuming. Mixed-ability classes can also have a negative effect on pupils' self-esteem. "Witnessing the performance of the brightest pupils can be daunting for the weakest, whereas, in a set, they might consider themselves to be making good progress," says Professor Smithers.

A different set of problems?

There are difficulties associated with setting. In Roger McGough's poem Streemin', the bottom-stream speaker lacks literacy skills but is sharp enough to observe that we're all reduced to the same level in the cemetery.

The poem may be humorous, but it highlights a serious issue regarding the criteria used to measure ability.

Decisions about which set a pupil should go into are often based solely on attainment in written assessments, a practice that was heavily criticised in a recent Ofsted subject report on English. In particular, it was noted that able boys who make thoughtful and articulate contributions to class discussion often fail to get into top sets because they tend to take less trouble with their writing. The report advised that teachers should consider the full range of skills involved in the subject, including speaking and listening, when allocating pupils to sets. Lack of flexibility can be another drawback, with timetabling constraints making it difficult to transfer pupils to different groups when appropriate.

Also, top sets, which are often made bigger on the assumption that pupils will require less individual attention, are frequently "full", preventing improved pupils from moving up. Pupils who underachieve due to lack of motivation or poor behaviour are often placed in lower sets where their potential can remain untapped. A 1997 study into the effects of setting in maths by Dr Jo Boaler, of King's College London, found that bottom-set pupils frequently complained about a high turnover of teachers and their lessons being covered by supply staff.

Her report also highlighted the tendency of teachers to see sets as homogeneous when, in fact, they are still mixed-ability groups, albeit within a narrower range. The study found that this led to some teachers using a limited range of teaching strategies, to the detriment of their lessons. A significant number of top-set pupils reported that they found the pace of lessons stressful, whereas pupils in bottom sets often felt their teacher's expectations of them were too low, and that the work was insufficiently challenging.

So what should schools do?

According to Dr Ireson, there is no simple answer to the grouping strategy dilemma. She believes teacher preferences should be considered and departments should be free to choose the grouping arrangements they feel work best. The variety that usually results from this approach has other benefits. "A mixture of grouping strategies within a school ensures that there is also healthy social mixing, otherwise there may be a group of pupils that go from bottom set to bottom set in different subjects, possibly reinforcing negative attitudes and behaviour," she says, emphasising that, where setting is used, schools need to ensure there is mobility. "When pupils are allocated to a set, there's a tendency for them to stay put. Departments need to revisit groupings frequently and plan so there's more leeway for moving pupils when appropriate." The inconclusiveness of the studies seems to suggest that teaching strategies can have more of an impact on attainment than the composition of groups, and Dr Ireson believes schools should ensure teachers receive ongoing training in how to differentiate work within lessons, whether teaching sets or mixed-ability groups.

Different strokes

One school that has differentiation down to a fine art is Brooke Weston city technology college in Northamptonshire. Although there is setting in some subjects and mixed-ability teaching in others, Brooke Weston offers pupils four levels of work in every lesson: basic, standard, extended and advanced. They choose which level they will tackle after discussions with their teacher. "Negotiation is central to our mode of operation," says vice-principal Andrew Campbell. "Right from the beginning, pupils get used to an environment where it's normal to discuss your work with the teacher - it's more like a professional partnership where you work together to get something done than the traditional teacher-student relationship." Dr Campbell acknowledges that producing four levels of work for every class can be a challenge for teachers and that it is something that needs to be phased in.

At Brooke Weston, the curriculum grew with the school, which, when it opened in 1991, had only a small number of classes. Over the years each department has built up a comprehensive range of resources, and new teachers are given support and often paired with more experienced staff to team teach. The school is also adventurous in its grouping strategies. In English, two classes are taught together in a group of 50 with two teachers. "When there is grouping by ability, we ask pupils what set they should be in," says Dr Campbell, "and, because pupils are taught to take responsibility for their own learning, we find there's rarely a discrepancy between what they say and the teacher's view."

In September, Bridgemary community sports college in Gosport, Hampshire, replaced year groups with a five-tier system of vertical grouping, the first state school to do so. Even though the school had used setting previously, it felt the spread of ability was too wide in most groups.

"We're just mirroring what happens in society, with people of different ages working together," says headteacher Cheryl Heron.

"Each pupil is given a starting point, usually based on the national curriculum levels, and allocated to a group according to this. It's all about meeting the changing needs of the individual pupil; groupings are reassessed six times a year. When they're ready for an exam, they are able to take it."

Though it's early days, reactions have been positive. Fears that mixed-age groups would result in bullying have proved unfounded; instead, there has been an increase in peer mentoring and the enthusiasm of younger children has often helped to remotivate older ones. Ms Heron says: "We're doing it because we feel it's right for Bridgemary at this time. The people who are best placed to determine the most effective grouping strategy for a school are those who are working in it."


* Ability Grouping in Education by Judith Ireson and Susan Hallam is published by Paul Chapman Publications pound;18.99.

* Setting, Social Class and Survival of the Quickest by Jo Boaler. British Educational Research Journal Vol 23, pp 575-595.

* The Effects of Pupil Grouping: literature review is a recent and comprehensive DfES-funded study of research into grouping strategies: Grouping and Organisation of Classes provides further information and links to research:

* Setting and Streaming: a research review. Scottish Council for Research in Education:

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