Dear Ted

7th March 2003 at 00:00
As a secondary English teacher I am a supporter of Mixed-ability teaching. Some of my colleagues are sceptical. What does the evidence suggest

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Or email:

Ted says

It depends what you mean by "evidence". Sometimes there is a confusion between research findings, personal experience, beliefs and polemic.

When mixed-ability teaching began to spread widely, in the 1970s and 1980s, there were a few studies of different forms of grouping, such as the one by the National Foundation for Educational Research (Joan Barker Lunn), and Stephen Ball's interesting book Beachside Comprehensive (Cambridge University Press), which gave a detailed account of a school switching from streaming to mixed-ability teaching. There was also a large survey by HMI.

It is not possible to say with any authority whether mixed-ability teaching "wins", because it is impossible to carry out a true experiment in several schools over a significant period of time. Such evidence as there is suggests that teachers of subjects such as English are more enthused than those who teach so-called "linear" subjects (you need to know A before moving on to B), such as mathematics and modern languages. There was some disappointment that friendship choices were not necessarily different under a mixed-ability regime.

A large-scale survey by Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty (Thirty Years On) in 1996 showed that most secondary schools employed mixed-ability grouping in Year 7, but that its use declined in Years 8 and 9. It also seems clear that teachers' attitudes may be highly influential on "success". People can usually make what they passionately believe in work (and foul up what they don't believe in).

My own experience over many years is that mixed-ability teaching is extraordinarily demanding, especially in preparation and assessment time. I have taught English and modern languages to mixed-ability classes and found the latter much more difficult to carry out, especially with high and low ability pupils. So I can see why different teachers in your school have different views on what looks like the same issue, but is not.


It's tough for staff but tops for students There is compelling evidence to show that mixed-ability classrooms are the most effective - they benefit the low ability end, but not at the expense of the more able students. Where setting by ability is in place, able students often feel demoralised by the over-expectations placed upon them.

Bottom sets often contain students who are there for social or behavioural reasons rather than lack of ability. In my experience as a secondary English teacher, mixed-ability teaching raises the achievement of all pupils. You need to have a grouping policy in action so students have the opportunity to work collaboratively.

Being in a mixed-ability classroom allows students to experience the full range of responses to a task, it shows students what is possible and this positively affects their own work. Mixed-ability teaching is definitely not the easy option, and careful planning and a range of differentiation strategies are essential. But all the research shows that high self-esteem is engendered when learners are not set by ability and, as we know, this is the most conducive state in which to learn.

Debbie Upton, Hertford

Mix 'n' match according to teachers' abilities

When the headteacher of my inner-London comprehensive proposed streaming Year 7s on entry, I defended mixed ability. The head responded that mixed ability teaching was desirable, but highly challenging for many teachers.

The key is surely flexibility: finding the best matching of pupils with teachers. For a year group of three classes this could mean, for example, three mixed-ability groups; one top set and two parallel second sets; or even two single-sex groups and one mixed-sex group. Every teacher has personal strengths, which may or may not include mixed-ability teaching.

Why not invite your more sceptical colleagues to see what can be achieved in your mixed ability classroom while respecting their lack of self-confidence over the issue?

Tony Elston, Sale, Cheshire

Government policy is based on falsehood

One of the many depressing aspects of what passes for a New Labour education policy has been the insistent attempt to impose setting, from the nursery school upwards, in defiance of the clear evidence. People who must know better, including a recently canonised ex-secretary of state, have been happy to go along with what is essentially a big lie, designed to appeal to the Islington dinner-party set. Schools, departments and teachers should have the confidence to do what they know is best for their students.

Phil Taylor, Tameside

Motivation is the first casualty of setting

The main argument against setting is its effect on motivation. Motivation is not only poorer in the lower sets, but also for those struggling at the lower end of the top set, and those coasting at the top end of a middle set. Others in the middle sets may lower their expectations. Those at the bottom of the middle set live in fear of demotion.

Another benefit of mixed ability is staff morale. When timetables are allocated, the issue of sharing out the range of ability sets disappears.

Then there is the practical benefit of the lack of disruption and reduction in workload caused by setting meetings, promotions and demotions.

Russell Attwood, Kettering

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