It is illegal in Sweden and leading education researchers vehemently reject it. So why do we set by ability in the UK? Every year, arguments break out in school departments over timetabling, with dejected teachers feeling the pressure of being given the lower set. Then, in September, millions of children start school disappointed at being classed as "low-ability".
Politicians across the political spectrum in the UK continue to back the long- debated setting process, in spite of the fact that those who have led years of research into the wider implications say setting does more harm than good.
Leading academics - including Jo Boaler, Marie Curie professor of maths education at Sussex University, and Professor Susan Hallam, dean of the faculty of policy and society at London University's Institute of Education - claim social pressure is holding our schools back as politicians bow to the snobbery of middle-class parents.
Academic research suggests that while mixed-ability teaching is harder for teachers, it boosts achievement for low-ability and middle-ability children. It also enables children to develop socially and avoids the psychological damage and feelings of inadequacy that setting can reinforce. Professor Boaler and Professor Hallam say setting compounds a historical cycle of poor performance among children from low socio-economic backgrounds and reinforces the notion of boys as low-achievers.
While setting has been commonplace since the early 20th century, it fell out of favour in the 1960s, before making a return in the Thatcher era. In 1997, the new Labour government in its Excellence in Schools white paper stated that "setting should be the norm in secondary schools", adding: "In some cases, it is worth considering in primary schools."
In 1998, the Ofsted chief inspector's annual report said the organisation of pupils into sets in England was increasing, especially from Year 5 (P5) up for maths and English. Ofsted now says it does not comment on decisions made by schools on setting by ability.
The social-class filter
In the UK today, an estimated 40 per cent of secondary lessons are streamed. And in primaries, it is one in seven.
Once a pupil has been placed in a set, it is unlikely heshe will move to a different one: a 2002 report noted that 88 per cent of children organised into sets at the age of four remained in the same group until they left school.
Professor Boaler says research on ability grouping has persistently shown high correlations between social class and setting, with social class functioning as a subtle filter that results in the over-representation of working-class children in low-ability groups.
Meanwhile, Professor Hallam and her colleague Samantha Parsons have used information from the Millennium Cohort Study of 8,875 children born between 2000 and 2001 to explore setting (see panel, below). Professor Hallam presented their most recent findings in September at the British Educational Research Association conference.
"Teachers and pupils hold a perception that ability setting is better for them, yet a high proportion of pupils say it's still too easy with setting," she says. "And politicians believe that the general public thinks setting is common sense and therefore promote it."
The pros of mixed-ability
In terms of the advantages of not setting, Professor Hallam says pupil feedback shows they learn more from each other - and that parents who say "I don't want my child to be held back" are missing the point. "High-ability pupils can be greatly advantaged by mixed-ability teaching as this means that in group work they can take on roles such as leading the group, developing skills they might otherwise not get the chance to," she says.
And while mixed-ability classes do not necessarily raise academic achievement for all, Professor Hallam says schools should consider that setting can greatly affect pupils on a social and personal level.
"When you talk to headteachers, they say they set as it is best for their pupils and research tells them so," says Professor Peter Kutnick, chair-professor of psychology and education at Hong Kong University. "But if you push on this matter, few headteachers can tell you which research they are referring to."
Professor Kutnick says his lifelong research has shown that if you compare mixed-ability classes with setted classes, pupils in mixed-ability groups make the most progress and gain more socially.
However, the research does not shy away from the fact that teachers across the UK feel more comfortable teaching by ability. A full timetable leaves little room for detailed differentiated planning, making mixed-ability teaching a far greater challenge.
For improvements to be made to mixed-ability teaching, and for it to be a more appealing option for teachers, Professor Boaler says government investment must be made. "At the moment, teachers don't have the materials they need and don't know what to do. They require weeks of pedagogical training in differentiation to help them cater for all pupils. A bank of materials needs to be developed."
And while he admits that teaching mixed-ability classes is harder, the child with lower predicted grades will be the winner. After all, why bother when you are told you are failing? "It's much harder for teachers to motivate pupils when they have the bottom set," she says.
Professor Hallam emphasises the importance of teachers feeling comfortable with mixed-ability groups. "If working with mixed-ability, teachers will find it easier to differentiate if they differentiate by the outcome: the resulting work of the lesson rather than the instruction.
"And if teachers are having to work with sets, departments should ensure that these sets are flexible and that pupils can be moved between sets, assessment by assessment. But studies show that often class sizes affect that flexibility and class sets are not fluid."
According to Professor Kutnick's research, it is important for teachers to think about their group work and the foundations for it: "While there's also a temptation to set by ability again in group work, pupils benefit from a collegiate personality in the classroom if the teacher can get everyone working together."
He explains that a lot of security and early communication work should go into preparing for this, with the teacher reinforcing the equal importance of everybody in the classroom.
Self-belief improves performance
In September 2006, the Labour government's Department for Education and Skills published Grouping Pupils for Success, which provided guidance for schools on effective strategies for grouping and setting (http:bit.lyu41gbl).
But the DfE does not now direct schools on setting, saying they should make their own call. "We know that effective grouping of pupils can raise standards and better engage pupils in learning in some, though not all, subjects," a spokesman says.
In research Professor Boaler carried out, one pupil compared his feeling of being "set" to that of being in a "psychological prison".
"A lot of people think that the best way to teach kids is to narrow the range, rather than thinking about the psychological damage it is doing," she says.
She argues that pupils should be encouraged to change their thinking about themselves, so they realise their abilities are not fixed and can grow.
"Research has shown that if children are encouraged to think outside their own beliefs of themselves, and to believe that anything can happen, their performance improves," she says. Her research also shows that the later you set, the longer you give children to reach their potential.
About one in six Year 2 (P2) children are already in streamed classes, recent UK research has found. The report, based on 8,875 children born in 2000-01 surveyed as part of the Millennium Cohort Study, showed that 16.4 per cent of Year 2 pupils were in streamed classes.
Logistic regression analysis showed that the best predictors of a child being in the top set were whether they were born in the autumn or winter of 2000, their cognitive ability score and their parents owning their own home.
Predictors of a child being in the bottom set were being a boy, being born in the spring or summer of 2001, having a behaviour problem, being born into a lone-parent family and having a low cognitive ability score.
Hallam, S. and Parsons, S. `Prevalence of Streaming in UK Primary Schools: evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study', a paper given at the 2011 British Educational Research Association conference
Working with sets
What can teachers do to reduce the negative impact of organising pupils into sets by ability?
While there is little research that shows setting is helpful for children, and none that suggests it improves performance, Professor Peter Kutnick of Hong Kong University says that if ability is part of a school's culture, teachers can support pupils by ensuring that group work is well-structured, differentiated and planned - and utilises the strengths of all pupils.
To make the best of ability teaching and group work, try these tips:
- Do not let pupils sit with their friends, because children of similar ability levels will naturally converge.
- Do not ask the teaching assistant to work with the lowest-ability child - they most need the support of the teacher.
- Bring in early communication skills, planning lessons on topics such as "What did I do yesterday?" and spontaneous discussion points.
- When group work takes place, rules, groundwork, trust and sensitivity need to be constantly reinforced with pupils.