Ability setting or mixed ability classes? Either way, it’s still setting to a degree.
Around 80% of state primary schools have only mixed ability classes. The majority of state secondary schools, nominally mixed ability, have setting to some degree.
And, surprising as it may seem, the numbers are identical for independent schools.
When a school has setting it’s unusual to rank each set in order of ability. More commonly, there’s a top set with the other sets parallel mixed ability. Or a top and bottom set with the middle ones mixed.
It is possible to have setting in each subject. But in reality, ability setting tends to be only for English and maths from junior school, and then includes languages and science in senior school.
Streaming goes further. Here schools teach the most able pupils together for all subjects regardless of subject. It operates in some prep schools (Scholarship v Common Entrance) and as the “grammar stream” within mixed ability state schools.
Arguments for and against
Unsurprisingly setting is controversial.
Parents of more able children usually prefer it because they believe that setting enables more tailored teaching for everyone. The more able pupils are challenged by stretch assignments and competition. Those needing more help, including those with a SEN, benefit from tailored support more conducive to building confidence. No one gets bored, behaviour improves, and so on.
Opponents say that there is no evidence that setting delivers better outcomes. They say it stigmatises the less able and is socially divisive. They claim that mixed ability classes, while not hindering the most able, help the less able. And furthermore, mixed classes improve all pupils’ social skills. In Finland, the law mandates mixed ability classes up to age 16. Finnish pupils are always near the top of any international educational outcomes table.
Questions to ask your school about ability setting
Whichever side of the philosophical divide you fall, it’s clear that success of either policy is down to implementation and the energy and ability of the teachers. And there’s a surge of new evidence based teaching techniques to help.
It’s important to know the criteria the setting school uses to identify a high achieving pupil. The top few are probably easy to identify in any discipline. But what happens when you get down the list to, say, pupils 25 and 26? On what criteria does pupil 25 make the top set and pupil 26 doesn’t? How will pupil 26’s outcomes differ from pupil 25 if they are in a less able set? The issue is that ability isn’t binary but continuous. It’s not “you have it or you don’t”. We all have an ability at maths but we are at different places on the scale.
And what about pupils 36 and 37, whose abilities may present 12 or 18 months later than some others? How does the school develop them?
As socially desirable as mixed ability classes may be, they require great teaching to manage, and they are exhausting for teachers. As Sir Michael Wilshaw, the incumbent Chief Inspector of Schools in England, said in 2012 “Where there are mixed ability classes, unless there is differentiated teaching … it doesn’t work.”
The point he was making was that even within mixed ability classes, teachers should deliver the lesson in different ways to different ability sub groups. Otherwise teachers aim at the middle and fail both the most able and the least able.