Monthly Archives: May 2015

Pupil Grouping and Differentiation (Benedict Hardy, English)

For this assignment, I set out to investigate how grouping pupils by ability might affect them, both in terms of their academic attainment, and in terms of non-academic outcomes like motivation, self-esteem, and a sense of self-efficacy. The debate seemed relatively polarised, with proponents of ability grouping arguing that it offered teachers the ability to differentiate work more effectively for increased progress, whilst opponents argued that it negatively impacted on progress and pupils’ mindsets.

Crucial to my reading was the work of Carol Dweck (2000), who argues that there are two core views on learning – a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Pupils with the former mindset view intelligence as changeable, and thus seek challenges which enable them to build their knowledge and skills progressively. Learners with the latter mindset view intelligence as a fixed entity, inherent in each individual, and thus prefer to avoid challenges which put them at risk of failing, and showing their perceived lack of intelligence.

Carol Dweck’s (2000) theories are key to the issue of grouping by ability, as learners who feel labelled may be more liable to develop a fixed mindset. Further reading seemed to support this notion, with multiple studies showing that mixed-ability grouping promoted higher optimism, self-efficacy and self-esteem amongst learners. Case studies of individual schools showed how moving towards mixed-ability grouping could have transformative impacts on learners’ self-perceptions.

Another key element of my research was on the progress and attainment resulting from different grouping practices. Most of my reading suggested that ability grouping had minimal or even negative effects on attainment. A key finding by Ireson, Hallam, and Hurley (2005) was that learners of a similar ability, placed into different sets, would attain differently as a result. In mathematics in particular, learners of similar abilities benefitted considerably from being placed into higher sets. Additionally, researchers suggested that teachers often altered their practice to suit the perceived ability of their groups, often in ways which limited the creativity and challenge available to learners.

That said, my investigations in my main placement school led me to believe that it is possible to successfully use grouping by ability. Learners moved relatively freely between sets, and were clearly developing a growth mindset as a result of whole-school policies to promote these views. Whilst it was true that learners could be limited in their academic choices by the set they were placed in, and some students showed an awareness of the self-esteem issues which ability grouping might provoke, the school worked hard to avoid these pitfalls.

Ultimately, it was clear from my research that mixed-ability grouping was an ideal scenario, which could lead to significantly more positive outcomes amongst learners, when coupled with effective pedagogy. However, it was also clear that, when underpinned by targeted and tailored strategies, ability grouping did not necessarily have to be harmful to pupils – it was still possible for them to develop a growth mindset, and a positive view of their capacity to learn, whilst grouped by abilities.


Dweck, C. (2000) Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development Hove: Brunner/Mazel

Irseon, J., Hallam, S. and Hurley, C. (2005) ‘What are the effects of ability grouping on GCSE attainment?’ in British Educational Research Journal 31 (4): 443–458


Pupil Grouping and Differentiation (Grant McWalter, mathematics)

For my most recent assignment, I decided to investigate pupil grouping. Across education, the idea of being taught in a class is universal, but there are many different ways in which schools choose to organise these classes. I drew a distinction between two ways schools organise classes: they can put them in classes according to their ability, in which case I called the classes set, or they can put them in classes in some other way, in which case I called the classes unset. My investigation therefore concerned the advantages of set and unset classes, and particularly how they affect pupil attitudes.

Since the Education Act of 1944, setting has been almost universal in secondary mathematics. It is popular with maths teachers, and is often justified by appealing to the linear and hierarchical nature of mathematics. Mathematics, it is argued, is simply unsuited to teaching classes of mixed ability. Despite this view, however, there is a good deal of research which suggests that teaching mathematics in sets is detrimental to the learning of average and weaker students, while the gains made by stronger students are comparably smaller.

This effect has been attributed to a combination of factors, one of which is that teachers are more inclined to teach a set class with fixed expectations about what the class is capable of. This can lead to misjudging the level of the class, failing to provide opportunities for improvement and, at the lower end, unchallenging and monotonous work.

As well as affecting teacher attitudes, sets can also affect pupil attitudes. Carol Dweck (Morehead, 2012) made the distinction between a growth mindset, in which one believes that ability can be developed, and a fixed mindset, in which one believes that ability is fixed. A growth mindset ultimately leads to better resilience when faced with challenges and is preferable to a fixed mindset. Jo Boaler (2013) argues that setting, in being based upon the perceived ability of students, promotes a fixed mindset. This fixed mindset is particularly pervasive amongst ethnic minorities and girls.

In order to see whether these findings matched the practices at my school, I distributed a questionnaire to a range of pupils aged 11-16 to ask them about their attitudes towards maths and setting. I found that the results demonstrated that the pupils enjoyed Maths and had high self-confidence, and supported setting for mathematics irrespective of their set. This suggests that my school has managed to avoid many of the pitfalls of setting. However, one worry that did emerge was that many of the girls felt that mathematics is a subject that you either get or you don’t. This corroborates Boaler’s (2013) suggestion that girls in particular suffer from a fixed mindset when set in Maths.

There are clear drawbacks to my research – only 58 pupils were sampled, and the sample wasn’t representative of the age distribution of the school. However, it nevertheless has convinced me to adapt my practice to ensure I spend time promoting a growth mindset amongst my pupils, especially the girls!


Boaler, J. (2013) ‘Ability and Mathematics: the mindset revolution that is reshaping educaiton’. Forum, 55(1): 143-152. Available from: [Accessed 13th April 2015]

Morehead, J. (2012) Stanford University’s Carol Dweck on the Growth Mindset and Education [Online] Dublin: OneDublin.Org. Available from: [Accessed 13th April 2015]

Pupil Grouping and Differentiation (Kate Leech, English)

Educators in the 1960s and 1970s rejected fixed ability teaching, yet we still find it in most UK schools, suggesting it has advantages. My research queried this and assessed the realities of ability grouping by exploring the effects of setting on pupil progress, the effects of setting on pupils themselves and how these compare to real-world perceptions.

I looked at an array of published research before conducting my own at School A, a mixed comprehensive secondary academy in the West Midlands. School A sets for all subjects, so I focussed on setting (ability individually assessed in each subject) rather than banding or streaming (grouping for overall ability). I questioned curriculum leaders at School A, as they are responsible for setting, and gathered pupil perspectives, gaining insight into my subject – English – and the pupils themselves. Though this research was small-scale and far from representative, it provided insight into real-world perceptions.

It was difficult to draw firm conclusions from my own limited research, mainly as there were some viable contradictions to academic literature. But it was definitely possible to conclude some general principles, bearing in mind all the literature I had read.

These are, firstly, that setting has little or no active benefit for progress when teachers are capable of strong mixed ability teaching. This is due to the unequal pedagogy and fixed attitude to ability encouraged, as well as the limitations to educational access experienced by pupils in lower sets – especially when attainment is capped by GCSE pathways. Secondly, that setting can and does damage attainment in core subjects, especially outside the top set and when pupils are placed in an unsuitable set. Thirdly, that setting makes discriminatory grouping dangerously easy and is well able to destroy pupil confidence or lead to frustration at missed opportunities; SEN/D children are particularly in danger here. Finally, the best possible research cannot account for all individual experience, as demonstrated by the views of teachers and pupils at School A, which demonstrate some valid opinions inconsistent with predominating research, especially regarding pupil confidence and self-esteem. This is not to undermine the conclusions already drawn, but to note that it is impossible to generalise with complete accuracy; school ethos makes a big difference.

There are three main points I feel even teachers obliged to work in an environment of ability grouping can take from these conclusions. First is the need to ensure that a growth-centred attitude to ability is cultivated actively within themselves and pupils. Secondly, avoiding ability labelling and working to build the self-esteem of all pupils is very important to develop a progress-focussed attitude of resilience, while still supporting as needed. The final, and in some ways most important, pedagogical necessity is to stretch all classes as much as possible, not limiting the access lower groups have to the curriculum, but helping them to appreciate and learn from it with appropriate differentiation.

Pupil Grouping and Differentiation (Rosa Sanchez, Spanish)

The education system in England, throughout its development, has deployed different ways of grouping pupils. Consequently, many research studies have focused on the effects of different methods of grouping pupils in an attempt to find out which one is more beneficial for pupils and their progress. However, despite numerous studies, ‘the best ways to group pupils remains a vexed question’ (Titchmarsh, 2013, p.203).

Ways in which pupils can be grouped are manifold. According to Gillard (2009, p.49), ‘the selection of children in England’s schools for different types of education can be seen operating at three levels: between schools, within schools and within classes’.

The main ways of grouping pupils within schools are structured ability setting and mixed-ability grouping; their advantages and disadvantages, together with their effects on pupil progress, are the main focus on this paper.

The notion of ability is open to interpretation: some people consider that ability is fixed and ‘sets a limit on what an individual can achieve’ (Ireson and Levinson, 2013, p.236), whereas other authors like Gardner (2011), who argues that there is not a sole intelligence but several intelligences that are relatively autonomous, challenge this idea and claim that ability can be developed. Despite the controversial definition of the term, allocating pupils to different classes according to their ability on a subject-by-subject basis, also known as setting, is a common practice in many educational systems because it is thought to be an effective means of raising attainment. On the other hand, those who question the notion of ability and highlight the negative effects of labelling pupils by placing them in sets according to this notion, propose mixed-ability grouping. This way, pupils of different ability and different backgrounds are placed together, resulting in a wide range of ability within a class.

Advantages and disadvantages of both setting and mixed-ability groupings have been hotly debated by several authors and trends in schools have fluctuated over the years. Many research groups have tried to evidence the effects of pupil grouping but, as the results have been uneven, there has been disparity in their findings. In a nutshell, although it is believed that setting raises standards, several research studies suggest that setting does not improve attainment (Hallam and Ireson, 2007; Ireson et al., 2005; Wiliam and Bartholomew, 2004) but ‘has detrimental effects on the social and personal outcomes for some children’ (Blatchford et al., 2008, p.28).

The inconsistencies in the effects of ability grouping on pupil attainment outlined by Ireson et al., (2005) suggest that other factors, like teachers’ expectations and different criteria to allocation to sets, influence these effects and need to be taken into account.

The complexity of the notion of ability and the wrong assumption that a group of pupils are ‘of the same ability’ add more difficulty to the question. As human beings are all different, pupils in any class will be all different and, consequently, differentiation is crucial.

My research in School A was small scale and my findings are, therefore, limited. However, facts like the different expectations that some teachers have depending on the set or the employment of the word ability and the like by some pupils are surprising and provide areas for further research.


Blatchford, P., Hallam, S., Ireson, J. & Kutnick, P., with Creech, A. (2008) Classes, Groups and Transitions: structures for teaching and learning. (The Primary Review Research Survey 9/2), Cambridge: University of Cambridge Faculty of Education. Available from: [Accessed 20 February 2015]

Gardner, H. (2011) Frames of Mind. The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Tenth-anniversary edn. New York: Basic Books. Available from: [Accessed 25 March 2015]

Gillard, D. (2009) ‘Us and Them: a history of pupil grouping policies in England’s schools’. In FORUM, 51(1):49-72. Available from: [Accessed 13 February 2015]

Hallam, S. and Ireson, J. (2007) ‘Secondary School Pupils’ Satisfaction with Their Ability Grouping Placements’. In British Educational Research Journal, 33(1):27-45. Available from: [Accessed 13 February 2015]

Ireson, J., Hallam, S. and Hurley, C. (2005) ‘What are the Effects of Ability Grouping on GCSE Attainment?’ In British Educational Research Journal, 31(4):443-458. Available from: [Accessed 13 February 2015]

Ireson, J. and Levinson, R.  (2013) ‘Unit 4.3: Cognitive development’ in Capel, S., Leask, M. and Turner, T. (eds.) Learning to Teach in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience. 6th edn. London: Routledge, pp.234-235

Titchmarsh, A.  (2013) ‘Unit 4.1: Pupil grouping, progression and differentiation’ in Capel, S., Leask, M. and Turner, T. (eds.) Learning to Teach in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience. 6th edn. London: Routledge, pp.201-218

Wiliam, D. and Bartholomew, H. (2004) ‘It’s Not Which School but Which Set You’re in That Matters: The Influence of Ability Grouping Practices on Student Progress in Mathematics’. In British Educational Research Journal, 30(2):279-293. Available from: [Accessed 13 February 2015]

Pupil Grouping and Differentiation (Emily Wood, Classics – Latin)

What Does the Research Say?

It seems there is no right or wrong answer on how to group pupils in secondary schools today. There are various ways to group pupils: by setting them by academic ability for each subject, streaming a year group for particular subjects so there is essentially more than one of each type of set per year or mixing the academic ability of a class. The latter is socially favoured in secondary schools, as researchers have found that pupils can become de-motivated in lower sets or have teachers who expect less of them than they would a top set. Those who benefit most from ability grouping seem to be the more academically able, as they have access to more complex skills and independent learning opportunities.

Is it possible to get a balance? Mixed ability teaching can limit the progress of some pupils if they are not properly supported or challenged in class, and so it is important for teachers to effectively differentiate for their pupils. This could be differentiation of resources, activities or time. It has been said that it is easier to differentiate within ability-grouped classes but often teachers do not personalise the learning as thoroughly when pupils are grouped in this way.

My Research Project

I am currently completing my teacher training in classics in an all-boys independent school in the West Midlands (School A) and used qualitative and quantitative data collection methods to analyse how the staff feel about ability grouping in School A. I interviewed the Head of Classics (HoC) and the Head of Mathematics (HoM) and discovered a stark contrast in their opinions on how to group pupils. The HoC sees the academic benefits of mixed ability teaching for two reasons; first he believes that grouping by ability can de-motivate certain pupils and also thinks that the narrow academic band at School A means that standards are high and weaker pupils benefit from this. The HoM, in contrast, wants his classes to be grouped by ability from year 8 because he feels that pupils with a lower ability are better looked after in sets, where their confidence can be built. This shows that even though these teachers belong in the same school, opinions can vary drastically depending on the subject being discussed.

There is a similarly indecisive feeling among other staff in School A. To reach this conclusion, I surveyed teachers from different departments and converted their answers into numerical values for analysis. I found that no department was more than 55% ‘pro setting’ in School A and this could be a reflection on the school’s narrow band of academic ability.


If I can take anything away from this research it will be that to group pupils effectively, one has to be acutely aware of the demographic of the school. Context is everything and I believe that mixed ability teaching is the correct model for my main placement school but I am certain that my opinion would change if I were to gain experience in a non-selective environment.

Pupil Grouping and Differentiation (Alex Mason, history)

Modern pedagogy seems to rather have it in for setting by ability. Carol Dweck’s argument about different mind-sets[1] has only codified what researchers have repeatedly shown; that setting has a negative effect on pupil motivation, attitude and progress.[2]  This message, however, is yet to reach what appears to be significant proportion of the teaching profession.

During the course of my research, I asked teachers in my placement school (a selective, independent, boys’, 11-18 School in the West Midlands) to both give their experiences and their opinions of setting in their own subject and in English, Maths and Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) in selective and non-selective schools. While this is clearly a rather limited survey (45 respondents) and inevitably skewed towards the school in which it took place, the results are notable. My placement school only sets for Maths in years 9, 10 and 11, although many teachers had experienced setting in other subjects during their careers. Maths was the most commonly set subject and non-selective schools were more likely to set than selective ones.

Teachers were for setting in one of Maths, English or MFL, but slightly against it in their own subject, in both selective and non-selective schools. Mathematicians, scientists and English/MFL teachers were the most pro-setting, although the last had a high significant difference, indicating divergent opinions. Humanities teachers were the least pro-setting and in their own subject, they were anti-setting. In general, teachers who had been in the profession longer were more pro-setting, which is perhaps reflective of pedagogical trends while training. Teachers who had spent more time in non-selective schools were less in favour of setting than those who had spent more than three-quarters of their career in selective schools, although they were more in favour of setting in non-selective schools than selective schools, especially for Maths, English and MFL. Teachers who had never spent time in a non-selective school were the only group who were anti-setting in their own subject in non-selective schools, perhaps because their lack of experience makes them less sensitive to the practical difficulties of teaching mixed ability. Generally as teachers got older they were more likely to be in favour of setting, however, the over 51 group were less in favour of setting than those in their 40s.  Given that this represents a less strong opinion, rather than a different one, it may just be an odd quirk of the statistics, rather than anything meaningful. The relatively low significant difference indicates such.  Men were generally more pro-setting that women, although this may be more reflective of the fact that subjects like maths and science tend to be more male-dominated, and those subjects were more strongly pro-setting. I find it more likely that the subject taught is the differentiating factor, rather than gender here.

It would appear, therefore, that the message of Dweck and other researchers that setting by ability does more harm than good has yet to be received and accepted by at least some aspects of the teaching profession.

1 Dweck, C. (2008) ‘Brainology: Transforming Students’ Motivation to Learn’ Independent Schools Magazine Available from: [Accessed 10 April, 2015].

2 Boaler, D. Wiliam and M. Brown (2000) ‘Students’ experiences of ability grouping —disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure.’ British Educational Research Journal, 26 (5), pp. 631-648.

Pupil Grouping and Differentiation (Grace Talbot, mathematics)

I recently completed an essay with the aim of evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of setting pupils based on their ability. The first thing I considered was the definition of ability, considering both the rigid dictionary definition ‘cleverness, talent; mental power’ (Thompson, 1996, p.2) and the more flexible idea that ability is not fixed, and that it is directly linked with the amount of work and effort done (Dweck, 2008). I decided that I would consider ability to be the current performance of a pupil, with the knowledge that it was not a fixed entity.

I began with a review of the literature, which enabled me to investigate the reasoning behind many of the schools utilising some form of setting. It was clear that both teachers and pupils could identify the advantages for teachers, in that it caused a reduction in pressure and workload (Smith and Sutherland, 2003). Both pupils and teachers also mentioned setting facilitated more appropriately challenging work to be used, both by setting tasks that matched the level at which they were working (Kim, 2012; Hornby and Witte, 2014; Smith and Sutherland, 2006) as well as working at a pace that suited the class (DfEE, 1997; Kim, 2012).

However, the more convincing argument, in my opinion, came when the literature discussed the possible negative consequences of setting by ability. It was evident that bottom set pupils were considered to be less intelligent that top set pupils (Smith and Sutherland, 2006), and the stigmatisation of bottom set pupils appeared to be a common problem (Hornby and Witte, 2014; Wilkinson and Penney, 2014). Additionally, top set pupils reported feeling pressured by the fast pace of the lessons and high expectations of teachers, suggesting that this can have a negative effect on exam performance (Kim, 2012; Boaler, 1997).

Additionally, the use of tasks appropriate to the ability of a pupil results in unequal opportunities for pupils, with those in bottom sets being exposed to a reduced curriculum content (Hallam, 2012; Ireson et al., 2002; Kim, 2012), which is augmented by the reported lack of mobility between sets (Smith and Sutherland, 2006; Ireson et al., 2002; Wilkinson and Penney, 2014).

In conclusion, this essay has highlighted to me the difficulty in deciding upon a school system that will suit every pupil in a school. Due to the focus of my essay being the advantages and disadvantages of setting by ability, I now feel like I am able to appreciate the groups of pupils for which this is the best system and consider the ways in which I can try to maximise the utilisation of this system for those that it does not naturally benefit. However, I am also conscious that I have not considered the advantages and disadvantages of other potential systems, such as streaming or mixed ability setting, and so I am unable to assess the advantages of using setting in relation to the other options.


Boaler, J. (1997) ‘When even the winners are losers: evaluating the experiences of top set’ students.’ Journal of Curriculum Studies, 29 (2): 165-182.

Department for Education and Employment (1997) Excellence in Schools. Available from: [Accessed 1 April 2005].

Dweck, C. S. (2008) Brainology: Transforming students’ motivation to learn. Available from: [Accessed 1 April 2005].

Hallam, S. (2012) ‘Streaming and setting in UK primary schools: evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study. FORUM, 54 (1): 57-63.

Hornby, G. and Witte, C. (2014) ‘Ability grouping in New Zealand high schools: are practices evidence-based?’ Preventing School Failure, 58 (2): 90-95.

Ireson, J., Hallam, S., Hack, S., Clark, H. and Lewis, I. (2002) ‘Ability grouping in English secondary schools: effects on attainment in English, mathematics and science.’ Education Research and Evaluation: An International Journal on Theory and Practice, 8 (3): 299-318.

Kim, Y. (2012) ‘Implementing ability grouping in EFL contexts: perceptions of teachers and students.’ Language Teaching Research, 16 (3): 289-315.

Smith, C. M. M. and Sutherland, M. J. (2003) ‘Setting or mixed ability? Teachers’ views of the organisation of pupils for learning.’ Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 3 (3): 141-146.

Smith, C. M. M. and Sutherland, M. J. (2006) ‘Setting or mixed ability?: pupils’ views of the organisational arrangement in their school.’ Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 6 (2): 69-75.

Thompson, D. (ed.). (1996) The Oxford Compact English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilkinson, S. D. and Penney, D. (2014) ‘The effects of setting on classroom teaching and student2 learning in mainstream mathematics, English and science lessons: a critical review of the literature in England.’ Educational Review, 66 (4): 411-427.