The methods of grouping pupils into classes varies greatly between schools, but there are two common practices which are used to different extents: set and mixed ability classes. Research by Hallam and Ireson (2006) shows that setting allows work in lessons to be more easily matched to the level of pupils, but can lead to lower attaining pupils developing negative attitudes towards education and having limited opportunities to succeed and achieve high grades. Ireson et al. (2002) explain that mixed ability classes, which contain pupils with the range of abilities present in the school, can address the issues associated with setting by providing all pupils with the same access to the curriculum and teaching all pupils in similar ways.
Much research has been done to identify whether one method of pupil grouping is more beneficial overall than another. Ireson et al. (2005) report that neither mixed ability or setting raises attainment of all pupils at GCSE level. However, this study did find that when setting was used the set a pupil was in may affect their final grade. Those in top sets achieved higher GCSE grades than pupils with the same attainment levels at Key Stage 3 but in middle or low sets.
School A is a selective girls’ school in the West Midlands which teaches in mixed ability classes for all subjects other than mathematics and English which are set from years 9 to 11. An interview with one teacher revealed the rationale for setting from year 9 is to change the focus of lessons to address the needs of pupils in each set. Lower sets focus on ensuring the basics are secure, whereas a lot of the lesson time in a higher set will focus on extension questions and pushing these pupils further.
In addition to this an interview with a head of department revealed that science was taught in mixed classes to avoid problems such as pupil comparisons and confidence which can occur when pupils are extensively set. They also acknowledged that mixed ability classes for science were suitable for school A since it is a selective school, and all pupils are high attaining.
The views of pupils at school A were investigated through a questionnaire. This revealed that there was no strong preference from pupils toward set or mixed classes for science. Pupils in years 7-9 also did not show a strong preference for either grouping in English, although setting was favoured by year 10 pupils in this subject. However, overall in mathematics pupils showed a strong preference for set classes.
The majority of pupils said that they would prefer to be in a selective rather than a non‑selective school because all pupils were at a similar level which allowed quicker and more challenging learning. Of those that said they favoured non-selective schools this was because they were concerned about the fairness of selection by ability based on one test.
Overall there are no clear benefits for one method of grouping over another. Instead it is important to acknowledge that in every class there is a range of ability, regardless of whether the class is set or mixed ability. The needs of all pupils must be addressed by using differentiation to ensure effective pupil learning.
Hallam, S. and Ireson, J. (2006) ‘Secondary school pupils’ preferences for different types of structured grouping practices’ British Educational Research Journal 32 (4): 583-599.
Ireson, J., Hallam, S., Hack, S., Clark, H. and Plewis, I. (2002) ‘Ability grouping in English secondary schools: Effect on attainment in English, mathematics and science’ Educational Research and Evaluation, 8 (3): 299-318.
Ireson, J., Hallam, S. and Hurley, C. (2005) ‘What are the effects of ability grouping on GCSE attainment?’ British Educational Research Journal, 31 (4): 443-458.