Case study about pupil grouping and differentiation (Anushka Puri) (KEC mathematics trainee)

My assignment focused on pupil grouping and differentiation, specifically in mathematics at school A, a selective girls’ school in the West Midlands. The assignment started with a review of the literature on pupil grouping, I then discussed how school A groups pupils, and researched the opinions of teachers and pupils at school A towards pupil grouping.


Within my literature review, I found varying opinions on whether or not we should group pupils according to a previous measure of perceived ability (set groups). Boaler et al. (2000) and Hallam and Ireson (2007) found that many pupils were not happy in the sets that they were in or wanted to move sets. Potential reasons given in the literature for pupils not being happy in the sets that they are in include:

  • pupils in top sets having heightened anxiety or not feeling as though they can ask questions;
  • pupils in lower sets having reduced motivation; and
  • setting causing an ‘artificial ceiling’ for pupils being prepared for different tiers of examinations (Ireson et al., 2004, p.456).

The Department for Education and Skills (2006) however said that pupil grouping can be used to provide appropriate learning to each pupil. A salient point running through the literature was that setting can cause fixed ability thinking, which can have a cumulative negative effect on a child’s education.

At school A, pupils are first set for mathematics in year 10. Research conducted through interviewing two mathematics teachers and conducting questionnaires with year 10 pupils (112 pupils) found the following results:


  • teachers felt that setting pupils in year 10 positively benefited their education;
  • some top set pupils felt that their class was high pressured, causing reduced motivation;
  • pupils in the lower sets thought the move to sets had positively benefitted their learning and enjoyed working at a slower pace.

My research found that some pupils in the highest set at school A had a similar negative view towards their sets as those discussed by the literature; however 67 out of 112 respondents thought that moving to sets in year 10 had positively affected their ability to learn. Pupils in the lower sets at school A had a positive attitude towards their set and its effect on their learning: this is very different to the literature. I think that this difference may have occurred because school A is a selective school.


From this assignment I have gained a deeper understanding of the fixed ability thinking that setting in schools can help to create and how this thinking can effect pupils’ progress. I have also been able to reflect on the pressures of being taught in a top set and will now try to make sure that I create learning atmospheres in which children are able to ask questions and make mistakes, where all children are mathematically stretched and challenged.

Word length: 505


Boaler, J. Wiliam, D. and Brown, M. (2000) Students’ Experiences of Ability Grouping – disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure’. British Educational Research Journal, 26 (5): 631-648.


Department for Education and Skills (2006) National Strategies: Grouping Pupils for Success. London: DfES.


Hallam, S. and Ireson, J. (2007) ‘Secondary school pupils’ satisfaction with their ability grouping placements’, British Educational Research Journal, 33 (1): 27-45.


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.


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