The 1944 Education Act ruled that schools in the United Kingdom must ‘afford for all pupils opportunities for education offering such variety of instruction and training as may be desirable in view of their different ages, abilities, and aptitudes’ (Ministry of Education, 1944, p.5). The principle of providing differentiation in teaching in view of pupils’ different abilities and aptitudes still forms the fifth of eight Teachers’ Standards required to achieve Qualified Teacher Status since 2011. This document places emphasis not on pupils’ abilities and aptitudes, but on ‘the physical, social and intellectual development of children’ and their ‘different stages of development’ (Department for Education, 2011, p.11). Tomlinson (2015, p.204) argues that pupils’ ‘array of needs – social, emotional, cognitive, behavioural – need to be taken into account as teachers plan and carry out instruction, if the goal of schools is to truly educate the young people who are obliged to attend them’.
A major site of differentiation is pupil grouping, where mixed ability grouping and setting by ability are the major alternatives. Much research has found that ability grouping has a negative impact on pupils, in terms of student academic outcomes and social integration vs. isolation. Research suggests that lower attaining pupils typically becoming stigmatised, disaffected and alienated from school, while higher set pupils, particularly girls, can underachieve and become disaffected as a result of being in the top set.
In order to test the veracity of this research, I investigated the views of a group of year 8 and year 10 pupils in school A, an independent selective school in the West Midlands, on mixed ability setting, and setting by ability, using interviews and questionnaires. 83.7% of pupils agreed with the statement that ‘Being in sets increases achievement’, while 37.8% agreed with the statement that ‘Being in sets makes me less confident about my ability’ In a scoring system designed to analyse pupils’ general approval for setting where 10 points indicates a neutral opinion, the modal average score was 12, indicating a weak general approval for setting by ability. The standard deviation of 1.9 shows that pupils were largely in agreement about this. Year 10 pupils’ modal average approval score was slightly lower at 11, with a similar standard deviation of 1.5, meaning that older pupils at School A approve of setting slightly less than younger pupils.
I then investigated the reasons for this approval. 44.2% of pupils felt that working with students of a similar level was the most significant advantage of setting by ability, whilst the two most popular criticisms of setting by ability were that ‘you feel bad as people in upper sets are better’, and that there is ‘more pressure’. This concurs with research (Hallam, 2002) which indicates that placement in lower sets harms pupils’ self-esteem; some pupils even responded on questionnaires that pupils in higher sets tease them about their lower ability in the subject.
Taking pupils’ preferences into account when setting would relieve the academic pressure many pupils feel grouping by ability creates, while sorting pupils by need rather than ability would avoid the socio-economic discrimination which research suggests is created by ability grouping.
Ministry of Education (1944) Education Act 1944. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.
Department for Education and Schools (2011) Teachers’ Standards. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/301107/Teachers__Standards.pdf [Accessed 10 April 2016].
Tomlinson, C.A. (2015) ‘Teaching for Excellence in Academically Diverse Classrooms’. Symposium: 21st Century Excellence in Education, Part 2, 52 (3): 203-209.
Hallam, S. (2002) Ability grouping in schools: a literature review. London: Institute of Education, University of London.