Pupil grouping and differentiation
I undertook an investigation into the attitudes of selective school teachers to setting in selective and non-selective schools. I asked teachers about the basis on which setting decisions should be made – be it current performance in a subject or predicted GCSE grade – the potential effect of setting on pupil progress and attainment, and the potential effect of setting on the emotional and social well-being of pupils.
My literature review revealed a general consensus that pupil setting has little overall impact on attainment, but can result in a negative impact on pupil emotional and social well-being (Ireson, Hallam and Hurley, 2005). A disadvantage of setting is the shifting of teacher expectations and teaching practices in these setted classes. Wiliam and Bartholomew (2004) found that teachers use a wider range of approaches and took greater account of individual differences in mixed-ability groups. Underpinning shifting teacher practices and expectations are attitudes to the nature of intelligence. Dweck (2008) distinguishes between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset – the former holds the view that ability is fixed, while the latter ‘is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts’ (2008, p.6). A combination of teacher practice (differentiation strategies) and teacher attitudes (fixed versus growth mindset) can have a negative impact on setted classes, particularly for lower attaining groups.
The qualitative and quantitative research I undertook at my main placement school suggests that there remains a general consensus in favour of setting in some subjects, despite an acknowledgement that there may be social and emotional costs to this. It also suggests that teachers are more in favour of setting in non-selective schools than in selective schools, possibly due to a greater ability spread which makes differentiation across this range more difficult. I found pupil grouping to be most popular in mathematics, least popular in English and humanities, and most contentious in selective schools for MFL teachers and non-selective schools for humanities teachers. My qualitative research suggested some important points in relation to successful setting practice. First, all sets at my school work towards the same high goals of an A* to B in GCSE mathematics, with the top sets being stretched beyond the remit of the GCSE examination. Second, setting decisions are reviewed regularly and communicated to parents and pupils with sensitivity and care. The school works hard to avoid the negative consequences of setting in mathematics, and it is clear that the school ethos is an important factor in the success of setting at the school.
My research makes a case for setting in certain scenarios. Yet, more importantly, it has revealed the importance of teacher attitudes to the nature of intelligence and teacher practice, in the form of effective differentiation strategies, to progress. With effective support for all pupils and a mindset that promotes growth and learning for all, pupils can make effective progress whether they are in setted or mixed-ability classes.
Dweck, C. (2008) Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine.
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.
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.’ British Educational Research Journal, 30 (2): 239-279.