According to the Education Act (1944), all children have the right to an education that is appropriate for their age, ability and aptitude. No two pupils are alike; providing an education service that is inclusive is fundamental. Pressure to increase the attainment of pupils across England and Wales has forced schools to adopt pupil-grouping strategies that reflect this focus on attainment (Wilkinson and Penney, 2013). This has resulted in schools widely grouping pupils in non-mixed attainment groups.
Non-mixed attainment grouping refers to the organisation of pupils into groups of similar academic attainment, whereas mixed attainment grouping refers to the organisation of pupils into groups of differing academic attainment.
It has been argued that there is no significant or consistent difference between the academic achievement of students in mixed, versus non-mixed attainment groups. I evaluated this claim to analyse the impact of pupil grouping on progress from three perspectives: teacher expectations and behaviours, pupil attitudes, and pupil academic progress.
The impact of teacher expectations is widely considered to be significantly positively correlated with pupil progress (Titchmarsh, 2013). It has been argued that mixed attainment grouping encourages teacher expectations that are less rigid and polarised than in non-mixed attainment group situations (Francis et al., 2016). Concerns are also raised that there is a deficiency of consistent, meaningful differentiation in non-mixed attainment groups, as teachers assume a greater level of homogeneity within the group than exists. This combined with the tendency for teacher expectations to be negatively affected by non-mixed attainment grouping, suggests that non-mixed attainment groups may disadvantage all but the most autonomous students. However, this could be overcome if teachers are aware of this pitfall, and respond accordingly by ensuring that effective, targeted differentiation strategies are implemented into their teaching.
It is established in the literature that pupil attitudes towards learning, can influence attainment and progress (Coe et al., 2014). It has been suggested that non-mixed attainment grouping can foster negative attitudes in pupils across the attainment range; students in lower sets are more likely to become disaffected and lack confidence in their ability to attain high results, whereas students in top sets are more likely to feel overwhelmed (Wilkinson and Penney, 2013). However, following interviews with Teachers B (head of teaching and learning at School A) and D (SENCO at School A), it was suggested that it is beneficial for pupil progress if pupils are exposed to a range of pupil grouping strategies; furthermore, they emphasise the importance of the class teacher creating a positive learning environment that enables all pupils to enjoy learning and feel successful, regardless of how pupils are grouped.
It has been argued that non-mixed attainment grouping of students may engender polarisation of academic progress; Wiliam and Bartholomew (2004) found that in non-mixed attainment groups, top sets were likely to exceed their expected GCSE grade, whereas bottom sets were likely to fall short of their expected GCSE grade. It has also been reported that movement between sets is uncommon in both mixed and non-mixed attainment groupings, due to differences in both the pace of learning and content covered between groups. This may have a deleterious effect on pupil progress. At odds with this is the widely reported finding of no significant, consistent difference in the attainment and progress of pupils in mixed versus non-mixed attainment groups. This suggests it is not how pupils are grouped that is significant, rather how the teacher manages and responds to the needs of the group. Teachers have a responsibility to create a learning environment that celebrates and nurtures pupils of all academic profiles. This may require different grouping approaches across the subjects to account for how the learning of different disciplines varies.
I suggest that a more subject specific approach to pupil grouping is needed, combined with a focus on establishing growth mindsets in all pupils (Dweck, 2006), and the implementation of effective, focussed differentiation in all lessons, although this may be better facilitated by non-mixed attainment grouping.
Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S. and Major, L. (2014) What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research. Sutton Trust. Available from: http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/What-makes-great-teaching-FINAL-4.11.14.pdf [Accessed 7 March 2016].
Dweck, C. (2008) Mindset. New York: Random House.
Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Pepper, D., Taylor, B. and Travers, M. (2016) Exploring the relative lack of impact of research on ‘ability grouping’ in England: a discourse analytic account. Cambridge Journal of Education, pp.1-17.
Wiliam, D & Bartholomew, H., (2004). It’s not which school but which set you’re in that matters: the influence on ability-grouping practices on student progress in mathematics. British Educational Research Journal, 30 (2), 279–294.
Wilkinson, S. and Penney, D. (2013) The effects of setting on classroom teaching and student learning in mainstream mathematics, English and science lessons: a critical review of the literature in England. Educational Review, 66(4), pp.411-427.