Case study about pupil grouping and differentiation (Lucy Wade) (KEC MFL trainee)


The main types of pupil grouping in UK schools are setting, streaming, mixed-ability grouping and within-class ability grouping. Overall, the literature has found that the way in which pupils are grouped has no real effect on academic attainment, with some evidence of a negative effect on lower ability pupils and some evidence of within-class ability grouping having a positive impact.

The type of grouping that I focus on in my research project is setting, which constitutes the ‘grouping of pupils according to their ability in a particular subject’ (Ireson et al., 1999). In School X, a selective girls’ school in the West Midlands, the students are set only for mathematics in key stage 4 (Years 10 and 11). For all other subjects the pupils are taught in mixed ability form groups. For my research project, I decided to investigate the general feeling surrounding setting within the Year 11 cohort.


The Research Project:

Firstly I interviewed the mathematics teacher with responsibility for Key Stage 4 to discuss the rationale for setting in mathematics. According to Teacher A, the reason for setting for KS4 mathematics is to enable the weaker students to be taught in smaller groups so they can benefit from more teacher support and from working at a pace suited to their level of ability. The pupils are allocated to sets on the basis of the end of Year 9 examination, after which they are ranked. The teacher also emphasised that the system was flexible, and that it made lesson preparation easier for the teachers as they found it easier to pitch their lessons. In terms of pupil motivation, Teacher A stated that the students did not like it when the sets were labelled but preferred it when they were just named randomly.

The next phase of the research project consisted of pupil questionnaires, which were handed out in Year 11 form time. I received 99 responses out of a year group of 119. Overall attitudes were positive towards setting in mathematics, with 93% of respondents answering that it was beneficial, with reasons such as smaller group size and matching the pace of the work to the ability of the pupils. In terms of pupil motivation, 67% of pupils responded that their set influenced their motivation, for example by encouraging them to stretch themselves.

The pupils were also asked if they would like to be set in other subjects. 54 pupils responded no, claiming that it would make school too competitive and that there was little need in a selective school due to a narrow range of ability. Subjects which were suggested for setting included English, science and MFL.


Overall, the Year 11 cohort at School X view setting in mathematics as positive, especially due to the work being suited to their ability and having smaller classes. However there was no real consensus about whether setting would be beneficial in other subjects.



Ireson, J., Hallam, S., Mortimore, P., Hack, S., Clark, H and Plewis, I. (1999) ‘Ability grouping in the secondary school: the effects on academic achievement and pupils’ self-esteem’. British Educational Research Association Annual Conference: Brighton. London: Institute of Education. Available from: [Accessed 6 March 2016].



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