Despite the fact that research has suggested that grouping by ability has little impact on pupils’ overall attainment (Ireson and Hallam, 2001) it is still a topic that polarises researchers, teachers and pupils alike. For this reason, I researched the opinions of staff and students at my main placement school, hereafter school A, a large comprehensive faith school in the West Midlands. I did this by interviewing staff and surveying a set one and two set four year eight classes.
Although Wiliam and Bartholomew (2004, p.291) do say that ‘abolishing setting overnight is not the answer’, the majority of the literature calls for reform in pupil grouping and much of it advocates mixed ability grouping or other alternative grouping strategies (Hallam and Ireson, 2007). It also suggests that setting leads to a lack of differentiation, a restricted curriculum for the lower sets and the promotion of a ‘fixed mindset’ (Dweck, 2007, p.34). There seems to be a consensus that, if setting is used, flexibility is key (Ireson and Hallam, 2001) in order to capitalise ‘on student strengths and allow…effective attention to student weaknesses’ (Imbeau and Tomlinson, 2010, p.41).
Pupils’ opinions on grouping by ability reflected a large spectrum of opinion. Set one had a mean score of 17.4 with a standard deviation, hereafter SD, of 2.3, showing that overall they were fairly favourable towards setting, with a minority identifying as neutral or opposed. Set four showed a much more mixed view of setting with an overall mean score of 15.6 and a SD of 4.1. Though this does suggest that lower achieving students show less preference for setting, converging with Ireson and Hallam’s (2001) research, the relatively large SD shows us that this opinion is far from unanimous. In addition, the fact that the difference between the overall opinion of the two groups is not dramatic suggests that set one pupils might not benefit as much from setting as teachers think (Ireson and Hallam, 2001). Indeed, pupils from set one displayed a greater tendency towards a ‘fixed mindset’ (Dweck, 2007, p.34) in regards to their intelligence than set four, who’s self-esteem was governed much more by their social interactions in the class.
The greatest divergence between the findings of the existing research and this small scale study was in regards to the effects setting had on the amount of differentiation that occurred in the classroom. Many pupils from both groups thought it was good for their progress to be working at the same level as others around them and that this meant more personalised help was available to them, an opinion shared by the staff that I interviewed.
Without ignoring the specific school and pupil contexts, there are four points of application that both the existing research and my own seem to suggest: appreciating the diversity of every group of pupils, ensuring equality of curriculum opportunities in the classroom, the promotion of social interaction in learning, and fostering a ‘growth mindset’ (Dweck, 2012, p.7).
Dweck, C. (2007) ‘The Perils and Promises of Praise’, Educational Leadership. 65(2): 34-39.
Hallam, S. and Ireson, J. (2007) ‘Secondary school pupils’ satisfaction with their ability group placements’, British Educational Research Journal, 33 (1): 27-45.
Imbeau, M. and Tomlinson, C.A. (2010) Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).
Ireson, J. and Hallam, S. (2001) Ability Grouping in Education. London: Paul Chapman.
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.