Case study about pupil grouping and differentiation (Eleanor Robinson) (KEC English trainee)


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.



Case study about pupil grouping and differentiation (Kayte Williams) (KEC classics trainee)

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: [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.

Case study about pupil grouping and differentiation (KEC history trainee)

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.


My research

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.

Case study about pupil grouping and differentiation (Rowena Bennett) (KEC dance trainee)

In Sweden ability grouping is illegal and the American education system also avoids categorising pupils (Boaler, 2005). However in the United Kingdom, it is widely recognised that there is great variation in grouping dependent on school policies, teachers and subjects (Kutnick et al., 2005). The primary aim of ability grouping is to reduce the range of attainment within a group (Wiliam and Bartholomew, 2004). However, this separation of pupils has led to pupils being labelled with a fixed notion of ability based on what they can do at one particular time as opposed to their potential ability. If a teacher is categorising a pupil on their ability in a particular subject they are suggesting that that individual will be fixed at that ability for the duration of their education. Thus the teacher holds a fixed-ability mentality.


MacQueen (2013) states that all classes consist of a range of abilities so differentiation is always appropriate. All classes require explicit differentiation thus suggesting that it is the range of abilities within a class and not the mix of abilities that puts demands onto the teacher. Hallam and Ireson’s (2005) research found that for lower ability groups topics are omitted, the curriculum is differentiated, there is less homework given and feedback was in less detail in comparison to higher ability groups. The differentiation here is so great that the opportunities that the pupils have are far less than those of pupils in higher groups. Surely differentiation should be about adding into the curriculum to aid understanding so that pupils still have the opportunity to achieve their potential ability.


Marks (2013) suggests that the term ability should continually be in question and challenged. However Swann et al. (2012) argue that teachers are expected to behave as if a pupil’s potential is predictable. Therefore how can the term ability be constantly in question if we, as teachers, are supposed to be able to predict pupils’ ability? My findings suggest that 87% of the selected teachers at school A prefer ability grouping as it is easier to differentiate and that the lower ability groups make most progress due to smaller classes and more one-to-one opportunities. 24%-50% of set B and 12.5%-25% of set B pupils scored between 0-2 on the Likert scale suggesting they are unsatisfied with their groupings across different curriculum areas. This infers that lower ability students are more dissatisfied with their groupings in comparison to higher ability pupils. This research will impact on my own teaching practice in the following ways: to maintain a growth mindset when teaching all abilities; to ensure I differentiate by including support materials and not removing areas of the curriculum to allow all pupils to have similar opportunities and to ensure challenge and support are always available for all students.




Boaler, J. (2005) ‘The ‘Psychological Prisons’ from which They Never Escaped: the role of ability grouping in reproducing social class inequalities’. Forum. 47 (2 and 3): 135-144.


Hallam, S. and Ireson, J. (2005) ‘Secondary school teachers’ pedagogic practices when teaching mixed and structured ability classes’. Research Papers in Education, 20 (1): 3-24.


Kutnick, P., Blatchford, P., Clark, H., MacIntyre, H. and Baines, E. (2005) ‘Teachers’ understandings of the relationship between within-class (pupil) grouping and learning in secondary schools’. Educational Research, 47 (1): 1-24.


MacQueen, S.E. (2013) ‘Grouping for inequity’. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 17 (3): 295-309.


Marks, R. (2013) “‘The Blue Table Means You Don’t Have a Clue’: the persistence of fixed-ability thinking and practices in primary mathematics in English schools”. Forum. 55(1), 31-44.

Swann, M., Peacock, A., Hart, S. and Drummond, M.J. (2012) Creating Learning without Limits. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

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.



Case study about pupil grouping and differentiation (Hannah Cocksworth) (KEC RE trainee)

Introduction and literature

Defining ‘ability’ is not straightforward (Wiliam and Bartholomew, 2004; Marks, 2013). Wallace (2009, p.1) defines ability as ‘the sense of “potential for performance”.’ Ability is most closely linked with ‘potential’ as opposed to ‘achievement’ or ‘attainment’ and ‘refers rather to what a student is capable of, than to what they have proved themselves able to do’ (Wallace, 2009, p.1; DfES, 2006a). In broad terms, pupils are grouped according to mixed ability or by ability grouping or setting. Lowe and Turner (2013) observe that the latter has become increasingly popular since the 1988 Education Reform Act. However, the result of research carried out on the pros and cons of grouping pupils according to ability is ‘not clear cut’ (Lowe and Turner, 2013, p.159). Instead, focus has turned to ‘strategies which target individual achievement’, for example, differentiation (Lowe and Turner, 2013, p.159).

Research project

I carried out a small-scale research project in order to gather opinions on pupil grouping from teachers at a selective, independent boys’ school in the West Midlands (hereafter School A). I used a mixture of qualitative and quantitative data. I interviewed three members of staff, all in leadership roles at School A. I found out that pupils in School A are grouped by mixed ability in all subject except mathematics, where the banding method is used to set pupils from Year 9 onwards. Broadly speaking, all three teachers were supportive of the school-wide method of pupil grouping.

In addition to these interviews, I distributed a questionnaire. 27 members of staff at School A completed the questionnaire. The questionnaire consisted of ten statements about mixed and ability grouping. Most respondents agreed that mixed ability grouping promotes pupil progress both in their own and in other subject areas. Most agreed that setting by ability had a negative effect on pupil self-esteem and motivation in their own subject. When asked this question about other subject areas, most respondents neither agreed nor disagreed. Most agreed that differentiation for pupils in mixed ability groups secures more progress than grouping by ability. When asked this same question of other subject areas, most respondents neither agreed nor disagreed.


One feature common to the findings of both the interviews and the questionnaires was the importance of differentiation for promoting pupils’ progress. No matter how pupils are grouped, any class of pupils will contain a range of abilities and teachers should differentiate for different pupils in the classes that they teach. Good differentiation depends on knowing your pupils and their needs, particularly the needs of any EAL or SEN/D pupils. In a subject like RE, differentiation can be carried out by means of a variety of ‘in-class groupings’ (DfES, 2006a, p.1) and by a using a range of different questioning techniques in order to promote the progress of pupils of all abilities.


DfES (2006a) National Strategies: Grouping Pupils for Success. London: DfES.


Lowe, H. and Turner, T. (2013) ‘Unit 4.1: Pupil Grouping, Progression and Differentiation’ in Capel, S., Leask, M. and Turner, T. (eds.) Learning to Teach in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience. 5th edn. London: Routledge. pp.157-172.


Marks, R. (2013) “‘The Blue Table Means You Don’t Have a Clue’: the persistence of fixed-ability thinking and practices in primary mathematics in English schools.” Forum. 55(1), 31-44.


Wallace, S. (ed.) (2008) Oxford Dictionary of Education. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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.’ UCL IOE Eprints Available from: [Accessed 5 April 2016].

Case study about pupil grouping and differentiation (Rhiannon Broome) (KEC English trainee)

Throughout the literature review it quickly became evident that there are multiple strengths and weaknesses to both mixed ability setting and setting by ability. There were multiple suggestions from various studies stating that setting by ability would be demotivating and result in a lack of progress in lower ability pupils (Dweck, 2008; Kyricaou, 2009; Peacock, 2006; Lowe and Turner, 2013).

Dweck (2006) in particular focused on the mindset of the pupil, and how the potential negative labelling of lower ability pupils (when set by ability) can reinforce expected outcomes of low attainment. Setting by ability can demotivate lower ability pupils, especially those with a fixed mindset whereas pupils with a growth mindset may not allow this negative labelling to restrict their achievement. In my own teaching practice, I aim to tackle this demotivation by creating differentiated success criteria for the pupils. They have a checklist of techniques and language devices to use within their own writing, and when they include an item correctly they can self-assess and tick it off on their personalised success criteria. With this small addition to the lesson pupils are able to visibly witness their writing achieving elements of their target grade and can feel empowered to push themselves further.

As well as in the lower ability groups, I have used key resources effectively in the top set year 10 group. As many of the pupils are identified as Pupil Premium the pupils need differentiated resources which focus on the context of the pupil, and potential, rather than solely their current attainment. Therefore, when studying a text I printed out the whole text for Pupil Premium pupils who were underachieving, to support their learning at home. This was given to them in conjunction with vocabulary lists for each chapter, in case the pupil did not have easy access to the internet or a dictionary at home.

Hallam and Ireson (2003) conducted a piece of large-scale research to analyse the attitudes of teachers towards pupil grouping; this included a sample of 1,500 teachers. Ultimately the attitudes towards the different types of pupils grouping depended on the teacher’s own experience, qualifications and subject. The study found that English teachers showed a clear preference for mixed ability teaching. This finding was very similar to my own small-scale research. All three English teachers who I interviewed suggested that they would incorporate mixed ability teaching in some format. An interviewee suggested using mixed ability teaching with lower ability pupils, whilst setting by ability for the higher ability pupils; this coincided with Kutnick et al.’s (2005) findings. A further interviewee suggested using mixed ability setting in Key Stage 3 (KS3) groups and setting by ability in Key Stage 4 (KS4) groups. This was in the aim of eradicating demotivation in the younger pupils, and then being able to focus strictly on exam technique in KS4, in the process of preparing for GCSEs.

Overall, my small-scale research highlighted the confusion centred on pupil grouping and whether there is a preferable style of grouping in each subject. It seemed that in English mixed ability grouping could have more benefits, especially in terms of pupil self-esteem and well-being. A clear limitation of my study is the size of the sample, as I only interviewed three teachers and sent out questionnaires as volunteers for other staff members. In order to draw conclusions from the study it would have to have a much larger sample size and therefore be able to compare and contrast types of grouping effectively.

List of References

Dweck, C. (2008) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.


Hallam, S. and Ireson, J. (2003) ‘Secondary school teacher’s attitudes towards and beliefs about ability grouping’. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 73 (3): 343-356.


Kutnick, P. et al. (2005) ‘The effect of pupil grouping: a literature review’. DfES Research Report RR 688. London: DfES.


Kyriacou, C. (2009) Effective Teaching in Schools: Theory and Practice. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes.


Lowe, H. and Turner, T. (2013) ‘Pupil Grouping, Progression and Differentiation’ in Capel, S., Leask, M. and Turner, T. (eds.) Learning to Teach in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience. 5th edn. London: Routledge. pp.157-172.


Peacock, A. (2006) ‘Escaping from the bottom set: finding a voice for school improvement.’ Sage Publications, 9 (3): 251-260.




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].