Let’s Talk About Sets


3 years ago I would have defended mixed-ability teaching to the end. I would have told you that children learn best when they have strong role models within the class. I would have informed you that there is no such thing as a “middle ability” child until you put them in a “middle ability” set and give them “middle ability” work (whatever that is.) I would have talked about the damage setting does to children’s confidence and self-esteem. The less able will quickly work out they are in the “lower ability” group when they realise half of their class have special needs and the rest of the class can’t speak a word of English. I would have told you that with careful differentiation and the children have the freedom to choose their level of challenge mixed ability groups shouldn’t hinder progress. If by this point you were still listening and hadn’t punched me, I would have sanctimoniously pointed you in the direction of the research Jo Boaler and Dylan William that tell you that setting has no positive impact on attainment. Of course you can also find the evidence to tell that mixed ability teaching fails children. So what is the truth?

If in doubt, when debating any aspect of Education, have a look at Finland. They are help up as this paradigm of excellence. All Finnish schools teach in mixed ability class (Secondary schools too.) They have much smaller classes though (they limit it to 20 pupils at the most.) They have incredibly high expectations and when there are pupils in the class that are struggling they put more qualified teachers into the class to support. Something that we have to avoid is looking at other counties and hoping just to cut and paste a model over because it isn’t that straightforward.

One thing I know for sure is that David Cameron bloody loves sets (or, at the very least, understands that Middle England love to hear him talking about sets.)  Sorting children into groups by their ability is one of his favourite things. Way back in 2006 when being Prime Minister was just a wet dream, he said:

“I want to see setting in every single school. Parents know it works. Teachers know it works. Tony Blair promised it in 1997. But it still hasn’t happened. We will keep up the pressure till it does.”

So is Mr Cameron right? Does setting “work”? I suppose it depends what you mean by “work”. Here are some truths:

  • Setting is easier on the teacher. If the data you are using to set with is accurate enough, and you have enough staff you ideally have a situation where the teacher only has one “level” of children in their set. It is much easier teaching a class of children that are all level 2 than a class of children that range from level 1 – 6.
  • Most able – all research and evidence seems to conclude that the most able pupils attain higher in schools where there is setting.
  • Less able – the same research found that “those given a place in the middle or lower streams do worse than they would if there were no streaming.”
This means that dreaded “gap” between the least and the most able stretches wide open in schools that choose to stream. Why? It’s not entirely clear. I suppose one reason is that grey area of the “middle ability” children – there is a wide range between the top set and the bottom set and yet they all seem to be clumped together as “middle ability”. Then there is the issue of children not moving out of this set. They are given middle ability work and not even offered the chance to prove they could do something more challenging.
Secondly, I would argue the lack of role models is the reason streaming is detrimental to the less able. This has really struck me this year. The majority of my set have little to no English. I’ve built lots of opportunities for discussion and practical work into the lessons but how does a child that speaks Romanian learn to speak English from a child who speaks Dutch? Children need their peers to model the language, thought processes and learning behaviour. I’m fortunate in that I have an adult for every 6 children in my set so there are plenty of people to model these things but I know that is unusual.


I also don’t think setting is ENTIRELY detrimental for the less able.My set is made up of the 18 children who “slip into the background” when you put them back in their classes. However when it’s just us they HAVE to contribute otherwise we just sit there in silence (which we did quite a lot in September.) The steps of progress are absolutely tiny and immeasurable by any formal assessments but today when talking about the “Little Match Girl” my newest addition to my class put up her hand and said, “girl is sad.” This child hasn’t spoken a word to me other than “toilet” for the last 3 and a half weeks. Would she have got their faster with other children speaking English around her? Or does having everyone learning the language together give her the confidence to speak up? I can’t say and, at the moment, I can’t ask her. It’s worth noting at this point that our sets are completely flexible so the minute we feel a child is ready we move them up. I hope this avoids the “labelling” of children – ability isn’t fixed and many of our children just need time and space to learn English – they are  actually quite able they just can’t communicate it yet.


At this point is too soon to say whether or not the progress would be faster/slower if we weren’t setting but I think I’m back on the fence. Or at the very least, slowly inching backwards towards the fence.

5 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Sets

  1. I remember being streamed at school (I was one of the middle clump on the borderline, the teacher even told me so, but not in those words) and I always felt hard done by that I’d not been given the chance to attempt the harder work.
    I don’t know if I would have stepped up if I had been in the upper set but I always ‘knew’ I wasn’t good enough after that.
    The same thing happened in secondary school and we ended up with the teacher who had lost his teaching mojo and gave him a hard time (I feel ashamed of me and my class now the shoe is on the other foot) consequently I never really broke out of that mediocre stream of maths.
    But best not to just play the ‘what if…’ game, eh?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A lot of the research on streaming, including the research you quote, does not control for the assessment results used to stream. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that those in the top streams do better than average and the lowest streams do worst. Nothing to do with the negative effects of streaming, and everything to do with prior ability. The one properly controlled trial I know of did find a positive effect for ability grouping for all streams.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I am philosophically opposed to streaming but ambivalent about setting. Setting, if used effectively can support learning. If it is used without reflection,however and is just a system which is followed slavishly, it can be less than effective and even harmful to the learner. The set you describe seems to me to be enabling those children to gain more than they would in a mixed ability situation. As long as this set is used alongside mixed ability teaching and those children do have time with their other peers of varying abilities I think it can be effective. Streaming on the other hand, where learners are defined by prior ability and placed in a stream for everything, should never be used. So set with caution and always reflect, as you are doing, on the efficacy of each case! Good luck to your learners and to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I went to hear Jo Boaler speak and she was very inspirational. I also observed a teacher from Shanghai teach a maths lesson. In Shanghai it’s all mixed ability. There’s a little differentiation in the worksheets but mainly they just expect all the students to understand what is being taught, and it seems that, on the whole, they do. I’m not quite sure how it works but I think that having lots of non-contact time for planning really helps.


  5. I was curious if you everr considered changing the struccture of your blog?

    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect
    with it better. Youve ggot an awfull lot of text for only having 1 or two images.
    Maybe you could space it out better?


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