‘Unless a school can demonstrate that it is getting better than expected results
through a different approach, we do make the assumption that setting should be the
norm in secondary school’ DFES White paper "Excellence in Schools", 1997.
In the UK, the division of pupils into classes based on some notion of their ability in one or more
subjects has been debated for a century or more. The pendulum has swung back and forth for most
of that time with a period of twenty years or so; up to the 1950s the idea that selection and setting
were key generally held sway, but after the advent of the "secondary modern" around that time the
practice was regarded with more and more skepticism. Studies showed that the selective system was
still domininated by middle and upper-class families and had not resulted in wider access to
grammar education by those from the working classes (Ireson & Hallam 2001), and the system of
intelligence testing used for selection was also coming under attack (Vernon, 1957). Much of the
criticism of the eleven-plus was (and still is) that it tests a child's ability to perform a certain type of
test on a certain day.
By the 1980s selection on ability was unpopular to the extent that the eleven-plus had been
abolished by many local authorities and streaming/setting by most schools. Much research had
failed to show that selection on ability raised attainment, but did show that it harmed pupils' view of
themselves and their school (Barker Lunn, 1970). (We note that Barker Lunn was a study of
primary streaming, but Woessmann & Hanushek (2005) showed that there was a correlation
between the age of onset of streaming and the spread of attainment. Space does not permit the
development of this argument.)
However, the tide began to flow back towards ability grouping in the early 1990s, driven by
concerns over the lower levels of attainment of British children when measured aginst those of
other countries in the developed world (Ireson & Hallam, 2001). It was felt that if teachers could
target lessons at a particular ability level it would help drive standards up – the concern remained
that the education system had previously done very well by high-achieving children but had been
failing the less able. There was no sound research basis for adopting this policy but that did not
stop central government making it an element of their drive to raise standards in schools. The new
Labour Government, giddy with the euphoria of a landslide election victory, made it clear that they
saw setting as the default. Their 1997 white paper "Excellence in Schools" contains the title of this
essay as one of its assertions.
The idea that selection/setting on ability will help raise attainment is curiously persistent. Research
continues to show that it does not raise standards by any statistically measurable amount (Ireson et
al 1999, Woessmann & Hanushek 2005). That alone would not be a reason to abandon it; it could
conceivably have other positive effects, but the studies have shown that it both harms lower-
attaining pupils self-image and has a negative impact on all pupils' view of their school (Ireson et al
1999, Ireson & Hallam 1999). OfSTED have noted this more recently: ‘There is no clear statistical
link between the extent of setting in schools and the attainment of pupils’ (OfSTED 2001).
Given that so many pupils, parents and teachers continue to be convinced that selection and setting
work, why does it apparently not make a difference to attainment? Much of the answer lies in the
practical difficulties of administering such a system. Those difficulties start with the assignment on
the pupil to classes – what criteria are to be used? How is the child to be assessed? How many
children can be in each group? As noted above, fifty years ago criticism was being levelled at the
methods used to place pupils in sets or selective schools, and even if the methods are developed
there is still a colossal problem: the assignment to one of a number of classes necessarily quantises
something which by its very nature is a continuous spectrum. More than that, even: it quantises in
one dimension something which has many dimensions. Much research has described the difficulty
of making a single measurement of ability, and Gardner's work on multiple intelligences suggests
that it is a futile exercise in any case (Gardner 1983).
It is essential that teachers of these sets do not forget that differentiation is still required. Sets
include a range of abilities, and in fact the lower ability in one group will almost certainly overlap
with the higher ability of one or even two groups below. There will almost inevitably be pupils who
are placed in the wrong set for a given subject, and this brings us on to the next practical problem
with grouping in this way: it is relatively rare that pupils move set. It is even rarer that pupils move
up to the next set. Some schools only evaluate sets once a year, and the potential is that a child may
spend a long time working at the wrong level. A few schools have more frequent changes, with
some moving pupils each half-term. That is the exception rather than the rule, however. Given the
possibility that a pupil may not perform in a test on a given day, it is vital that there are regular re-
assessments and opportunities for children to be moved to a more appropriate set (Ireson, Clark &
Most schools apply some level of setting and as new teachers we will have to be aware of issues of
setting. Even in schools that group by ability we will have to remember that differentiation is
required; even if the set is accurately chosen there will be a range of abilities, and the likelihood is
that the set will not be accurately chosen (Ireson et al 1999). It is important that we are open to the
possibility that a child should be in a different class and are able to set in motion the appropriate
process. It may even be that we have to create such a process.
Classes that are not in sets may seem to be more of a challenge to our skills as a teacher, but this is
not necessarily true. It is not a question of whether there is a mixture of abilty, simply of the degree
of mixing that is present. We must always be aware of the range of learning styles and intelligences
manifest in our students and adapt our teaching accordingly. It is perhaps particularly important
that we grasp the principles of Assessment for Learning at an early stage of our careers, as this is the
prime means of feedback that enables us to modify our teaching as the pupils require.
Barker Lunn, J.C., 1970. Streaming in the Primary School. Slough: NFER.
Gardner, H., 1983. Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences. New York,
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, University of Sussex at Brighton,
September 2-5 1999.
Ireson, J. and Hallam, S., 1999. Raising Standards: is ability grouping the answer? Oxford Review
of Education, Vol. 25, No. 3.
Ireson, J. and Hallam, S., 2001. Ability Grouping in Education. London : Paul Chapman.
Ireson, J., Clark, H. & Hallam, S., 2002. Constructing Ability Groups in the Secondary School:
issues in practice. School Leadership & Management, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 163–176.
Office for Standards in Education, 2001. Standards and Quality in Education: the Annual
Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools. London: The Stationery Office.
Vernon, P.E. (ed.), 1957. Secondary School Selection. London: Methuen.