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In the week where the government’s Social Mobility Commission published a report stating that putting children into sets can have a ‘profound negative impact’, I ask “Does setting have a place in the Primary classroom?”.


Putting children into sets can have a “profound negative impact”


For a long time it was popular to put children into ability groups/sets in Primary schools (especially maths) – the theory being that you can provide challenge for the highest ability groups whilst allowing the least able to work at a pace which suited them whilst enabling them to ‘catch up’ where necessary.  In some situations this can be the case and ability sets can prove to be positive – mostly for those more able children.

There is, however, more evidence to suggest that putting children into ability sets can have a negative effect on children; the most recent research showing that it has no long term benefits for the lower attaining pupils in a classroom.


The ‘new curriculum’ is age, not level, based meaning that ALL children are to work  at the year group level – children must not be allowed to fall behind.

A personal view

Previously, when working to the ‘old curriculum’, it was deemed acceptable that a child didn’t reach the expected year 6 standard (Level 4) as long as they had made 2 sub levels of progress in each year of their primary school career – this meant that ability setting was viable as the least able children in the classroom could work at their own pace and on aspects of a previous year group’s curriculum as long as they made progress. The children never had to work at the current year group’s standard.

The ‘new curriculum’ is age, not level, based meaning that ALL children are to work at the expected year group level – children must not be allowed to fall behind. At our school we talk of ‘keeping up not catching up’. Ability setting simply doesn’t work if all children are to work on the same curriculum, at the same pace – differentiation through the level of support and challenge enables the least able to keep up whilst the most able pupils are stretched.  This has been a huge focus for us since September and it has taken a lot of work for everyone to work out the best ways to resource lessons and to spot, and address,  gaps in learning in a timely manner – it has been a huge pedagogical change for many of our staff members but the feedback has been positive and early evidence suggests that children have responded well to a mixed ability style of teaching.

I firmly believe that by removing ability setting from every classroom in the school we are ensuring that no child is left behind!

Wider reading/research

88% of children placed in sets or streams at age 4 remain in the same groupings until they leave school (Annabelle Dixon, Forum 2002)

As I stated before, there is a large amount of research supporting my view that ability grouping/setting is not the best practice for a primary classroom.

The shocking statement above shows how teachers, and schools, traditionally fell into the trap of setting children early on in their education and then losing sight of ensuring that they are pushed and challenged to reach or exceed the age expected standards – ensuring that they made the two sublevels progress became ‘enough’ for too many pupils.  However subconscious it may have been, many teachers and leaders created early perceptions of children and subsequently allowed them to coast through school rather than challenge and stretch them with the aim of helping them make accelerated progress.  Can we really say that ability grouping is the way forward if research shows that 88% of children put into sets at age 4 remain in the same set until they leave school?

Professor John Hattie also believes that ability setting can be detrimental to a child’s learning – his study ‘Visible Learning’ is the result of 15 years’ research and synthesises over 800 meta-analyses (over 50,000 studies) relating to the influences on achievement in school-aged students. It presents the largest ever collection of evidence-based research into what actually works in schools to improve learning (and what doesn’t).  In 1976 Gene Glass introduced the notion of meta-analysis – whereby the effects of each study are converted to a common measure or effect size.  An effect size of 1.0 would improve the rate of learning by 50% and would mean that, on average, students receiving that treatment would exceed 84% of students not receiving that treatment. — Hattie believes that at least half of all students can, and do, achieve an effect size of 0.4 in a year (the hinge point), so anything with an effect size of over 0.4 is likely to be having a visible effect, anything below the hinge point could be referred to as ‘ineffective’. Hattie’s research concludes that ability setting has an effect size of just 0.12.

The Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit also supports the idea that setting or streaming is negative showing it as having a -1 month impact on a child in an academic year.

Techniques to move away from setting and towards a mixed ability classroom
Teach pupils how to be resourceful so that they know where to find help if they get stuck. Children should not be reliant on the teacher- creating independent and resilient learners is a sure fire method of enabling them work effectively in a mixed ability setting. Try creating word banks, maths resource stations, having a ‘class expert’ for children to visit if they need support or a bank of IT resources for children to use when researching.
Try to involve pupils in the learning process – ask children how lessons have gone, what went well?  What could we do more of?
Vary presentation techniques to cater for visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners – ensure that all pupils are able to access learning all of the time!
Vary classroom management – allowing pupils to work individually, in pairs and in groups will encourage them to talk, share ideas, ‘magpie’ and become constructively critical of each others work (peer tutoring is an incredibly effective technique for improving the standard of children’s work)
At times provide a menu of work on the board offering tiered activities – allow pupils to choose their level of work (bronze, silver, gold challenges or an exit challenge at the end of a lesson or block of lessons as a mastery task)
Allow pupils to show their understanding in different ways i.e. a visual representation, an oral presentation or physical demonstration.
Make use of higher order thinking skills using Bloom’s taxonomy – deepen pupils learning/knowledge rather than giving comprehension tasks to complete. Pupils need to be given problem-solving tasks and the opportunity to transfer their knowledge to a new context.
Use co-operative group work to allow pupils to develop social skills as well as other skills such as negotiation and time management.


How do you encourage a mixed ability approach in your classroom?

Do you use setting effectively? (all of the time, for individual subjects or some lessons?)

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