Grouping Arrangements

Schools have differing arrangements for organising the way classes are taught. The most common  arrangements are mixed ability, setting, a combination of the two, or streaming. ‘Mixed ability’ is when students of varying abilities are taught in one class. ‘Setting’ is when students are grouped according to their ability by each individual subject. ‘Streaming’ is when students are put into the same ability group for all subjects. There are ongoing ideological and practical debates about the benefits of each system. Studies can be found which ‘prove’ the benefits of all of them. At the time of writing, setting  is the arrangement used by most secondary schools. It is for parents to decide which system, or combination of systems will be best for their child.

  • A school which sets or streams could do so immediately in Year 7 using Key Stage 2 data from primary school, or one term in after it has carried out its own assessments. If this happens then parents must be confident that their child reached their potential in the Key Stage 2 SATs examinations and that the secondary school has the results. If they underachieved, a child could be labelled incorrectly at the start of their secondary school career, a position from which, academically, they might never recover.
  • If a school sets or streams, it must have systems for a child to change their set or stream on the basis of ongoing performance. For example, a Maths department might have a test at the end of each half term to see if students are in the correct set. Parents need to be aware of what the arrangements for moving sets are. If a child is a late developer, and there are not mechanisms for them to change sets when they are ready, then the child could be trapped in groups which do not meet their needs.
  • In setting systems,‘higher’ groups usually have more students than ‘lower’ groups. Lower sets then can be better for students who have particular needs in a subject area, or flourish with greater teacher attention. Higher sets rely on students being well motivated learners who can learn independently in a large group. Parents must think carefully about how their child learns. For example, a child who is bright in Maths, but needs constant attention might not flourish in a setting environment.
  • A streaming system is the most inflexible for children. If a child is wrongly placed in the middle stream and then moved to the upper stream, they will have to catch up in all subject areas. If a child is put in the wrong stream and not moved up, then all their subject areas will suffer. Parents must be confident that their child would be resilient in this system.
  • Because of schools’ ongoing pre-occupation with School and college performance tables, sometimes the best teachers teach the students who are most likely to get A*–C grades, and in a school that sets or streams, they are the students in the highest groups.
  • In some schools lower sets can be ‘sink’ sets, where students with a range of issues, for example, behavioural concerns, learning difficulties, or problems with concentration levels, are placed so as not to impact on the progress of the majority.
  • Students who are in the highest sets or streams are often motivated by being considered the ‘top’ students. Students in the lower sets or streams can be de-motivated by being in the ‘bottom’ sets, and sometimes do not improve because expectations of them are low.
  • It is rare to find a school which teaches all subjects in a mixed ability environment.Often, in Year 7, the core subjects are set and other subjects taught in mixed ability groups. Sometimes, Maths and Science are set and English is mixed ability. Usually mixed ability teaching lessens as the students move up the school and there is more focus on exams.
  • Different children suit different grouping arrangements. For example, a bright boy who is a slow developer may be let down by setting. By the time his ideas mature, he will have been in lower sets for too long to make up the ground lost. A bright girl who is a fast developer and a hard worker will flourish in a setting system. She will be able to maintain her position in the top sets and be consistently challenged.
  • Often, bright,well motivated and hardworking students benefit from setting. They are grouped with like minded children, and will flourish in the friendship groups formed by academic sets. In a setting arrangement, these students are likely to be free from taunts about their intelligence and work ethic.
  • It is argued that mixed ability teaching can create a more inclusive classroom, where students of different abilities work together to the benefit of all. However, as a parent you would have to see this at first hand in the classroom to be convinced. In my experience, inclusion is an outcome of very good mixed ability teaching, not mediocre teaching. If your child works better in inclusive environments, that are potentially more nurturing and less competitive, then a mixed ability climate might be right for them.
  • High ability students work well when they are encouraged to explain concepts to lower ability children. If your child enjoys working in this way, then you might want to consider mixed ability arrangements, as they are more likely to develop the students through having them ‘teach’ each other.
  • If a school streams, it does not take into consideration the fact that a student might be very good at one subject and really struggle at another. Setting and mixed ability arrangements accommodate a greater variation of specialist ability in a child.
  • Some schools use academic sets to determine option subject classes. For example, only students in top set for French may be allowed to choose two languages at Key Stage 4. Sometimes, students in top sets are precluded from taking option vocational subjects as the courses are deemed insufficiently academic. If your child has a preference for a subject that is only taught from Year 10 onwards, it is important to find out what the arrangements for choosing that subject are. For example, it  might be your child really wants to do Spanish, and a school you are considering only allows students in the top set for French to choose Spanish. If you feel it is unlikely that your child is going to make that top set position, then it might not be the right school for them.

Further Information

Open Evening

If the school does set,make sure it has clear systems for moving students up and down sets.

Open Evening/Visit

If the school sets, ask the students showing you round what sets they are in, how they feel about it and whether students ever move between sets.

Prospectus/Open Evening

Find out which subjects set, and which are taught in mixed ability classes. Find out if the school streams. Find out what data the school uses to determine what groups to put students in and when they establish these groups.

Case Study


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