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Setting or mixed ability?

Created on 21 February 2013 by ncetm_administrator
Updated on 20 June 2013 by ncetm_administrator


Setting or mixed ability?

Key questions

  • Does setting help ensure that the learning needs of high attaining children are met effectively?
  • Does setting support learning across the whole attainment range?
  • Is there a place for mixed ability grouping within a mathematics class?

Things to think about

“An increasing minority of schools were starting to place Key Stage 2 pupils in sets for mathematics, particularly in Years 5 and 6 … The rationale behind such setting was to allow teachers to concentrate on a narrower range of attainment, especially in the run up to national tests. Rarely, however, were such strategies evaluated in terms of the gains in progress for different groups of pupils.”
Mathematics: made to measure, (Ofsted, 2012, p. 64)

Larger primary schools have the flexibility to teach mathematics in ability sets, and many have chosen to do this, especially at the upper end of Key Stage 2. Research into the relative benefits of setting and mixed ability teaching is complex, but overall there is little evidence that setting has significant positive impact on learning overall, while there is evidence that setting can damage self esteem of learners and create negative attitudes to mathematics. There is some suggestion that mixed ability particularly benefits lower attainers (hence reduces the tail of low achievement) while not disadvantaging high attaining children. Thus, while setting has some obvious attractions in terms of meeting the needs of high attaining pupils, there are wider issues that need to be considered about the best provision for all children.

Ofsted’s report on the teaching of mathematics in Finland (a country whose education system has significant strengths, according to international comparative studies) notes that there is not the same tail of low achievement that is seen in England. The report considers that one reason is that ‘Pupils generally remain in the same mixed-ability class throughout primary school and again throughout lower secondary school.’ (Ofsted, 2010, p. 16)

When schools decide to use ability setting, it is highly likely that each set will still contain children with a wide range of attainment. There is a danger that when teaching an ability set teachers will falsely assume that they have a homogenous group.

In schools where year groups are too small to make setting a viable option, or in schools that have decided not to use setting, there are also issues about how children are grouped in mathematics lessons, and some of the same issues arise. It is easy for children in the ‘bottom’ group to feel that this means that they can never be any good at mathematics, and this in itself can act against them making progress.

What does research tell us?

In 2006 the Primary National Strategy published a short summary which reviewed available research into the impact of setting in primary schools, Summary of research on commonly used provision. Their main conclusions were:

  • overall there is little evidence that setting leads to improved learning, although there is some evidence to suggest that at the extremes of the attainment range low-achieving pupils show more progress in mixed-ability classes, and high-ability pupils show more progress in classes where setting occurs;
  • mixed-ability teaching in lower Key Stage 2 helps to reduce the tail of under achievement;
  • low attaining children put in low sets are less likely to participate in school activities, experience more disciplinary problems, and have a higher level of absenteeism than similar children placed in mixed ability classes;
  • low-ability sets tend to contain a disproportionately large number of boys, socially disadvantaged pupils, pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds and summer-born children;
  • there is considerable evidence that more children of African–Caribbean heritage are placed in lower-ability groups than their levels of attainment would indicate.

As Kutnik et al conclude in The Effects of Pupil Grouping ‘no one form of organisational grouping benefits all pupils.’ (Kutnik et al, 2005)

In their book Effective pupil grouping in the primary school Hallam, Ireson and Davies conclude that:

“Structured-ability grouping, of itself, does not raise standards. While teachers find planning and teaching easier when they are working with pupils of similar attainment, this does not always translate into better pupil performance. Ability grouping tends to lower expectations for pupils who are not in the highest set. They receive a different curriculum, taught differently, that teachers believe is matched to pupils’ needs but that pupils, all too often, perceive as too easy and lacking in challenges and interest. Grouping pupils by ability reduces access of the less able to parts of the curriculum, high-ability role-models and examples of high-quality work they might emulate.”
(Hallam et al, 2002)

More recently such conclusions have been echoed in the meta-analysis reported in The Teaching And Learning Toolkit, prepared by The Sutton Trust. They identify that setting may benefit gifted and talented children, but that ‘these benefits are largely outweighed by the direct and indirect negative effects for mid-range and lower performing learners, with low attaining learners falling behind by on average one or two months a year compared with their progress in a class without segregation. In addition, research shows a clear longer term negative effect on the attitudes and engagement of low attaining and disadvantaged pupils.’
(Higgins et al, 2013, p.7)

Thus, decisions schools make about setting in order to meet the needs of high attaining children need to be considered alongside implications of such decisions on all pupils.

The article by Jo Boaler, Dylan Wiliam and Margaret Brown, Students’ experiences of ability grouping - disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure (Boaler et al, 2000), explores in some detail the impact that setting can have on pupils’ views of themselves as learners. The article is about secondary pupils, but the findings are equally relevant to primary pupils – that ability grouping itself contributes to academic success and failure.

Carol Dweck’s work is also relevant here. Her research suggests that schools and teachers can influence how children perceive themselves as learners, their ‘mind-set’. Children who see intelligence as something that is given (fixed mind-set) tend not to do as well as children who see intelligence as something that can be developed as a result of hard work and perseverance (growth mind-set). Setting can confirm in children that their intelligence is fixed, and this can reduce the progress they make. You can listen to her discuss her ideas on this YouTube clip.

Implications for the use of the Year 6 Level 6 tests

Investigation of Key Stage 2 Level 6 Tests (Coldwell et al, 2013) identified that their case study schools had all discussed how their existing practice already aimed to provide challenge for higher attaining children, for example through the use of investigative and independent approaches. All these schools used ability grouping in Year 6 as part of their provision. But most also ran extra sessions, either after school or at lunch time in order to give specific test preparation. These were taught by a range of staff – the children’s usual teacher, a senior teacher, HLTAs or even a colleague from a local secondary school.

Issues that need considering therefore include:

  • does the school’s teaching and learning policy have clear guidance about how the needs of high attaining children are met?
  • do any current setting arrangements give sufficient flexibility to teach L6 topics?
  • if extra sessions are to be organised, who will teach these?

In relation to issues about pupils’ perceptions about their learning, Coldwell et al found that most pupils were motivated by the fact that their teachers had selected them to do the L6 test. They enjoyed the challenge, and many felt that the work they had done would be a good preparation for secondary transfer.

Working with colleagues

Policy decisions about setting

Deciding whether to use setting for mathematics in order to meet the needs of high attaining children more effectively is a major whole school decision that needs to be led by the senior leadership team. As the research indicates, it is a complicated issue, and it is important that any decisions are made with full consideration given to the learning of all children in the school. As the mathematics subject leader you can ensure that the discussion is informed by the research background. An initiative that benefited one group of children’s learning but which damaged another group’s learning would be of questionable value.

Thus, if a decision is made to adopt setting, you would need to be clear about how its impact will be evaluated across the attainment range. Impact on pupil attitudes to their mathematics learning as well as data on progress needs to be considered, and it is also important to include the views of parents.

Practical issues need anticipating. Discussion points include:

  • what evidence will be used to make decisions about groupings?
  • what arrangements will there be for children to move sets?
  • will groupings be reviewed at the end of a school year?
  • will teaching programmes remain synchronised between sets in order to minimise disruption to learning when children move sets?
  • what are the practical issues involved in creating a learning environment that supports different groups of children in the same classroom?
  • how will the range of attainment be catered for within a mathematics set?

Ideas for staff meetings

Given that mathematics sets will still have a range of attainment, issues about mixed ability teaching remain relevant regardless of whether a school decides to set for mathematics or not. Some possible starting points for working with colleagues are:

  • discuss with colleagues some of the research that looks at the impact of setting and grouping on children. Share ideas about how they decide on groupings in mathematics lessons. Use material from the Evaluating Current Provision section to discuss how they identify high attaining children;
  • discuss with colleagues the danger that by making decisions about which children go in which groups they may inadvertently be creating ‘glass ceilings’ which limit children’s progress. One way to explore this is to ask them to try the ‘Write me some number sentences/facts’ activity with their classes – ask the children to work on their own and write down some sums that all have a given answer – younger children could be asked to write sums which have 20 as an answer, older ones 100, or 1 000 or even 1. See if what the children write surprises your colleagues in any way;
  • show colleagues the Teachers TV video Assessment for Learning: Collaborative Learning, which includes a Year 6 teacher who explores what happens when she lets children decide their own challenge level in her mathematics lessons. Encourage colleagues to try out this strategy in their own classes and discuss what happens;
  • share with colleagues Learning Without Limits: an alternative improvement agenda in mathematics teaching which describes how Wroxham School has resisted ‘fixed ability labelling’;
  • the Primary Magazine article Mixed ability group work has suggestions for ways to develop discussion with colleagues about working with mixed ability groups in mathematics lessons;
  • share with colleagues the NRICH article by Lynne McClure, Using low threshold high ceiling tasks in ordinary classrooms. This discusses the use of tasks which ‘pretty well everyone in the group can begin, and then work on at their own level of engagement, but which have lots of possibilities for the participants to do much more challenging mathematics’.

Other ways of working

Whether you are using setting or mixed ability teaching, use focus discussion groups to get the views of the children across the attainment range about their learning. Make this a regular part of your monitoring programme.

Use parent questionnaires to get feedback about parents’ views on the ways you organise mathematics teaching.

Resources to use

To set or not to set, that is the question describes one school’s decision to move away from setting and the impact this had on pupils and teachers.

Well-meant intentions: ability-grouping in primary mathematics is another resource that you could use to develop discussion with colleagues about issues relating to setting and mixed ability teaching

Promoting 'relational equity' and high mathematics achievement through an innovative mixed-ability approach is a Research Study Module that you could use with colleagues to develop discussion about the significance of Jo Boaler’s research.

Development of mathematics capabilities and confidence in primary school (Nunes et al, 2009) is a study by Terezinha Nunes et al which looks at the development of competence in different aspects of mathematics and includes research on the impact of setting on children’s self confidence

Ability in primary mathematics education: patterns and implications (Marks, 2011) is a paper by Rachel Marks which explores a range of issues related to the way children think about ability and how this affects their learning.


Boaler, J., Wiliam, D. & Brown, M. (2000) Students’ experiences of ability grouping - disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure, British Educational Research Journal, 26 (5). pp. 631-648.

Coldwell, M., Willis, B. & McCaig, C. (2013) Investigation of Key Stage 2 Level 6 Tests. Centre for Education and Inclusion Research & Sheffield Hallam University.

Hallam, S., Ireson, J. & Davies, J. (2002) Effective Pupil Grouping in Primary School. London: David Fulton.

Higgins, S., Katsipataki, M., Kokotsaki, D., Coleman, R., Major, L.E., & Coe, R. (2013). The Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit. London: Education Endowment Foundation.

Kutnick, P., Sebba, J., Blatchford, P., Galton, M. & Thorp, J. (2005) The Effects of Pupil Grouping, DfES.

Marks, R. (2011) Ability in primary mathematics education: patterns and implications Proceedings of the British Society for Research into Learning Mathematics 31(1) March 2011, pp. 91-6.

Nunes, T., Bryant, P., Sylva, K. & Barros, T. (2009) Development of Maths Capabilities and Confidence in Primary School. Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Ofsted (2010) Finnish pupils’ success in mathematics.

Ofsted (2012) Mathematics: made to measure.


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