Mixed ability or setting

I don’t know what made me feel brave enough to do this tonight but I had a bit of an uncontrollable urge to start a debate. This has been rumbling on for decades now – what’s best – mixed ability or setted classes? Seems a straightforward enough question, but I think we need to ask a supplementary – what’s best for whom? Teachers? Administrators? Learners? And also – it won’t be resolved here – I just want to open the debate (OK – it’s not the first time this has been discussed) because I get a bit upset when people I know and like talk about top and bottom sets.

I do not have my thinking straightened out on this to present a coherent argument either way but there are a few things I can say on the matter  with certainty.

1. In mainstream, children know where they are in the ” pecking order” of a class

2. In mainstream, ability groupings, as far as I know, are decided on the results of summative assessments in class pertaining to attainment. Because teachers need to ba able to justify their decisions ( managerialist accountability agenda rearing its head).

3. Emerging reasearch, by Allan Thursten in York is throwing up some interesting conclusions on the ineffectiveness of same age peer paired- reading schemes, but conversely, mixed age schemes meet with better success. Wonder if this extends to other learning settings?

4. I think it would be horrible to know you were in a” bottom set” no matter how it was termed.

5. In the age of CfE and FOUR, not ONE, capacities, AND  if we are persisting with setting, should we not be looking to all four when deciding criteria for who is “top” and who is ” bottom?” And if we did would that not result in , well, mixed ability?

I think everyone is capable of learning something. I know this and I’ve seen it happen, even when external expectations are low. If we artificially cap expectations based on a narrow demonstration of ability we send out signals. And not being stupid, young people pick them up. And then only ONE capacity becomes important and others get ignored (we all know which one) . It’s the one which has ALWAYS been important. It is also the one by which school and teacher success is measured. But I thought we now had  4? 

I have interesting experience of this – teacher expectations count hugely. And teacher expectations drive the setting process. Attainment does too. But sometimes your own children highlight the flaws in the system perfectly. I don’t want to get too personal on this but all 3 of my children have exceeded expectations set of them by their teachers in different ways. Sometimes spectacularly. And only in one instance was it recognised. Carol Dweck’s work on mindset maybe applies to teachers as well as learners.

If you’re interested in an inclusive approach to MFL, please check out my dear friend, Hilary McColl’s website: http://hilarymccoll.co.uk/

And please can we stop talking about “bottom” sets?


About catrionao

I'm a lecturer at UWS and a PhD student at Stirling University, studying a school based practice of teacher professional learning.
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8 Responses to Mixed ability or setting

  1. Bill Boyd says:

    Interesting post Catriona. As a PT English I always felt uneasy about setting, which we practised in S3 and S4, the justification being that when preparing kids for Standard Grade exams the gulf between those sitting credit and those sitting foundation was too great to cope with in one (large) group. As a minor concession we never used the term ‘Foundation’ when naming classes, bus as you rightly acknowledge kids know exactly where you have put them in the pecking order. With hindsight I think the psychological consequences of setting are potentially more damaging than any short-term gains in classroom expediency. The real problem of course is that kids spend most their time in secondary preparing for a set of paper-based exams rather than developing those four capacities of Curriculum for Excellence. The one time I never had to use setting was when working with kids to produce a school show – then the true range of talents and abilities shone through.

  2. catrionao says:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment Bill. You raise an interesting consideration; the gains and consequences of setting. I think if setting enhances learning – fine, but if it is arbirtrarily decided on a narrow set of criteria, it is an unfair measure. And if all four capacities were to be measured in the setting decision-making process, would we not end up with mixed ability anyway?
    Your school show sounds like an excellent way to involve all learners in a meaningful way -and include values from all four capacities. It just couldn’t be done in ability groups, could it?

  3. Nick says:

    In tech subjects we have never had the ‘luxury’ of setting classes. However, labeling children is never a good thing and mixed ability classes allow lower ability pupils to be inspired by peers.

    Yes, there can be a big gulf between pupils in one class but this is part and parcel and the challenge and fun of teaching !

    • catrionao says:

      Thanks for your comment Nick, and yes, you’re right – to me it seems more and more artificial to group pupils using only one measure – when we’re all more conversant with multiple intelligences, hopefully diversity of provision, and four capacities, not just one.

  4. literacyadviser says:

    Please indulge me another short contribution Catriona, and forgive the typos in earlier comment – the price of responding to blogposts before eight in the morning!
    As Nick said, dealing with smaller numbers doesn’t allow you the ‘luxury’ of setting, but of course it is always more tempting to use setting when bigger numbers are involved-it is significantly more difficult to cater for all learning styles and to treat young people as individuals when there are thirty in the class than when there are twenty. The definition of ‘practical’ subjects in secondary school is long overdue a review ( PE is NOT a practical subject for example) but that’s for another day.
    To return to my main point, as long as the main focus in secondary schools is to prepare young people for a set of paper and pencil exams, which are taken at different levels, the temptation to set into ‘ability’ groups will remain. Which is precisely why the whole egg-box structure of the curriculum has to change.

  5. Gordon says:


    Two quick points:

    1) There is no research ever anywhere to show that setting delivers better exam results, and
    2) Setting in any adult environment would be unthinkable. So why is it even considered with young people?



    • catrionao says:

      Thanks Gordon – you make two brilliant points! I was just coming round to working out the first about research – I must try and investigate this. Also the second one – would there be riots at Jordanhill if student teachers were subjected to setting? Possibly! It really does put it all in perspective. This all kicked off with continued reference to top and bottom sets. It really has to stop.

  6. catrionao says:

    Thanks Bill – didn’t mean to sidestep your point about exams being the main drivers in secondary schools – I totally agree with you: I think we can now be held accountable to all 4 capacities now though, and if secondary teachers (some) continue to openly say they teach to an exam (like a group I spoke to the other week) will it be obvious enough that this is no longer good enough? Mindsets need to change – and I think defining / labelling according to one set of criteria only is no longer good enough. Pupil numbers is part of this -but I wonder what rationale is presented ( is it ever requested?) to explain setting? As far as I know, there is no research evidence supporting it quite possibly the reverse. Could be my next area of investigation 🙂

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