Why I think that setting students is a good thing & where it’s gone wrong


I think that in many cases in secondary, students should be taught in groups with others that have demonstrated, through rigorous assessment (formal & informal) similar gaps in their learning. I believe that the arguments against setting are based on issues that are preventable by high expectations, clear systems and the professional behaviour of teachers.

The arguments against setting

It labels children and bottom sets are stigmatised

This only happens if it is allowed to happen. If the language used when referring to different sets is judgmental or in any way different then labels begin to stick. Don’t allow this language from teachers and students and it won’t be a problem. If necessary write it into a policy and always pull people up on it.

It seems that many schools have been very happy to relabel students with new key stage 3 models using terms like ‘master’,’developing’ ‘gold’ or ‘ beginner’ but are against setting. We need to ditch all labels and teach all students at the stage they’re at.

High ability students ‘pull up’ low ability students

This is awful. Truly awful. It is a teacher’s job to teach and ensure that all children achieve, not that of other students. Students are individuals in terms of progress, not a collective. I experienced this as a student and hated it; it was horrific. I wanted to learn and be stretched as an individual not have to help others that might not have the same level of understanding.

“Bottom” sets are poorly taught. Everyone wants the “top” set

Really? For a start that’s unprofessional. It’s also untrue. If the same systems for monitoring are used across the board then no classes should be poorly taught. It’s unacceptable for anyone to allow a class teacher not to have high expectations of every and any class. It is the role of leaders to ensure this happens. If we focus on progress, not behaviour, not attainment, then there is no difference in teaching any set; all teachers are working towards the same thing.

All students can achieve the top grade, setting limits this

Firstly, if you think that all students can achieve the top grade you’re deluded. That doesn’t mean we can’t teach to the top but if you genuinely believe that by setting you are stopping children achieve top grades you have some serious flaws in the teaching at your school. This is conflating high expectations with high attainment.

The students know what set they’re in and what it means

Even if you re-label groups, kids aren’t stupid, they know what set they’re in. So what? What does it ‘mean’? It doesn’t mean anything. The stigma comes from us. Why don’t we teach students to accept that we all have different abilities in different things? If our schools have a broad and balanced curriculum and extra curricular opportunities then all children should have the opportunity to excel. Pretending everyone is the “same” may not work in real life.

The arguments for setting

It makes teacher exposition simpler

Note it doesn’t change planning as such but when it comes to explanations and questioning, it is much easier to do this with a group of students with a similar level of understanding. It reduces the confusion there may be from those that don’t have the same level of understanding.

It stops students ‘switching off’

I once had a ski-ing lesson. I had never skied in my life before. In the group were people who had skied before and could clearly ski down the baby slope. I could barely stand up. As soon as the instructor went beyond my comprehension I switched off; I was bored and fed up. I just wanted to know how to start and stop. I didn’t learn this and fell over. I didn’t want or need to know about skiing on the higher slopes at that point. I now hate skiing and will never go again. You may argue that the instructor didn’t differentiate enough but how were they supposed to with a group of people that were all at different stages of understanding and experience?

It is unreasonable to expect a teacher to teach such variation in ability. If we insist on wide mixed ability grouping, how does it make students feel? Those that don’t understand and those that do understand and want to move forward quickly?

It makes individual targeting simpler

If I have a group of students that range from targeted grades G-A*, the combination of different areas for support are huge. Expecting a teacher to do this during a lesson is unrealistic. It promotes the nonsense of differentiating the lesson 30 ways for 30 different students.  A set is a micro version of a mixed bailout class; it doesn’t negate the need for differentiation but it reduces the complexity.

Using data to set ensures fairness

If we only use clearly defined and agreed data to set, it eradicates potential issues with certain groups. Research has shown that some schools (unconsciously?) set on factors that should never feature as criteria for setting: social class, behaviour, FSM, gender, attitude etc this is where setting goes badly wrong. Focussing  on progress using data is the simplest way to avoid these biases.

Where setting has gone wrong

  • Teaching quality
  • Setting for the wrong thing (behaviour, SEN, attitude, teacher’s preference)
  • The language used
  • Difference in expectations
  • Focus on attainment instead of progress

What needs to happen to ensure setting works

  • As soon as it is clear that a student needs to change groups, it should happen
  • Students should NEVER be moved set for anything other than their learning
  • Teacher language must always be positive and be based on high expectations for all. Certain phrases should be banned.
  • Teachers should teach to the top but with the correct support that the students/group need to access the top e.g no students should ever be told, you are targeting a ‘D’ and therefore you only need to get half marks.
  • Achievement should focus on progress not attainment.
  • Clear, agreed criteria should be used to determine the sets

I’m not anti-mixed ability. I think both options have issues and benefits. I don’t think that setting is appropriate for all classes in school. However the majority of the arguments I have heard against setting could be equally used against mixed ability and  some of the arguments I’ve heard for mixed ability can equally be applied to setting.

In my opinion the issues with setting probably take more of a shift to eradicate but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it. Good teaching is good teaching but I think setting gives the teacher a bit more of a chance for supporting students as individuals.


5 thoughts on “Why I think that setting students is a good thing & where it’s gone wrong

  1. I know you’re writing from a secondary perspective, but when it comes to setting, it’s interesting to consider what happens in a small primary, where the classes are mixed age (i.e. the polar opposite of setting). My kids’ primary has 3 year groups in a class, which obviously means that there is a huge spread of attainment in each group. However, when you use this kind of vertical grouping, you end up with a lovely family feel. The older kids and higher attainers do ‘pull up’ the little ones/lower attaining ones, not because they’re asked to work with them (although they might be if it’s appropriate), but because they act as role models, for behaviour, attitudes, confidence, all sorts of things as well as attainment. To an extent they have to look out for the littler ones, but any of the littler ones who are higher attainers also get a kind of boost from the older ones.

    My main issue with setting is what happens in a ‘bottom set’ – statistics show us that the set will be made up of children born later in the year, and those with SEND. I think that should give us pause for a lot of thought.

  2. I work in a primary school. You reflect very much what I have always thought about setting. I question my own thinking on this, however, based on what appears to be well-replicated research that now shows fairly conclusively that setting does not work. I don’t trust the research either, though, and as you point out, there are a lot of variables that need to be made explicit before we can know what and why. I’ve often taught the ‘lower/lowest’ set and, as you suggest, always had the highest expectations. My view is that we’re aiming for the same thing but we may need more explanation, time etc. This applies to any pupil. We can’t know what they’re capable of and we can’t assume.

    You write, “Achievement should focus on progress not attainment.”. This is an important point and runs counter to recent developments in education. We currently have very much an ‘attainment’ culture and moreover, one that is time-specific – unfairly so, since pupils in one class are not even all the same age. The mastery materials from the NCETM (https://www.ncetm.org.uk) state the belief that all pupils can learn to master maths, some just may take a bit longer. That’s not something that is accommodated in the UK system. Like the perfect ski instruction, perhaps we should be offering the course to mastery at the rate at which it can be learned, rather than providing a hurdle to be jumped over at a particular point in time.

  3. When I started teaching science 16 years ago, setting was organised simply by ranking test scores through the year and then teachers would add comments on particular individuals E.g. whether they would work better with or without certain peers. The odd tweak was made. These days, with many students opting for separate sciences, classes are more often mixed in broad bands. We still value the data from assessments but spend more time thinking about the individuals, sometimes even considering personality and possible pastoral issues than we used to. Sometimes we put students in higher sets, that their current assessment data does not support and this can give them a fresh start and reset their own expectations of themselves…or sometimes this fails! I agree that we should all have high expectations, whatever groups we teach and sometimes language used by one teacher will stick with students for the rest of their time with us. Ultimately, the most important thing is that the teacher has a good relationship with the student and understanding of how to help the students learn which takes time.. and is why I envy primary colleagues.

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