Setting by ability: what is the evidence?

Chris Husbands

There is a political consensus about setting by ability: that politicians believe they know what is best for schools. Michael Gove, as opposition spokesman on education, said that “Each pupil should be given the opportunity to learn in accordance with their particular aptitude and ability…we believe that setting by ability is the only solution to achieving this ambition”. David Cameron, as leader of the opposition, said that “I want to see setting in every single school. Parents know it works. Teachers know it works. Tony Blair promised it in 1997. But it still hasn’t happened. We will keep up the pressure till it does.” The Labour White Paper in 2005 was strongly in favour of it and Jacqui Smith, as Schools Minister, said that “Labour has encouraged setting, and there is now more setting than in 1997”.

The issue arose again this week when The Guardian reported that the new Education Secretary was about to mandate setting by ability in secondary schools – a story she quickly denied. It now appears that Nicky Morgan has seen off what would have been a heavy handed centralisation of educational decision-making.

The research evidence is nuanced. As long ago as 1998, my predecessor as Director of the IOE, Peter Mortimore, reported his research conclusion that “setting in mathematics, accompanied by curriculum differentiation, may be a means of raising the attainment of the more able pupils. The effect is not great, however, and there are some costs in terms of the progress of pupils whose attainment is low at the end of primary school. The impact on pupils’ self-concept may be important in the longer term, influencing later attainment in the subject and decisions about choice of subjects after the age of 16. These factors must also be taken into account when formulating policy on ability grouping in schools”. It’s a measured, balanced conclusion – there are benefits, but most especially for higher attaining students.

This conclusion is largely endorsed by the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit, which notes that “ability grouping appears to benefit higher-attaining pupils and be detrimental to the learning of mid-range and lower-attaining learners. On average, ability grouping does not appear to be an effective strategy for raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, who are more likely to be assigned to lower groups. Summer-born pupils and students from ethnic minority backgrounds are also likely to be adversely affected by ability grouping.” Like most complex professional issues, there are balances to be struck between the needs of different pupils, between short-term and long-term goals and between different curriculum areas.

The overall picture on practice in schools is complex. Almost all secondary schools use setting in parts of the curriculum: almost all mathematics is taught to groups arranged on the basis of some measure of attainment; analysis of cohort evidence suggests that the practice in widespread in primary schools but the organisational and curricular issues are complex, and that the long-term academic attainment of summer born children may be hampered by their tendency to be allocated to lower sets.

Other evidence suggests schools’ practice in setting is cut across by other issues: the tendency to allocate less experienced teachers to lower sets, despite the American evidence suggesting that the reverse is what is needed; the tendency of teaching in lower sets to lack sufficient challenge; and the observed tendency for pupils from deprived socio-economic backgrounds to be over-represented in lower sets; the often weak and inconsistent nature of the attainment evidence used to allocate pupils to sets; the frequency (or otherwise) at which pupils are moved between sets.   It would be extremely difficult – and very costly of resource – for all but very, very large schools to set in all subjects: block timetabling means compromises have to be made. For both good educational and hard resource reasons, most schools adopt different grouping strategies for different parts of the curriculum at different age stages.

All the politicians quoted at the beginning of this blog post have committed themselves to school autonomy. After extensive critique, Ofsted has abandoned any sense that inspectors should look for particular teaching approaches: schools should be judged on how well they perform, not how they organise themselves. There is good, if complex, research evidence on grouping approaches, and excellent, developing practice on flexible grouping strategies. If schools are to be operationally autonomous, then that’s what they need to be. The spat within government over setting suggests that there will always be politicians who find school autonomy challenging. Morgan’s commitment to work with the profession is, however, encouraging.

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Posted in Chris Husbands, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
11 comments on “Setting by ability: what is the evidence?
  1. Graham Holley says:

    It’s dangerous to rely just on personal experiences. That’s what politicians often do, leading them to erroneous and unrepresentative conclusions.

    Nonetheless, I’ll offer one of my own. I gained a lot from setting in my own school. Teachers said that they found it easier to pitch their teaching within a narrower academic spread. Perhaps that said as much as anything about their didactic abilities, but they were generally good teachers.

    The school decided that they would experiment by breaking up the bottom set in each subject, and distribute the students equally amongst all the other sets. It was a disaster, and highly disruptive of learning in almost all classes until it was abandoned.

    Again, this may beg questions about how the teachers approached mixed ability delivery. But I remember the effect vividly even now.

    I also recall noting, as did others, that the least able and most inexperienced teachers were allocated to the bottom sets.

  2. James parker says:

    Good informative article. Can you refer me to research and good practice in the ‘Flexible Grouping Strategies’ you mention ?

    • Chris Husbands says:

      Quick responses to both

      I was thinking of the research review by Judy Ireson and Sue Hallam for the DFE which is at

      On Graham’s point: as he says, personal experience is both informative and often unreliable. The research evidence is clear, if complex: setting by ability is more effective for higher attainers, and more effective in some subjects (though the effect size is small). It is probably fair to say that it is more effective for teachers than for pupils.

  3. Jennie Golding says:

    As I recall, much of the evidenced negative effects are either about engendered attitudes, or are hard to disentangle from the style of teaching used (setting does better tolerate one-size-fits-all teaching), and the biggest volume of evidence relates to maths, as a high-profile and (partly) hierarchical, cumulative subject area. There is no doubt that teaching maths effectively to the range of 16-year olds in a single classroom, without recourse to repeated years or different courses (which is usually tantamount to setting) is extremely challenging, but recent years (and increasingly high stakes assessments) have also seen ability grouping routinely and inflexibly creeping down the system to the early years of learning. My own evidence in secondary schools where setting is flexibly and permeably used from year 8 or 9 on, and teachers recognised as effective and challenging are allocated across the range of sets, is that young people often say they enjoy the chance to learn in ways and at a pace more geared to their current needs, build confidence through that, and choose to move sets (‘up’ or ‘down’) at appropriate times. In such a situation they will also opt into enrichment and extension activities, and look for opportunities to continue engaging in maths post-16. Perhaps we ought to be engaging with developing the teaching as much as with the details of grouping.

  4. Chris Husbands says:

    You are right that most of the evidence comes from Mathematics.

    There are real challenges in definitional terms: for a start, thepolicy debate often confuses ‘streaming’, ‘setting’ and ‘banding’, and then uses simple binaries – ‘mixed ability’ versus ‘setting’. Its all much more complex than that with differences – whether ‘mixed ability’ is genuinely ‘all’ or not, and, of course, schools differ sharply in the attainment make up of their intake. And, as I never, ever tire of saying, in practice all groups are mixed ability – even a ‘top set’ has a mix of levels of attainment. Not for the first time, its all about the teaching

  5. Ed says:

    It is amazing how much debate this issue causes when it comes around every few years and it is easy to understand why given the relatively intuitive appeal of the approach. But it is important to highlight that there has been much international (Pisa) and national research (in the UK and US) and this tends to show that ability grouping (which includes setting) has little impact on results overall. Where there are effects, these usually show increased inequality between higher attaining and lower attaining students (see my recent review and consideration of ability grouping (In: Bad Education: Debunking Myths in Education. Open University Press edited by Philip Adey and Justin Dillon), along with others by Sue Hallam and colleagues). As Chris points out – where there are effects on attainment these are usually very small.

    It is an important oversight that social processes and outcomes are rarely ever discussed when it comes to ability grouping or setting but it is often reported that those in the bottom sets tend to be the least advantaged, often boys and those with learning difficulties and challenging behaviour. What better way of hampering social mobility and of sustaining anti-learning views than putting students into groups (or ‘sink’ classes as they used to be called) with other disaffected students! In such circumstances there are few role models and students are likely to become friends with similar minded and similar attaining children. Part of the point here is that students are likely to become more similar to others in the set over time, particularly if there is little flexibility in the system and in changing sets.

    Some alternative approaches to grouping within classrooms are outlined in publications by Peter Blatchford, Peter Kutnick and myself (e.g. see for example

  6. Ralph Levinson says:

    Perhaps a debate could start by unpacking the moral aspects of the term ‘ability’ which has been the cause of much mischief in the lives of children who have experienced the setting/streaming system. Much of the research presents ability as some kind of acultural hard-wired internal cognitive condition which is set for life and therefore best addressed in compartments to help those assigned to low ability best deal with the bleak outlook that the future presents them. For those assigned to top sets the moral programme is to attenuate the elitism and snobbery that those in top sets would find hard to resist. It is odd how low ability seems to be visited in such unfair proportions on certain groups, those of course who have the least economic and cultural power. Teresinha Nunes work on Recife street children who could solve sophisticated calculations while working in the market place but found difficulty in solving similar problems abstractly set in schools precisely targeted what we are up against. I experienced this effect while watching a football match in Sao Paulo when street kids selling packs of cashew nuts could deal with a bewildering number of requests simultaneously while providing the correct change. So, ability to do what? Under what circumstances? Under whose tutelage? Is it not time we worked to assign this pernicious concept to the dustbin of educational nonsense?

  7. […] there was no reference to setting in Morgan’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference, the idea has subsequently reappeared in a different […]

  8. […] The conclusion from the research is that if it helps, it helps teachers more than childrenDirector of IoE, Chris Husbands, […]

  9. […] has tended to promote setting, so I can only imagine that number has gone down since. A more recent blog by Chris Husbands, Director of IoE concludes that the evidence of the effectiveness of setting is […]

  10. […] that setting students by ability is beneficial to more able students but detrimental to others (this summary of the evidence by Chris Husbands is a helpful starting point).  We can say the same about the impact of grammar […]

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