Mixed Ability, Sets, and Streams – a teacher’s perspective – Part 1

I’ve taught sets, mixed ability, and streams.

What follows isn’t any rigorous analysis, or appeal to research.  From what I’m aware of the research, the conclusions aren’t exactly conclusive: lower attainers benefit from mixed groupings, higher attainers suffer.  Mark McCourt reiterates this point, and takes it further by pointing out that those conclusions aren’t necessarily subject or key stage specific, while Lucy Rycroft-Smith suggested there was broadly no impact either way (MrBartonMaths Interview, roughly 52 min in.  Research Espresso.)

So, this has nothing to do with research, just my thoughts and feelings having had some experience of all three.

I’ve split it into four parts:

  1. Setting
  2. Mixed Ability
  3. Streaming
  4. Conclusion


This is Part 1 – Setting



In my first school, where I taught for two years, pupils were set, as seems to be most common.  They were in up to 8 ability groups.  Each child knew with group they were in, and classes were named based on that number e.g. 9.7 for Year 9 Set 7.

There were many things I disliked about this system.


First, language.

I found all teachers used the language of sets when talking to pupils.  For example:


“I expect better behaviour from a top set!”

Thus implying that we don’t expect better behaviour from every other class…

“Maybe if you work hard, you’ll be able to move up a set…”

…up a set where you’ll finally learn something, because no-one learns in this class.

I was not above this.  In clueless moments of desperation I have uttered these words and hated myself while saying them.  I think the language that I’ve seen sets engender in teachers probably sums up all their worst features. But then…


Then, set changes.

Every time a child moves sets, information is destroyed.

I found I could teach the pupils I knew best, best, since I knew what they knew, knew what we’d discussed, and could draw on historic experiences as prompts, or build relationships between knowledge.

 I deeply disliked it when a new pupil joined my class, and wasn’t thrilled when one left.  This wasn’t just caused by human bias against change, and the emotional effort of forming new relationships, it was also, arguably mostly, because I wasn’t confident that I could be a better teacher to them than the previous person who knew them better.

If these changes happened rarely, I might consider them manageable.  In my experience in this school, with the exception of the ‘protected’ top set, the churn was incessant, and the consequences dire.  Considering our relatively poor ability to accurately measure performance, never mind learning, its doubtful that these set changes were truly meaningful, or helpful.

See this slide by Dylan Wiliam for a glorious example of what I mean.


Test reliability 0.9, predictive validity 0.7, 100 students, 50% in ‘correct’ set

FYI – 0.9 reliability is like, stupidly high compared to what you can expect from most school/teacher set assessments (which I think from memory is typically closer to 0.7, but shout out if you know better and I have that wrong.)


The protected top set.

There was an undercurrent of belief throughout my school that the top set were the only people who would truly learn.  Everyone else was grist was the C grade mill.  Once they banked it, they would be chucked out of the target groups and into the second set, where they were expected to more or less languish… maybe pick up a B if they were lucky, but you know, no biggie.


Child trading.

A sub-set of set changes – if a pupil and teacher don’t get along, it was generally understood that one or the other could petition the head of department to have the pupil moved up or down a set, so they didn’t have to be together.

Again, I was not immune to this.  I would be more than happy to advocate that maybe a belligerent should move up a set, if I dreaded seeing them each day.


Finally, obviously, self-concept and stereotype threat.

Best demonstrated by this 9 second clip from Tough Young Teachers


“Bottom set, what does that mean to you?”

“Dumb!  We’re dumb.”

“Not very smart.”

“So, is that what you think of yourselves…?”



Pretty typical of students in the bottom set.  But then actually, pretty typical of almost all students who aren’t in the top set, I found!

Then you get the kids in the bottom of the top set, who are obviously pretty high achievers, but think they’re the worst, because in their little sphere of experience, they are.

Then you get the kids who do well, think they’re really smart, think everyone else thinks they’re smart, and now don’t want to try for fear of failure and losing that impression – it’s okay to fail if you weren’t even trying, not okay to try and fail and signal that you’re not that smart after all.


So, yeah, sets sucked in a lot of ways.



About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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5 Responses to Mixed Ability, Sets, and Streams – a teacher’s perspective – Part 1

  1. mfox195628 says:

    Relationships. It’s all about relationships. Moving kids destroys the lovely relationship that the teacher built. I’m with you….except perhaps setting isn’t really the issue, just our attitude towards it.

  2. Pingback: Mixed Ability, Sets, and Streams – a teacher’s perspective – Part 3 | …to the real.

  3. Pingback: Helen Hindle: Mixed attainment teaching and growth mindset - Mr Barton Maths Blog

  4. Pingback: Mixed Ability, Sets, and Streams – a teacher’s perspective – Part 1 — …to the real. | The Echo Chamber

  5. Pingback: What Teachers Tapped This Week #25 - 19th March 2018 - Teacher Tapp

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