Mixed Ability, Sets, and Streams – a teacher’s perspective – Part 3

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 3 – Streaming



The whole thing left me looking forward desperately to…


Once in Year 10, the classes that pupils at KSA have been in for three years are finally shaken up.

They are placed into new ‘streams,’ with roughly 30 in the top stream, 20 in the middle stream, and a 14 in the bottom stream.

These streams operate largely like the mixed ability classes from their earlier year – this is their form group, and they are in these classes for all of their core subjects.

That means: maths, science, English, and MFL.

Optional subjects like art, P.E., music and the humanities, were taught in different groups.

The streams still have names; they are not numbered, and they are never referred to as ‘top’ or ‘bottom’ set by any of the teachers.


This, for me, was the best option, in the best of all possible worlds.


Most all of the issues with setting didn’t manifest.  True, in a school so small the pupils were savvy enough to realise that there was a ‘top/middle/bottom’ group, and figure out which one they were in; but it wasn’t emphasised and all-encompassing in the way that it was in my first school.


Pupils were placed in these sets based on their performance in maths, English and science exams at the end of Year 9, but upon taking the exams, this was never mentioned by teachers – there was never any threat that pupils had better revise hard ‘lest they find themselves in the dreadful bottom set!’

The party line was always that groups were chosen based on teacher judgement about what would work best for each individual pupil, taking into account many factors; and this was true.  The groupings were heavily informed by the exam results, but not determined by them alone, and two of these groups, representing 75% of the year, followed identical curricula.


There were still never any ‘set changes,’ and while some arrogance could creep into the top stream, and some disillusionment in the bottom, by and large the cultural effects were far weaker than I’d seen with sets.  I often saw pupils who were very low attaining, in the bottom stream, work as hard as anyone in any other group – they were as determined as anyone to be successful.  They didn’t see themselves as ‘dumb,’ and ‘not very smart.’


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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2 Responses to Mixed Ability, Sets, and Streams – a teacher’s perspective – Part 3

  1. dodiscimus says:

    I think research on streaming is unable to account for the sort of context you describe. In the USA, streaming=tracking and the different tracks tend to follow very different curricula. I think that’s probably a very different kettle of fish. I don’t know whether Becky Francis and team have looked at the sort of thing you describe – they might have some insight.
    My other thought was the bit about how the allocation was carried out. Presumably the adustments to the exam marks were based on professional judgement about over- and under- achievement. There is definitely evidence that this tends to work against lower-SES children. Did KSA ever analyse those decisions e.g. against PP data? I think Daisy Christodoulou has expressed quite strong opinions on this.

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