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:
This is Part 3 – Streaming
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.’