Mixed Ability, Sets, and Streams – a teacher’s perspective – Part 4

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 4 – Conclusion



My personal experience of teaching streams, a form of grouping that I don’t often see used, leads me to advocate for it strongly.

It seemed to eliminate nearly all the problems I perceived with setting, while also eliminating the extreme challenges I faced in teaching mixed ability.


I’m not entirely sure why any school that currently sets wouldn’t want to adopt streaming.  It’s an efficient way of organising pupils – you always know who should be in what group, and it makes form groups more meaningful than ‘the place you go to register in the morning.’

It eliminates the ‘get out clause’ of pupils and teachers working hard to form a working relationship, while avoiding the extreme difficulties that mixed ability grouping can present.

There’s sometimes an argument that a pupil might be terrible at English, but really good at maths, and it would be ‘unfair’ for them not to have the best maths experience by being placed in a lower group.  But, the myth of a ‘maths brain’ or ‘left/right’ dominance is entirely exploded; so while there may be some cost to streaming over setting, I think they are likely to be insignificant compared with the benefits. (see Cost-Benefit Analysis)


Even if a school wasn’t ready to make that change yet, I remain utterly, utterly perplexed as to why a school would deliberately stamp a number on each child’s face!  What possible advantage can there be to numbering sets, over naming them?

Just to put the effects of this into sharp relief for a moment, when I first visited Eton, I observed a Year 11 class, set 12… of 13.  I sat down next to a very polite pupil, who then almost immediately felt the need to apologise: “I must apologise… I’m afraid we’re not exactly the creme de la creme.”

Now, Eton is obviously a highly selective school, so to be clear what this means, I asked the teacher what GCSE grades these pupils were expected to achieve.  Apparently not all of them would get A*s, but they’d all get As at least.

Now on the one hand, I really want to see what the hell their top set is doing!  Moving them into these sets, I am certain, means that those top sets must be progressing in a way that is very special indeed, and entirely appropriate to the value of helping everyone reach their potential.

But why the numbers?  Set 12 of 13?  Christ, no wonder, that poor boy felt underwhelmed by his own accomplishments; where in almost any non-selective school that group would probably represent the ‘arrogant’ top set.


Even at Eton, numbered sets can leave pupils feeling inadequate


So why not just name the damned classes?  In a school, with 6-8 sets, or more, you can guarantee that they wouldn’t figure out the ‘ranking.’


A final point worth making about mixed ability grouping, in my fifth year of teaching, and third at KSA, I again took on a mixed ability Year 9 group.  Throughout the year the experience was relatively similar to my first efforts; somewhat improved thanks to two more years in the classroom, but there were four pupils with whom I felt trapped – completely unable and unequipped to help them learn anything.

Until, the very end of the year.  With all my other classes having left after the exams, I finally had the time to think through how to apply everything I’d learnt to our final sequence of study together.  I wrote about it here (My Best Planning.)

The success of that experience gave me hope that there is some way to teach a completely mixed group successfully, and certainly Mark McCourt’s experience of teaching mixed ability sounds wholly positive, albeit he caveats this heavily by recognising that it’s difficult to do well, and so perhaps shouldn’t be attempted lightly, and without pouring huge resource into a department to help them learn how to do it; huge enough that this might be a real, insurmountable barrier to mixed ability teaching in many schools.


And so, on balance, considering only my personal experience and having heard no strong argument to the contrary, for now, I continue to strongly advocate for streaming as the lesser known and best of all options, in the best of all possible worlds.

About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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4 Responses to Mixed Ability, Sets, and Streams – a teacher’s perspective – Part 4

  1. Alec says:

    Never mind the student that excels in maths but not English (or vice versa), what about the student that excels in geometry but not in algebra? Obviously there is a closer degree of correlation between fluency in the different strands of maths than there is across subjects, but locking a student into a certain ability band/stream/set is myopic at best and not reflective of the complexity of learning strengths and needs.

  2. dodiscimus says:

    Thanks for a fascinating series, Kris. It’s made me think quite a lot. I’m not convinced naming sets rather than numbering really disguises the ranking (although I think it may influence how that ranking is viewed slightly). I think you might disguise the intended ranking of some of the sets in the middle but the bottom set will know they’re the bottom set in any typical secondary (possibly not Eton but it’s an outlier). I also think there are a small number of children for whom the gulf between maths and English performance is a real problem for streaming. I remember teaching someone who was on their third go at GCSE English (with hard work they did get their C that year) whilst simultaneously getting a B at A-Level in Phyics. There aren’t lots of these, and probably a lot fewer than most people might think, but they do exist. The triple/combined science thing is a major issue in science teaching and neither setting nor streaming really address this. I completely agree that all the faffing about with set placement is unhelpful. I also completely agree that, for all the evidence suggesting that mixed v tracking is basically ambiguous, most teachers struggle with accommodating top and bottom children in mixed groups. I assume you’re following the work of Becky Francis’ team on this.
    Best wishes

  3. BM says:

    I’ve taught history to clssses set for maths. It’s a nightmare. The range of the majority is wider than if they’d been set for English but quite manageable. The bottom quarter plummet off a cliff edge. So in a top set you have a semi homogenous class with a separate subset of incredibly weak kids thrown in. This isn’t about left/right brain but we can see it is about knowledge accrual. It is perfectly possible to accrue wide and fluent maths knowledge but not the broad knowledge of the world that gives the high comprehension levels that lead to top set characteristics in English and the humanities. Having taught most of my career in schools that set for English and maths it’s is clear that streaming would not lead to usefully homogenous sets across the curriculum. Of course if maths teachers are happy for classes to be set from English scores …

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