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 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.
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.