Attainment, Well-being and Identity: A Student Perspective on Setting.

As we explained in an earlier post, one of us (Jessica Mason – @DrofletJess) runs a final year undergraduate module at Sheffield Hallam University, exploring all things English education with students, some of whom intend to pursue a career in the teaching profession, others of whom are just academically interested. You may have followed some of the lectures on the @ExploringEngEd account. The module is a research-driven exploration of current issues and debates in English education and, for their first assignments, students write research essays about a topic of their choosing related to English education. They are able to include critical personal reflections of their own experiences of studying English, both at school and university.

Every year there are a few essays that are too important and salient to discussions in the profession not to ask the students whether we could share them with the StudyingFiction readership and this year is no exception. Here’s the second of these, by Jennifer Henson (@jenhensonn): a powerful, insightful and academically-grounded reflection on the author’s experiences of setting and mixed ability grouping, and its potential impact on student well-being. The paper also offers a comprehensive overview of key research on setting which should be a useful resource for all teachers interested in finding out more about the academic work on this area.  Enjoy! We’d love to hear your thoughts on Jennifer’s reflection and your own views on setting.

A First-hand Account of Setting, Attainment and Well-being, by Jennifer Henson

In the UK, children in public schools can be split into teaching groups in numerous different ways. Sukhnandan (1998) has produced definitions of streaming, setting, banding, within-class grouping and mixed ability teaching. When discussing the different forms of grouping within this account, I will be using these definitions. However, I have not personally experienced streaming or banding at this point in my education, therefore it is unlikely that these will be mentioned or discussed in great detail.

Setting: ‘The (re)grouping of pupils according to their ability in a particular subject. Setting can be imposed on a whole year group or on a particular band at a time’

Mixed Ability Teaching: ‘Teaching groups include pupils of widely ranging abilities. The spread of ability in such a group depends upon the ability range for which the school provides’ 

(Sukhnandan 1998: 2)

Sukhnandan also explains the purposes of each form of grouping, stating that: ‘setting can be used to reduce the size of teaching groups’ (1998: 4) and adds that Slavin (1978) believes that it ‘reduces the negative psychological effects on pupils that are often associated with streaming’. In contrast, ‘the aim of mixed-ability grouping is to provide individual pupils with individualised teaching that is specifically tailored for their needs’, consequently, ‘it provides all pupils with equality of opportunity… and reduces the negative consequences often associated with homogenous grouping [streaming and setting]’ (Sukhnandan 1998: 4).

After the 1944 Educational Butler Act was introduced, ‘streaming became the standard form of pupil organisation’ (Sukhnandan 1998: 7). However, ‘by the 1960’s the system of streaming had become increasingly unpopular’ (ibid). Following the introduction of major educational policies, including the National Curriculum, ‘there has been increased debate about the most effective way to group pupils in order to raise levels of attainment’ (Sukhnandan, 1998: 1), these debates have seen the introduction, and more common use of other forms of grouping, including setting and mixed-ability grouping. Ireson and Hallam suggest that ‘changes in the education system were accompanied by recommendations for schools to adopt setting by ability’ (2001: 8), quoting the government White Paper Excellence in Schools (1997) to say: ‘Unless a school can demonstrate that it is getting better than expected results through a different approach, we do make the presumption that setting should be the norm in secondary schools’. This forms the basis of a debate around what is the most beneficial form of grouping, but also whether student attainment is more important than student well-being.

During my time in secondary school, I experienced both setting and mixed ability teaching, during key stage four (KS4). Core subjects (English, Maths and Science) were the only subjects grouped in the form of setting, whereas optional GCSE subjects were mixed ability taught – due to the school not having control over who opted to study each subject. Interestingly, the school also chose to mix year tens and elevens within these optional lessons which created even less of an academic divide between students. Due to having experienced the two different types of grouping, I am able to present a first-hand account of how I perceived a direct effect that setting had on a student’s level of attainment and well-being, in comparison to mixed ability grouping.

Previous studies and research into setting and mixed ability teaching:

Ireson and Hallam (2001) provide an outline of the effects that ability grouping (selection and setting) has on students’ attainment and self-image. They state that although one of the main arguments for ability grouping is that it ‘enables teaching to be more effectively geared for pupils of differing abilities, allowing the most able to reach the highest standards’, it has an equally strong counter argument of ‘[denying] equality of educational opportunity to many young people, limiting life chances and increasing social exclusion’ (2001: 1). Exploring the first statement, it can be presumed that people are already aware that ability grouping only benefits “the most able”. Ireson and Hallam claim that although there is little research to suggest this is an accurate statement, it does still appear that there are ‘differential benefits for pupils in selective and unselective systems… selection and ability grouping tend to work to the advantage of pupils in higher attaining groups’ (2001: 17). Within their findings, it is also discussed that teachers also believe that ‘setting benefits the more able child [and that] there are more discipline problems in the lower ability classes’ (2001: 126) suggesting that time is taken away from students’ learning, to deal with these problems.

Ireson and Hallam have also highlighted the student well-being problems that setting can create. Mainly that, ‘placement in the bottom groups has an adverse impact on pupils’ self-esteem, self-concept and their attitudes towards school’ (2001: 40), they also uncover long term effects including ‘a reluctance to take up training opportunities… [and lack of] motivation to continue or return to education’ (2001: 206). They confirm that ‘pupils in schools with more structured grouping feel less positive about school’ (2001: 62).

Boaler, William and Brown (2000) also provide an insight into the effects that ability grouping has on students. Within the research, ‘high sets’ are linked to ‘high expectations [and] high pressure’ (2000: 635), whilst ‘low sets’ are linked to ‘low expectations [and] limited opportunities’ (2000: 637). However, it is suggested that, ‘the traditional British concern with ensuring that some of the ablest students reach the highest possible standards appears to have resulted in a situation in which the majority of students achieve well below their potential’ (2000: 646).

Barker (2003) provides a case study that compares both teaching mixed ability and a low ability English class. Barker found that ‘the teaching of mixed ability groups makes greater demands on teachers’ (2003: 13), however, she preferred to teach this way, rather than by sets. This is likely to be due to the many negative impacts being placed in a low ability set has on a student, for example ‘[being in a low ability class] damages their chances for improvement… damages working conditions and self-esteem’ and also means that ‘potential is repeatedly limited’ (ibid).

Mills (1977) more explicitly discusses the effects of mixed ability teaching, that he discovered when exploring teaching strategies for use in mixed ability English lessons. These effects include: ‘concentration on needs of individual, wide provision of multi-media materials [and] flexible grouping of learning’ (1977: 28). Mills presented this in his model, entitled The Singing Spheres, which identifies ‘wider implications which may be faced by the whole school when one of its departments moves to mixed ability work’ (1977: 27), The corresponding implications of the aforementioned effects were ‘revision of remedial policy, resource centre [and] intra and inter departmental cooperation’ (1977: 28). Within this model, Mills highlights that mixed ability teaching can be beneficial for both teachers and students. When taking this account of benefits from a teaching point of view, and putting it with the suggested benefits from anti-setting studies, considering also that Ireson and Hallam confirmed that previous research on grouping by ability has ‘rather little impact on overall entertainment’ (2001: 38), it appears that mixed ability grouping is the most beneficial form of grouping for students.

To summarise, the current literature surrounding what style of grouping is best used suggests that there is no proven correlation between setting and attainment, but, there is a proven correlation between setting and student well-being.

A Personal Reflection

In all three of my core subjects, which were grouped via setting, I was predicted A grades. I only achieved this in English Language and Literature, whilst achieving D’s across the board in science and a C in foundation Mathematics in Year Nine – I attained the same grade on the higher paper in Year Eleven. This shows clearly that, in my case, setting resulted in low attainment of grades. The most notable aspect of my case is that I was more successful in English, where I was placed in a set two class, than I was in both subjects in which I was placed in the highest set. This supports what Boaler, William and Brown found in their case study, as many students claimed that ‘they could not cope with the fast pace of lessons and the pressure to work at a high level’ (2000: 635). This is something that I personally related to at school, as even though I had been placed in the top sets, I still doubted my ability to perform at the same academic standard as my peers.

My mixed ability, optional subjects appear to be my highest performing area when looking at my GCSE results. I managed to attain distinctions in Art and ICT, a B in Religion and Geography and a C in Media Studies. I achieved all of my target grades in these subjects, even exceeding them in Art and Geography. During these lessons, I felt more comfortable about the pace of the learning, and also benefited from the different teaching strategies that were being used. Again, this supports what Boaler, William and Brown found in their case study, where one student fed back that when they were not in a mixed ability group the previous year, ‘it [was] a whole different process… you’re not being rushed all the time’ (2000: 636). Throughout their study, statistical data is used to compare how students feel about the different areas being researched, and each time mixed ability group students expressed a more positive experience in the classroom (2000: 637-43).

Although this suggests that mixed ability teaching was more beneficial in my case, other variables can be seen to affect my attainment. For example, within my optional subjects I had lower target grades. It could also be argued that the core subjects are perhaps considered “more important”, as they are the only subjects compulsory for further education, therefore putting more pressure on both teachers and students in secondary education.

One of my strongest memories of secondary school, was the disappointment I felt in Year Ten, when my English teacher told me I had been dropped to set two. Although I was still in the top performing half of the year group, I felt that I had severely let myself down as I had always been labelled a “top set student” by teachers, and had conceptualised my school, and self-identity around this. In retrospect, the move to a lower set was a positive move, as the learning style and pace was more suited to my educational needs and thus meant I attained a higher grade. However, as a 14-year-old that had spent her time in education as a “top set student” this wasn’t something I considered, or even cared about. During your teenage years, you tend to be more concerned over your image and how other people perceive you – I had always been “the clever one” in my friendship group, and all of a sudden, I was in the same classes as my friends. The only unique aspect of my identity had been taken away from me.

Taking both aspects of my personal experience into account, there is a reflection of what is portrayed throughout the literature: there is no proven correlation between setting and attainment, but, there is a proven correlation between setting and student well-being.

Again, it should be taken into account that when analysing both attainment and wellbeing in schools, there are many other variables that should be taken into account: These are outlined by Ireson and Hallam (2001:36, 99), Barker (2003:7) and Boaler, William and Brown (2000:635). All three of these studies mention gender, and their other considerations include: differences across the curriculum, individual schools’ ethos and teacher’s and student’s individual values.

It should also be noted that many prior researchers concentrate on the idea of equality in education. When they should perhaps be concentrating on equity in education, this has been explored by Duncan-Andrade (2007), who usefully makes a distinction between the two:

‘An equal education implies that everyone gets the same amount of the same thing and is often measured by things that can be counted (i.e. per pupil expenditures, class size, textbooks, percentage of credentialed teachers). Thus, an equal education attempts to provide the same education to everyone, which is not equitable. An equitable education suggests resource allocation based on context, which would include attention to funding and teachers but in a manner that pays closer attention to the specific needs of a community.’

(Duncan-Andrade 2007: 618).

Equitable education ‘is designed to address the material conditions of students’ lives while maintaining a high level of intellectual rigor’ (p618). However, despite this distinction being made, there is still no educational policy to ensure this is sustained through any particular means of grouping and teaching in schools and the relationship between equity and setting is not clear cut.

By comparing setting and mixed ability teaching through prior research and personal experience, I feel that I have a sufficient amount of data, knowledge and experience, as to put forward a case in favour of mixed ability teaching. However, I think it should be noted that as all students are different, and it is impossible to generalise from data in studies as each case produces a different argument. However, it may be easier to decide which type of grouping is more beneficial, by comparing attainment directly to wellbeing of students, and then finding the source of problems uncovered from this.


  • Barker, A. (2003). Bottom: A case study comparing teaching low ability and mixed ability year 9 english classes. English in Education, 37(1), 4-14. doi:10.1111/j.1754-8845.2003.tb00586.x
  • Boaler, J., Wiliam, D., & Brown, M. (2000). Students’ experiences of ability grouping – disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure. British Educational Research Journal, 26(5), 631-648. doi:10.1080/713651583
  • Duncan-Andrade, J. (2007). Gangstas, wankstas, and ridas: Defining, developing, and supporting effective teachers in urban schools. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 20(6), 617-638. doi:10.1080/09518390701630767
  • Ireson, J., & Hallam, S. (2001). Ability grouping in education (1. publ. ed.). London: Chapman.
  • Mills, R. W. (1977). Teaching english across the ability range. London: Ward Lock Educational.
  • Sukhnandan, L. (1998). Streaming, setting and grouping by ability. Slough: NFER

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