Session 31: Mixed ability classes or pupils in ability sets: which is best (and why)?

Session Title
Mixed ability classes or pupils in ability sets: which is best (and why)?

Summary of Session

[pullquote]All students can make progress, whatever their ability. Teaching needs to be appropriate to engage them.[/pullquote]This was one of those discussions that was never going to come to a neat conclusion (but then, aren’t they all?). There were a number of contributors who were dead against setting in any topics and had evidence to back up their decision.

On the other side there were contributors who felt setting brought out the best in pupils, particularly those of higher ability and they also quoted evidence to back up their decisions! Somewhere in the middle there was a core group who felt certain subjects, particularly maths, were more effective for both teachers and pupils if they were set by ability, while other subjects were better for all concerned if taught in a mixed ability grouping.

The discussion got rather heated in parts as those with a strong view argued their own corner. As someone who was always educated in sets I was quite surprised at the number of people totally opposed to it (but then I have no experience to judge against it)! However, it was pointed out that many teachers who have a mixed ability class (particularly at KS1 or 2) tend to group their mixed classes into tables or groups based on reading ability: boiling down to setting within a mixed group for certain subjects anyway.

As the debate moved forward it became apparent that some people who were against setting felt it led to laziness, with teachers not having the need to differentiate much within a set. This was not the view of all: a sizeable number felt that even within a set you can have a huge range of differing abilities, especially in larger schools. It also became clear that some subjects, such as art or music, hardly ever seemed to be set by ability and that, in some areas, they were not considered as worthy or academic as other subjects. I think that might be a topic for another session…

Eye-Catching Tweets from the Session

@creativeedu: I’m not sure there is a one size fits all solution to this question

@john_at_muuua: Different times, students, topics and staff call for different approaches

@cleverfiend: There is no such thing as putting students in sets – just narrowing the ability range – they are still individuals with own skills

@antheald: Why should ability be the only criteria for setting? Would it make any less sense to set by level of enthusiasm for example?

@narthernlad: In Lit poorer children need to see examples of writing being done by their peers (high ability) – they can often think it can’t be done!

@janwebb21: Peer scaffolding is really important. Is it more effective with smaller differences between kids?

@giftedphoenix: alternatives can be explored: including the vertical grouping idea

@johnsayers: I think greater cross links is the way forward. Schools as organisations. Make kids feel worthwhile contributing to the team ethos.

@janetteww: Setting in maths makes it easier for teacher to teach effectively but seems to damage confidence

@deputyheaddunn: I change ability groups for every lesson based on individual’s self assessment. Works well when they are trained

Tweet of the Week

@mjowchs: All students can make progress, whatever their ability. Teaching needs to be appropriate to engage them.

Useful Weblinks Highlighted

There were no really useful links as such posted during the discussion, although certain contributors did direct others towards articles that supported their point of view.

About you Host

I am an ICT coordinator in a big Welsh primary. I am passionate about inclusion and tech. In my spare time I run and create resources for and also keep a blog about ICT and tech stuff:

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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