Grouping classes by prior attainment and ability is standard practice in most secondary schools. Many teachers will have plenty of experience of teaching classes that are set in this way, especially in core subjects.

Of course, the question of whether this type of setting is the best way to teach has sparked discussion and debate for decades. There will always be differences in opinion but the general rationale behind the approach is strong enough. And even though the vast majority of option subjects at GCSE level are genuinely mixed ability (and students do well in them); core subjects tend to be set by prior attainment in KS4, by and large.

Now new research by University College London (UCL) has found that setting by ability could actually disadvantage students. More worrying still, the study also suggests that lower-ability sets tend to be made up of a disproportionate number of pupils from ethnic minorities and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Therefore, this raises a disturbing point about whether setting by ability is also an underlying issue of social justice.

How robust is setting in schools?

There are other points raised in the UCL research that should definitely get the alarm bells ringing. Firstly, there is the question of whether the criteria for setting in schools is always totally focused on academic data. The reality is that often other factors, such as behaviour, are taken into account too.

Furthermore, there are question marks hanging over the validity of the assessment used to inform setting decisions. There are many teachers who would claim that KS2 SATs data isn’t always reliable. Similarly, if internal assessment isn’t of high quality – or standardised and moderated effectively – then the setting decisions that follow from it can often mean that pupils are allocated to inappropriate sets.

Sink sets and a lowering of standards

Although the phrase ‘sink sets’ is an uncomfortable one, conjuring up images of classrooms in the 1960s and 1970s, the research shows that many students who are allocated to lower ability sets are often given little opportunity to progress or move groups.

There is a suggestion that setting simply perpetuates low achievement and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: teachers have lower expectations of pupils in lower ability classes and the pupils themselves have low aspirations. Pupils, often suffering from self-esteem issues already, have low perceptions of their own ability. This, in turn, manifests itself in poor behaviour. It creates a vicious circle of failure.

Expectations are often lower in the ‘bottom’ sets, and teaching approaches, in terms of pedagogy, curriculum and assessment are sometimes different too.

In effect, some of the most disadvantaged young people in the country could be further disadvantaged by the setting arrangements in our schools.

Should setting in schools be revamped?

Further research about pedagogy and effective approaches to use with lower ability classes is needed. However, there are a few guiding principles that schools should follow to ensure that pupils in lower ability sets are not disadvantaged in any way.

Firstly, if pupils are set by attainment then frequent assessment is necessary. Ample opportunity should be given for pupils to move groups if it is appropriate for them to do so.

Schools should carefully consider which members of staff are allocated to lower-attaining groups. There’s a strong argument for placing the most experienced and strongest teachers with such groups.

After all, putting your weakest or least experienced staff in front of a school’s most challenging classes is a recipe for disaster. It’s not good for the pupils and it can seriously dent the confidence of staff too.

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