Mixed Ability Classes: A ‘Curse’ for Pupils?

My experience in education, as detailed in my previous blog, has been somewhat colourful and has involved being educated in both state and private schools. Each had their benefits and drawbacks, with one notable difference being mixed ability classes. Due to my previous experiences of both mixed ability classes and set classes, and the previous research in the area, I will argue that mixed ability sets are damaging to the learning of both high achievers and low achievers, and that schools need to abandon this way of teaching students.

In secondary school, we had only one subject in which we were set based on grades: mathematics. For all other subjects we were placed with peers of varying abilities, whereby all of the work assigned was exactly the same. When I moved to private school, we were placed in sets for mathematics, english, science, history, geography, languages, and IT. As a result, all of the material that we were studying was appropriate for our abilities, and no student was left to feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed by the work given. This raises the fundamental question of why this luxury seems to be exclusive for those who attend private schools?

The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, supports the argument of abolishing mixed ability classes, stating that they are ‘a curse’ on bright pupils, whose lessons are tailored towards average and low-skilled pupils (Paton, 2012).

The research in this area provides extremely mixed results, with many claiming that mixed ability classes disadvantage students and many others claiming that students flourish in comparison to set classes. For example, Lavy, Silva, and Weinhardt (2009) found significant negative peer effects when high and average performing students were placed in the same classes as peers at the bottom of the ability distribution. Additionally, they found little evidence that average and high achieving peers affect lower achieving students. This suggests that neither academically bright or academically challenged students benefit from mixed ability classes.

However, Boaler, an advocate for mixed ability classes, and her colleagues Wiliam and Brown (2000) stated that set classes had hugely negative impacts on student performance. They reported that students in lower sets were denied the opportunity to learn and that students in the top sets were required to learn at a place that was incompatible with comprehension. Additionally, they found that the same teachers applied a restrictive amount of approaches when teaching set groups in comparison to mixed ability groups. Almost all of the students who were placed in ‘setted groups’ were unhappy in that group.

In spite of this, Kulik and Kulik (1992) conducted a meta-analysis finding that students do benefit from grouping based on ability and that there is no significant evidence that students in the lower sets are harmed emotionally or academically.

This discrepancy in findings in studies looking at the same concept of mixed ability classes is troubling and demonstrates the need for more truly unbiased research in the area. Unfortunately, much of the research in education is currently funded by the government, thus meaning that research findings may be tailored to suit the needs of the funding body (Burkhardt & Schoenfeld, 2003). Now I am not for one second accusing these researchers of academic misconduct however, the way in which students are interviewed and teachers instructed on sets can be the pure reason for the discrepancies in findings. Additionally, all of these studies employ different methods of teaching and interviewing students; it is therefore likely that different results may actually be a result of different teaching methods.

Clearly, this is a difficult one to call – which is better – mixed ability or set classes? I would personally argue that set classes are more effective for students, and reject the claim made by some supporters of mixed-classes that it demoralises students. Based on the previous research, I feel that set classes are the way forward in education, but that teachers should be encouraged to teach students in low sets with the same quality and enthusiasm as students in high sets.


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), 61-648

Burkhardt, H., & Schoenfeld, A. H. (2003). Improving educational research: Toward a more useful, more influential, and better-funded enterprise. Educational Researcher, 32(9), 3-14

Kulik, J. A., & Kulik, C. C. (1992). Meta-analytic findings on grouping programs. Gifted Child Quarterly, 36(2), 7-77

Lavy, V., Silva, O., & Weinhardt, F. (2009). The good, the bad, and the average: Evidence on the scale and nature of ability peer effects in schools. The National Bureau of Economic Research, 121(18), 1-46

Paton, G. (2012, 09, 20). Ofsted: Mixed-ability classes ‘a curse’ on bright pupils. The Telegraph. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9553764/Ofsted-mixed-ability-classes-a-curse-on-bright-pupils.html

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6 Responses to Mixed Ability Classes: A ‘Curse’ for Pupils?

  1. My whole educational experience (bar university) has consisted of set ability classes. In the very early years of primary school we were in mixed ability classes, up until year 5, where we were split into groups based on ability. This continued to be the case when I entered high school. One problem I did find with being in these sets, is that the students were not assessed throughout the year to see if they benefited from being in that class, or if they were struggling and would be better of in a lower set. One year there were too many students in the top set for the teacher to effectively teach them, as a result some (including myself) were moved down a set. This is where the problems lie. The general truth is that the lower down the set, the more disruptive the children. This, along with our poor excuse of a teacher, lead to more time being spent reprimanding the ‘naughty’ students, and less time teaching us.

    Something else to think about is the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you are placed in a lower set then you know that you are not as able as some of your peers, therefore the student can come to expect that their grades will not be as good. (Lee, Smith, Perry, & Smylie, 1999). This in turn can lead to them not trying their best because they feel like they will not reach the same level as their peers no matter what they do.

    It is also common for the ‘best’ teachers to be allocated to the higher sets despite research suggesting otherwise (http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/toolsandinitiatives/tripsresearchdigests/a0013256/themes-pupil-grouping-and-organisation-of-classes). If there are some change-ups in the educational system, so more frequent assessment of students to see which set they belong in, and a fairer distribution of teachers, then I agree with you that set classes are the way forward in education.

    Lee, Smith, Perry & Smylie (1999)
    Social support, academic press, and student achievement: A view from the middle grades in Chicago. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research

  2. As you have highlighted in your blog, there currently doesn’t seem to be a clear answer as to whether mixed or same ability classes are more beneficial. Francesdevine commented upon the theory of the Self Fulfilling Proficiency and how this can affect a student’s learning. Therefore perhaps the most crucial factor is not whether ability is divided or united, but how well the teacher instills intrinsic motivation and a drive for success within each student. The self-determination theory suggests if an individual can become intrinsically motivated to learn, they will develop a greater conceptual understanding (Deci, Valerand, Pelletier and Ryan, 1991). Similarly, greater academic performance and sense of satisfaction will occur if this is then paired with an internal locus of control (Judge and Bono, 2001). This is where an individual feels they are in control of their own success and failures (Rotter, 1990). For example, if they did not achieve their target grade in a test, they would perhaps attribute this to a lack of preparation on their part, rather than not getting the required tuition due a disruptive student attaining the teachers attention. Therefore it may not be that the education system should be focusing upon mixed or same ability classes, but in fact how they should instill motivation, a drive for success and a sense of responsibility for ones own learning.

    Deci, E.L., Valerand, R.J., Pelletier, L.G., & Ryan, R.M. (1991).Motivation and dducation :the self-determination perspective. Educational Psychologist, 26(3/4), 325-346. doi: 10.1080/00461520.1991.9653137

    Judge, T.A., & Bono, J.E. (2001). Relationship of core self-evaluations traits—self-esteem, generalized self-efficacy, locus of control, and emotional stability—with job satisfaction and job performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(1), 80-92. Retrieved from: http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&uid=2001-16970-007

    Rotter, J.B. (1990). Internal versus external control of reinforcement: A case history of a variable.
    American Psychologist, 45(4), 489-493. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.45.4.489

  3. ebbmplp3003 says:

    This is a great topic, since it leads to questions of the social pedagogic factor that correlates with the learning taking place in a classroom. In a study by Boaler (1997) it has been argued that achievement for high-ability students who are grouped in a top set learning environment for mathematics results in a negative effect in terms of achievement, in particular for females. Students in mixed ability classes can benefit from one another, since it has been suggested that the way one perceives his or her ability and the status one upholds due to a grade is being reflected in the participation of social interactions when cooperative group work takes place. Findings revealed that students with high- status in ability and grade level were more influential and leading group interactions (Dembo & McAuliffe, 1987). Such findings give the impression that mixed- ability classrooms are relevant, but one must consider how to advance both high- and low –ability students in this context.
    Boaler 1997. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/002202797184116
    Dembo & McAuliffe, 1987. Effects of perceived ability and grade status on social interaction and influence in cooperative groups. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79(4), , 415-423. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.79.4.415

  4. RoseySharman says:

    I think that the trouble with setting is that children use it to get away from teachers and fellow pupils that make them unhappy and the easiest way is down.

    It also happens when children are having a difficult time at home, grand parents passing away, parents splitting up

    At 7 they are not old enough to realise this nor the full impact of it on their futures and think it’s because they can’t do or don’t like the subject and so don’t try.

    By the time they realise it, it’s too late.

  5. Ray says:

    Mixed ability classes is Marxism masquerading as a teaching philosophy. If this was such a great idea why don’t your Olympic coaches have average athletes or even worse, overweight people who need to lose a few pounds in the same training group.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Put a mixed ability sports team on the field. The more capable learn how to walk all over people who offer no resistance, the less capable learn how to get constantly smashed. Neither improve, neither learn and they all get sick of the game.

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