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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How do we change the current education system in which good behaviour is punished and bad behaviour rewarded?

When embarking on this science of education module, I immediately knew that my first blog would have to be a topic that I am passionate about. Often issues that are of significant interest to people are ones that they have first hand experience of. Therefore, this blog will focus on my own experience of the education system in the UK and why the methods in which educators reinforce and punish behaviour need to be adapted to avoid punishing good behaviour and rewarding bad behaviour.

Before starting secondary school, I was a well behaved and hardworking student. However, in the classroom the teacher’s attention was focused solely on trying to punish bad behaviour, whilst well-behaved students would sit bored at the table; not being given the chance to be taught. Eventually, I became so fed up of the situation that I started to misbehave. For the first time in secondary school I was happy. No longer was I bullied by my fellow students and I was being lavished with attention from teachers instead of being ignored – and all I had to do was misbehave! Luckily I was able to move to a school where good behaviour was reinforced, but there will be many students out there experiencing the same situation who may not be so lucky.

So why did I write this story?

I am not one to rake over past experiences and refrain from bringing in any personal anecdotes in my university work. However, it is this experience that has shaped my view on the problems that students currently face in the education system in the UK. Ultimately, it was my own confidence and need for friends and attention that was the direct cause of my behaviour change. However, there were other fundamental flaws in the education system that arguably had a significant contribution towards this change in behaviour, one being the poor use of positive and negative reinforcement and punishment.

Positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment (Skinner, 1953):

Often it happens in schools that in trying to punish bad behaviour, teachers are actually reinforcing it. This is due to the fact that, in shouting at students, they are providing the student with positive reinforcement in the form of attention, so the behaviour is more likely to continue. Secondly, good students are being provided with negative punishment in the form of no attention, so this good behaviour is less likely to occur (Maag, 2001).

This is no criticism on the teachers themselves, who even admit that behaviour management is the main area of teaching in which they would like more training (Maag, 1999).  Clearly new ways of using reinforcement in the classroom need to be implemented to reward good behaviour and punish bad behaviour, as opposed to the current system whereby good behaviour is punished and bad behaviour is rewarded (Charlton & David, 1993).

Various methods have been researched investigating ways in which positive reinforcement can be used effectively to promote good behaviour. However, there are educators who are against using reinforcement due to the assumption that it is a form of bribery (Kohn, 1993). This is one of the reasons why the education system is failing today: misunderstandings of important techniques with supporting empirical evidence are resulting in the techniques being ignored (Lagermann, 2002).

I will focus on one particularly effective method of using positive reinforcement in education: token economy. O’Leary and Drabman (1971) state that token economy involves informing students of the desired behaviour and giving some form of a token when this behaviour is demonstrated. This token can be exchanged for something of value, for example a prize. This has been shown to be extremely effective in classroom settings, however, it has been noted that teachers need to be trained in the process in order to maintain the reinforcement of the desired behaviour (Kazdin, 1982).

There has been an extensive amount of research supporting token economy, with researchers finding that when the system was implemented, unacceptable behaviour decreased (Filcheck, McNeil, Greco, & Bernard, 2004). Additionally, student participation also increased when tokens were offered that could be exchanged for extra credits (Boniecki & Moore, 2003).

This previous research demonstrates that the use of positive reinforcement is vital in classroom settings, but should be applied with consistency. For example, if one student is awarded a token for helping a teacher set up a classroom, the other student doing the same should also be awarded a token. Indeed, it is important to note that the current education system does use token economy to some degree. However, its use is often inconsistent and can sometimes neglect the positive behaviour demonstrated by students who behave well regardless of behaviour management

It is my hope that methods such as this will be implemented more effectively in the future, thus helping both students who display challenging behaviour and students whose good behaviour is often ignored. Ultimately, this should increase student participation, learning, and, more importantly, their future behaviour in the wider community and overall wellbeing.



Boniecki, K. A., & Moore, S. (2003). Breaking the silence: Using a token economy to reinforce classroom participation. Teaching of Psychology, 30(3), 224-227.

doi: 10.1207/S15328023TOP3003_05

Charlton, T., & David, K. (1993). Managing misbehaviour in schools. London: Routledge.

Kazdin, A. E. (1982). The token economy: A decade later. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 15(3), 431-445. doi: 10.1901/jaba.1982.15-431

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Filcheck, H. A., McNeil, C. B., Greco, L. A., & Bernard, R. S. (2004). Using a whole-class token economy and coaching of teacher skills in a preschool classroom to manage disruptive behaviour. Psychology in the Schools, 41(3), 351-361. doi: 10.1002/pits.10168

Lagermann, E. C. (2002). An elusive science: The troubling history of education research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maag, J. W. (1999). Behaviour management: From theoretical implications to practical applications. San Diego, CA: Singular.

Maag, J. W. (2001). Rewarded by punishment: Reflections on the disuse of positive reinforcement in schools. Exceptional Children, 67(2), 173-186.

O’Leary, D. K., & Drabman, R. (1971). Token reinforcement programs in the classroom: A review. Psychological Bulletin, 75(6), 379-398. doi: 10.1037/h0031311

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behaviour. New York: Macmillan.

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