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To set or not to set?

The research is not terribly clear on the subject of how much outcomes are altered when you group children by ability. In general, it suggests there may be a slight advantage for those in the top group, but there is a disadvantage for those in middle and lower groups, so, if anything, the overall the effect may be slightly negative. I stress "may". For a clear summary of research done in the 1980s and 1990s on this:

http://www.nfer.ac.uk/publications/SSG01/SSG01.pdf

When you look at more recent sources like John Hattie and Robert Coe the above conclusions apply across all subjects taken together, even though maths has tended to be a particular focus, perhaps because of its perceived importance and the relative ease with which you can measure outcomes.

In sum, the research tells us there are much better ways of increasing attainment than putting students into ability sets.

Up to now, however, I have never seen any research on this issue with specific regard to modern languages. To me, as the research suggests, it makes sense not to group by ability in primary schools (indeed, I was surprised to learn that this is quite common practice), and in most subjects at secondary school. Yet I still have my doubts about maths and languages. Why?

Progress in both maths and languages, at least by my own reckoning of classroom methodology, involve a steady accumulation of knowledge and skills where understanding the previous step is quite important before you move on to the next. Research evidence shows most teachers feel this to be the case and that language teachers see teaching mixed ability groups as a challenge or problem. I realise that that is only a partially correct claim, but even so it seems to be more relevant than in other subjects where each conceptual area is, relatively speaking, more distinct. In addition, if you believe that acquisition is dependent crucially on the supply of large amounts of comprehensible target language, then it makes sense to pitch this at a level appropriate to the ability or progress of the class.

With this in mind, most secondary schools understandably take the view that pupils' needs are better served when they can move on at a pace which suits them. Hence sets. My highly unscientific Twitter and MFL Resources survey of language teachers suggests that schools which use some form of ability grouping for MFL outnumber those who do not by about two to one. Setting in some form or another is very common indeed.

So why does the research seem to confirm that setting is ineffective in maths and indeed across the board? Some arguments have been put forward: teachers go too fast with top sets, not allowing knowledge/skills to be embedded; schools assign weaker teachers to lower sets; students in lower sets feel less worthy and behave less well. Hattie notes that lower sets often end up doing low value tasks, such aa filling the gaps on worksheets.One might also suggest that some pupils find themselves in lower sets because they have a poorer work ethic to begin with. This is probably why some schools avoid setting: you end up with all the awkward customers in the lower sets and classes become hard to manage.This may be a very good reason in itself not to set by ability.

What about languages, though? Comparing the success of setting with mixed ability grouping is really hard to do. If you compare the two approaches across different schools, then other factors come into play which make a comparison unreliable. The teachers are different. The school context is different. The methodology may be different and so on. If you do an experiment in your own school, changing from one system to another, you may get interesting results, but once again, it is really hard to control for variables such as change of teacher. Anecdotally, some teachers report their results have improved after moving to mixed groups, others the contrary.

In the absence of research about ability grouping in languages we are left with hunches and the evidence of experience. My own is that ability grouping in languages is probably desirable in most secondary schools, but that it needs some imagination in its implementation. As always, context is key and it may well be that setting does not suit the culture of a particular school. The beliefs of teachers may play a role too; it is better if staff believe in the system. If there is a strong culture of academic excellence and a degree of competition, then setting may be appropriate. If you set or do not set, you are bound to be compromising in some way. If you keep groups mixed you are probably hampering the progress of the most able and not fine tuning your lesson plans enough to the ability of your classes. If you set you may lower the motivation of the less able. Other compromises include the fact that the school curriculum arrangements may impose types of setting a department do not agree with - you just have to go with the system.

Here are some ways you might implement ability grouping to make it work most effectively:

  • You do not need to simply have groups in a simple A, B, C, D hierarchy.
  • You can have just one top, accelerated group. This may avoid sink set mentality creeping in with the other groups.
  • You can have parallel bottom groups to avoid the sink set mentality.
  • You can look at the precise range of attainment in a year group and adjust the pattern of groups from year to year - perhaps there is a persistent small tail of low achievers who need particular attention.
  • You can assign certain teachers to certain groups to make best use of their skills; you can make sure your lower groups get the teachers perceived to be the best.
  • When arranging lower sets you can split up more difficult students.
  • You can make sure there is easy movement between sets; students are often very motivated by the idea of moving up a set. Some also request a move down.
  • You can pack the top sets with more students and make lower sets as small as possible.
  • You can go out of your way to have high aspirations for lower sets and compromise on standards as little as possible. You have to dispel the feeling among students that they are second class citizens.
  • You can make sure that lesson plans and schemes of work are finely tuned to each group.
John Hattie, in his widely read book Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement, states:
  • “… that instructional materials and the nature of instruction must be adapted to these specific groups”
  • “Simply placing students in small or homogeneous groups is not enough”
  • “For grouping to be maximally effective materials and teaching must be varied and made appropriately challenging to accommodate the needs of students at their differing levels of ability”
Some readers may object in principle to any form of grouping by ability because they believe this is a question of equal opportunities or high aspirations for all. In France, for example, I understand that grouping by ability is almost unheard of. They may also argue that setting, banding and streaming are another means of selection and reinforce academic and social differences between students. In answer to these views I would argue that the opportunities of all may be best served, in some contexts, by arranging classes so that lessons can be pitched at the best level to ensure the best progress.

I wonder if the issue of setting is like a number of others in teaching (e.g. homework and textbooks). If it is done well it works, if it is done badly it doesn't.

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