Setting by ability: Time to start asking questions?

Written by: Adam Riches | Published:
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Is the ability part of ability setting really the issue? Adam Riches considers just what the research says about the pros and cons of setting by ability, and the implications for how we organise teaching in our schools

In the UK, setting children based on their prior attainment has become common practice (Ireson & Hallam, 2001; Kutnick et al, 2005; Dunne et al, 2007; Francis et al, 2016) and it is assumed by many that this is the most effective way to organise classes.

Typically, in schools that use ability setting structures, students are put into teaching groups based on their prior attainment, meaning that those who score higher on a test are placed above those who do not. This traditional way of organising students has been highlighted as both an academic and a social issue.

There is extensive debate about the impact on attainment of putting students in groups defined by ability, yet the widespread nature of the practice within schools has led many to presuppose that it is the most effective approach for attainment and progression.

Research on the topic of ability setting is notably conflicting although it does suggest that setting students by ability produces little – or in some cases zero – tangible impact on attainment or student outcomes (Higgins et al, 2015; Steenbergen‐Hu et al, 2016).

Furthermore, while some small gains are evidenced for those in the highest sets, those in the lower sets achieve significantly poorer outcomes (Boaler & Wiliam, 2001; Wiliam & Bartholomew, 2004).

Setting and the attainment gap

Although a number of studies point to the negative impact of setting on the lower ability students, often based around social access, the Department for Education (DfE, 2015) noted that approximately one‐third of schools report using or introducing setting as a specific strategy for closing the attainment gap for Pupil Premium students. This highlights the need for teachers and leaders to fully understand the impact of setting classes by ability, especially for those students who are most vulnerable in schools.

In many schools, students in lower groups are taught by more inexperienced teachers, are taught a different curriculum, and lack the same opportunities as those in the higher sets. Not only does this create negative reinforcement with regard to students’ mindsets, it also creates a culture of prejudice. It means that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are even further disadvantaged when placed in low attainment groups (Francis et al, 2016).

The Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit states that: “The evidence suggests that setting and streaming has a very small negative impact for low and mid-range attaining learners, and a very small positive impact for higher attaining pupils. There are exceptions to this pattern, with some research studies demonstrating benefits for all learners across the attainment range. Overall the effects are small, and it appears that setting or streaming is not an effective way to raise attainment for most pupils.”

The EEF attributes this to the impact of ability grouping on low-attaining students’ confidence and their belief in their ability to achieve more through greater effort, as well as the input that they are given (EEF, 2018).

Setting acts as a social divider

While attainment predicts set placement to a limited extent (Muijs & Dunne, 2010), one of the key issues is that social inequality in grouping allocation remains prevalent.

Studies show that students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are consistently shown to be in the lower groups than their more advantaged peers (Taylor & Sloan, 2016).

Indeed, there is plenty of evidence of the strong correlation between social background and setting (Jackson, 1968; Cassen & Kingdon 2007; Dunne et al, 2007; Kutnick, Blatchford, et al, 2005).

In addition, ethnicity and race also seem to show a negative correlation with regards to setting. Black students are more likely to be allocated to lower groups, while white students and those from some Asian backgrounds to higher groups (Moller & Stearns, 2012; Shaw et al, 2016).

Loss of opportunities

Although students in the lowest sets are more likely to question the validity and “fairness” of setting, they are unlikely to move up as the opportunities are in fact limited (see later).

As their education continues, the disparity between sets widens the attainment gap and creates further difficulties with regard to such opportunities (Slavin, 1990).

The feeling of ability setting “championing” success is something that is only mentioned by those in the highest sets. Archer et al (2018) highlight that ability grouping is incompatible with social justice approaches to education. It follows that those who have negative experiences of setting are rarely listened to and this is the issue regarding the lack of change around the practice.

Ability setting builds on the inequalities between dominant and subordinate social groups based on access to cultural, social and economic capital and in turn adds to the influence of those in possession of the most.

This pedagogic action as “symbolic violence” (Archer et al, 2018) is supported by research which found that middle class parents support and champion the continued “need” for ability grouping practices.

In these studies it was noted that parents held the opinion that those from lower sets are disruptive and would negatively affect the learning of their children who were in higher sets (Wells & Serna, 1996; Welner, 2006).

Moving between sets

Something that is evident from the research is that a lot of schools using ability setting use it rigidly. Research suggests that in English schools, students tend to stay in the same group, regardless of progress throughout their school lives (Dunne et al, 2011, 2007). Furthermore teachers tend to overestimate the amount of movement between groups (Hallam & Ireson, 2005).

As a by-product, this static nature of grouping implies a level of rigidity, giving the sense that it is unlikely that students will move up.
At the same time, setting by ability is not an exact science and, as such, students can be “misplaced”, meaning they are put in a set or group that is not necessarily aligned with their prior attainment or current ability (Tomlinson, 1987).

So the rigidity of setting further exacerbates inequality because students initially misallocated or those who make significant progress after the initial grouping cannot manoeuvre themselves into higher sets easily.

In addition, opportunity and unequal progression of students in different sets due to differential pace, input and curriculum content can further disadvantage those in lower sets (Boaler et al, 2000).

As a result, ability setting often involves the inequitable allocation of students to sets and lack of movement once initial allocations have been made. This rigidity combined with the differing progress made by students in higher and lower sets, further highlights the unfair nature of this approach (Gillborn & Youdell, 2000).

Students’ experiences and outcomes

Students assigned to higher groupings benefit most with regard to progress and their experiences. The personal and academic outcomes of those in the highest sets is shown to be more positive than those with middle and lower prior attainment (Ireson & Hallam, 2001).

Although it has been demonstrated that small achievement gains could be made by higher attaining students, the impact on students in lower set groups is negative (Wiliam & Bartholomew, 2004). And it is not just with regard to results, the experience of these students is also reported as more negative (Zevenbergen, 2005). Lower prior attainers often also report less positivity and show poor self-confidence as well as lower self-esteem.

Final words

So, as the research has shown, key problems include that setting is an issue not only of education but of social background or race and ethnicity. Certain groups are more likely to be found in lower sets.

The fact that we can identify which groups these are suggests the inequality that the system curates. Added to this, the difficulty students experience moving between sets, the loss of opportunities that being in lower sets entails, and the lack of access to the best teachers, means we must begin questioning this approach.

I have not even added to this list the marginal impact on outcomes that setting generates, but this is almost besides the point. We must focus on how such approaches continue to create hierarchy and inequality within society. The “ability” part of ability setting is only the tip of the iceberg – the divisive nature of setting runs much deeper than we may think.

  • Adam Riches is a senior leader for teaching and learning, a Specialist Leader in Education and author of Teach Smarter (Routledge, 2020). Follow him on Twitter @TeachMrRiches. Read his previous articles for SecEd at

Further information & selected research

  • Archer et al: The symbolic violence of setting: A Bourdieusian analysis of mixed methods data on secondary students’ views about setting, British Educational Research Journal (44,1), January 2018:
  • Boaler: When even the winners are losers: Evaluating the experiences of top set students, Journal of Curriculum Studies (29,2), 1997:
  • Boaler & Wiliam: Setting, streaming and mixed-ability teaching. In Becoming a Teacher, Dillon & Maguire (eds), Open University Press, 2001.
  • Boaler, Wiliam & Brown: Students’ experiences of ability grouping: Disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure, British Educational Research Journal (26), 2000:
  • DfE: National Curriculum Assessments at Key Stage 2 in England, 2015.
  • Dunne et al: Effective teaching and learning for pupils in low attaining groups, DFES, 2007:
  • Dunne et al: The teaching and learning of pupils in low-attainment sets, The Curriculum Journal (22,4), December 2011:
  • Gillborn & Youdell: Rationing Education: Policy, practice, reform and equity, Open University Press, 2000.
  • EEF: Setting or streaming, Teaching and Learning Toolkit, last updated November 2018:
  • Ireson & Hallam: Ability Grouping in Education, SAGE Publications, 2001.
  • Jackson: Life in Classrooms, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968.
  • Moller & Stearns: Tracking success: High school curricula and labor market outcomes by race and gender, Urban Education (47,6), 2012.
  • Muijs & Dunne: Setting by ability – or is it? A quantitative study of determinants of set placement in English secondary schools, Educational Research (52,4), 2010:
  • Shaw et al: Ethnicity, Gender and Social Mobility, Social Mobility Commission, December 2016:
  • Taylor & Sloan: Best practice in grouping students? Characteristics of students in English and mathematics ‘ability’ set groups in English secondary schools, University of Bristol, 2016:
  • Wiliam & Bartholomew: It’s not which school but which set you’re in that matters: The influence of ability grouping practices on student progress in mathematics, British Educational Research Journal (30,2), 2004:
  • Zevenbergen: The construction of a mathematical habitus: Implications of ability grouping in the middle years, Journal of Curriculum Studies (37,5), 2005.


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