Is grouping pupils by ability ‘iniquitous’?

Setting, Differentiation by Task or Mixed Ability?

There isn’t a ‘right answer’ to every question in teaching. Often there are simply decisions and those decisions have consequences, both positive and negative. This is especially true with the debate over differentiation, setting and mixed ability teaching.

Today I read this persuasive and angry piece by Mary Mered on the iniquities of ability grouping in primary schools. I fully sympathised with all her nuanced arguments. I have seen the way ability based table grouping can hold children back at primary level and I know there is research showing mixed ability teaching is (can be?) more successful. However, I think Mary is wrong to presume the problems with mixed ability teaching are particularly surmountable. It has its own distinct drawbacks, as any teacher allocated a massively mixed ability class knows full well. So while I fully sympathise with Mary’s concerns I think we need to openly acknowledge the weaknesses of EACH approach, weigh up the relative advantages and disadvantages given the children we need to teach and the type of subject matter. Then, having chosen the least of the possible evils in terms of the grouping rationale we plump for, we must then do our best to mitigate against the known weaknesses of that approach.

When deciding whether to set or go mixed ability I wish decision makers would stop following mindless blanket rules and instead take account of the following (rather obvious) considerations:

How wide is the ability range that will need to be catered for?

Mixed ability teaching means compromising. The explanation I would give in history if only A* students were present is necessarily different from what I actually say when I know B or C or even D ability students are also in the classroom. However, if your ‘mixed ability’ class does not have a big ability range, if the teacher can give whole class explanations and generally set the same tasks for all, then mixed ability teaching is probably the best bet. Children avoid being pigeon holed in terms of expectations – the big danger of setting – but can still be taught as a class.

Is the subject matter hierarchical?

In subjects such as maths and languages a very wide ability range can only be catered for by running what are in fact four or five mini classes each lesson because there is limited similarity between the subject matter different ability groups are handling. This significantly dilutes the ability of the teacher to provide strong explanations, respond to difficulties and assess learning. In humanities it is possible to teach a wider ability range as explanations can more easily be given to the whole class.

Is the workload feasible?

It is enormously hard work for the teacher who has to ‘differentiate each lesson three ways/four ways/for each individual…’ or whatever the latest unreasonable ‘best practice’ demands are on the conscientious or over-managed. There is also the danger that many tasks are differentiated because they have to be and thus not in ways that are going to ensure good progress. For example, Mary Mered wrote that her daughter on the low ability table was only required to cut and stick ready labelled parts of the human ear when high ability groups got to draw and label the ear themselves. Why on earth should the less able have less practice drawing and labelling? If they actually had poorer writing or presentation skills surely they need more practice? In fact there seems no reason why virtually all students couldn’t have done the same task in this case. Mandatory differentiation is daft as in many subjects it is difficult to devise a range of different tasks that exactly meet the needs of different groups and it is massively time consuming.

Is differentiation REALLY going to be better than setting?

Lessons where there is generally differentiation by task are worse than setting. You have all the drawbacks of setting – the fixed expectations and possible psychological hit but few of the advantages. The teacher of a set has a more manageable workload, can hone great explanations and spot and deal with misconceptions more easily. The teacher delivering differentiated lessons is less able to keep all groups on task and more assistants sometimes become necessary to provide extra support, which is expensive.

If setting is not practical but the ability range is wide can you avoid blanket rules about task differentiation?

Yes! Schools can avoid blanket rules and teachers must be allowed to be free to judge what differentiation is actually necessary, to avoid an outrageous workload and counterproductive or pointless extra task creation.


If you choose mixed ability grouping then at least be aware that your most able are likely to find the explanations easy, tasks unchallenging or resent spending their time over the years supporting the weakest (who may feel lost and lack support).

If you think differentiation is the only option then be aware that there will be significant work load implications and the teacher’s ability to explain ideas and monitor and supervise each group will be weakened. You also need to be aware of the problems pigeon holing and low expectations.

If you opt for setting be hyper vigilant about the problems with pigeon holing and low expectations.

In an ideal world (otherwise known as Finland) there would be an expectation that the weakest students could to some extent ‘catch up’ with a focus on providing genuinely effective remedial help to that end, so that mixed ability teaching was more practicable in the long term.

In the meantime I tend towards setting as the best option when faced with wide ability ranges. This is because it is possible with good management to overcome some of the problems created by low expectations. A school can create a culture in which they expect weaker students to be given help to genuinely catch up, rather than applying developmentalist assumptions that will stop children having the opportunities to make more rapid progress than their peers. By comparison, the problems with mixed ability teaching or differentiating by task are innate in the model and less surmountable.

To those that want to believe that you can have the best of all worlds – sorry. There really isn’t such a thing as magic. There are simply decisions, each with pros and cons. By demanding that teachers deliver a ‘best of all worlds’ product you are simply piling unreasonable expectations on teachers and making them secretly feel like failures.


10 thoughts on “Is grouping pupils by ability ‘iniquitous’?

  1. I believe in using additional teaching staff to stream in English/maths with extra teachers supporting smaller groups of the children who are less advanced. The goal of this streaming is for children to “graduate” out of the small groups and back to the larger group. In addition, in particularly in primary schools additional teaching time, small group, withdrawal, should be used in the areas of English and maths to ensure that the children with the greatest need are as able as possible to function at the whole class level.

  2. Thanks for writing this, and you voice my own concerns far more eloquently than I would!
    I teach a large class with enormous variation in ability. So much so, that I sometimes say that I might as well teach the whole school. I have found that whole class teaching, with a bit of pre-teaching for those who have knowledge gaps, works well. I have also found that it is better to assume that all can actually do the task, and then to step in when it seems they cannot access.

    This strategy has helped many whom I felt were erroneously tagged ‘low’ simply because they happened to be sat on the ‘low’ table with other children with autism, dyslexia and severe physical/mental disabilities . Previously, the whole table was being given differentiated work as is seen to be required by Ofsted as a matter of course. I have found it too time consuming to make my own differentiated worksheets for all six levels in my class, and I also find it virtually impossible to teach 6 groups in each lesson because they class is so large and needs a strong overall leader in terms of behaviour management. Additionally, I rather resent the assumption that a huge group of children in each class will automatically be expecting you to cut and stick for them, draw for them, and provide worksheets so that they don’t have to do as much writing.

    1. Thanks for the very interesting comment. If I had not had my own children in primary school I think I would presume ability based tables were better than mixed ability. However the table based differentiation seems frequently so harmful and limiting, as you describe. I do think primaries should set for at least maths if they can – for teacher sanity. I think the reason setting/differentiation is often so limiting is because of the underlying developmentalist philosophy. That is the real problem.

  3. Very interesting once again. This exact discussion comes up each year in our Science faculty. In fact only last week at lunch colleagues from English were picking my brain on the matter; thankfully I now can send them a link to this post! In the spirit of Coolidge “I not only use the brains I have, I use all the brains I can borrow” so thank you for sharing.

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