12/09/2014 15:03 BST | Updated 20/05/2015 10:12 BST

School Setting: Should Children Be Set Into Ability Groups?


I believe wholeheartedly in setting. I think that children should be taught with others of similar abilities, and am currently in the process of applying for selective secondary schools for my eldest son for this very reason.

So why have I just moved my youngest boys away from a school that sets children academically into one that doesn't?

The answer is simple. Setting is wonderful if your child is bright. It rewards them for their abilities and, as my eldest puts it, makes them into 'an elite'. This is all very gratifying if your children are clever. My two older sons are both in the top sets for everything, which is perhaps why I had never questioned setting by ability.

But my younger two sons are twins and, while one easily follows in his big brothers' footsteps, his twin is another story.

He is clever enough, but not so fast on the uptake and requires a lot of coaxing to show his intellect. Therefore he trails miserably behind his twin. He tells me all the time that he is not as clever as his brothers, that he can't do things and this in turn leads him not to want to try.

This is when they have only just started school, long before they are put into sets, which I am sure, would compound the problems for my boy. So while I still believe that bright children should be given more challenges, I begin to question whether setting them is the best way to do this when you consider the impact it has on those who are perhaps not as able.

This is why the Government's move to force schools to set children in order to be eligible for an Ofsted Outstanding rating is worrying.

I understand the appeal to parents such as myself who have intelligent children who they want to see excel.


"Having had a child in the top stream throughout her academic schooling, it would have been catastrophic to her achievement and potential to have her learning stifled by keeping her within mixed-streams."


"She has excelled from the extra tuition, competition and enriched nature of the program offered to her," explains Elise, a mum of three.

I don't disagree, but only if those who are in the lower sets are not made to feel as if they have been dumped on the scrapheap at primary school. Being taught with other children who struggled hit my son's confidence even in Reception.

Seeing his twin led off to the more able group and being left behind was a blow to his self esteem. When I observed him in class I could see he had given up, he would fiddle at the back with his friends. The teachers were too busy with disruptive children to try to coax out answers that I knew he knew.

"Bottom sets can end up being filled with kids who are there because they don't work and therefore don't achieve and as they are ultimately too bright for the class, boredom sets in and they end up being disruptive," explains IT teacher, Ellie, who teaches to both streamed and mixed ability classes.

It is also important to note that young children don't progress in a linear fashion. I know when I was a child it took me years to learn to read, but once I mastered the skill I overtook all my classmates within a term, so that has to be recognized by a flexible approach to setting by ability.

"I think setting is really hugely beneficial in a mixed ability school. But I have one or two caveats and that is that it absolutely must take into account that children – especially at primary school – can develop in leaps and bursts and so movement is needed quite frequently", explains Liat Hughes Joshi, author of Raising Children, a guide to parenting primary school age children.

Setting makes a lot of sense on paper – teaching children of similar abilities together is a simple concept, but when put into practice it is much more complex.


"My daughter was kept in a lower set because the school didn't have space in the set she was really meant to be in. Her teachers actually told me this."


"Now she is starting secondary school and as a consequence will be placed in a lower setting again. So I don't think setting works if it's not done properly", explains a mother who feels her child was let down by poor management of setting at school.

So the core message to the Government should it choose to force schools to set by ability is that there needs to be careful management of the system.

For my own children I think that setting has its pros and cons. My clever sons have definitely benefitted from being taught with equally bright children, but my son who is less academically able at a young age has really suffered from being placed in a lower ability group.

Like so many things with children and education the answers just aren't as clear-cut as we might wish.

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