Thursday, 4 September 2014

The old mixed ability/setting debate

The old debate about mixed ability v. setting has been given another airing, with Nicky Morgan denying rumours that the government planned make setting effectively compulsory by ensuring that a school could not be granted an 'outstanding' rating unless it set students by ability. Michael Wilshaw has long been in favour of setting, apparently, and David Cameron is a strong advocate. Interestingly, the plan to make setting compulsory has reportedly been axed not because it is bonkers, but because "it would run counter to the longstanding Conservative commitment to enshrine the independence of academies from policies set by the education department."

All of which suggests that the case for preferring setting to mixed ability teaching has already been made, and it is simply a question of how far the government should or shouldn't go in enforcing its policies on academies. So, given the need for evidence-based policy-making, where is the data that supports this case?

Ah, well. That's the problem, and the point of this post. You would think, wouldn't you, that a government that seems so clear on the correct answer to the setting/mixed ability debate would have some pretty good evidence to support its decision. Well, if they have then it certainly isn't accessible from the DfE website. As I have mentioned in a previous post the DfE website seems to have been stripped of anything much to do with education at all. A search for "mixed ability" or for "setting" reveals nothing at all germane to this issue and there are no links whatever to any other source of evidence or research.

So what about Ofsted? Well, hurrah, there is a research paper there (just one). It is entitled The most able students and has a foreword by Michael Wilshaw himself. It is this paper that is most often cited by those making the case for setting as against mixed ability teaching, but there are actually a number of problems with that. First, the tone is polemical from the start, which is not what one would expect from an objective, academic analysis. The first sentence is "Too many of our most able children and young people are underperforming in our non-selective state secondary schools."

Secondly, there is actually very little in the report that is relevant in any way to the setting/mixed ability debate. In the page and a quarter that contains the twelve key findings only one sentence has any relevance to that question: "School leaders did not evaluate how well mixed-ability group teaching was challenging the most able students." This is not in itself a key finding, but part of the unpacking of the sixth key finding, that "Many students become used to performing at a lower level than they are capable of."

Thirdly, the only evidence adduced for the above (part of a) key finding is lesson observations by Ofsted inspectors and no figures are given to support Mr Wilshaw's statement that "in too many lessons observed by inspectors , teaching is not supporting our highest-attaining students to do well. We know from our inspections that this is particularly the case in mixed ability groups." How many is too many? In my opinion one would be too many, but what does Mr Wilshaw mean? We have no way of knowing.

It is odd, to say the least, that no attainment or achievement evidence is presented to support or challenge the idea that setting is superior to mixed ability in this regard. Ofsted and the DfE have all this data of course. It would have been be easy enough to examine rates of achievement and attainment in subjects and in schools where students are set by ability and compare them with schools and subjects where they are taught in mixed ability groups. So why not make such data readily available? Why not refer to it in Ofsted's 'research'?

Perhaps the explanation is that this data did not make the case that Messrs. Wilshaw and Cameron wanted it to make. It is frustratingly hard these days to get hold of any national achievement data, but the only relevant piece of research I could find on the DfE website is this. It is dated July 2009, but it's the best I could find. It shows that rates of progression for Maths (in which almost all schools set by ability) are actually slightly poorer than those in English (where a larger proportion of schools teach in mixed ability groupings). The most definitive analysis to date that I am aware of is still Ability Grouping in Education from 2001. Its conclusion, broadly, was that neither setting nor mixed ability teaching made any significant difference to academic outcomes for children. Hardly a ringing endorsement for setting by ability.

I suppose I should pin my colours to the mast: as an English teacher and a head teacher I was always more persuaded by the case for mixed ability, not least because it forces teachers to engage with the range of abilities and weaknesses that exists in any group of students, whether set by ability or not. However had anyone presented clear evidence to me that setting by ability raised achievement then I would have been quite prepared to consider changing my position.

Only no one ever did. And no one, it seems, has presented such evidence to Messrs Cameron and Wilshaw either.

Evidence-based policy-making? Yeah, right.


  1. There are real challenges in definitional terms which are hinted at toward the end: for a start, thepolicy debate often confuses 'streaming', 'setting' and 'banding', and then uses simple binaries - 'mixed ability' versus 'setting'. Its all much more complex than that with differences - whether 'mixed ability' is genuinely 'all' or not, and, of course, schools differ sharply in the attainment make up of their intake. And, as I never, ever tire of saying, in practice all groups are mixed ability - even a 'top set' has a mix of levels of attainment. Not for the first time, its all about the teaching: the effect sizes which result from setting or banding are small.

  2. Absolutely. There are fertile grounds for debate here, but my point is that neither Ofsted nor the DfE seem inclined to enter into them. Instead Wilshaw, Gove, Cameron et al seem quite happy with stating a position independent of any evidence or analysis at all.