The Joy of Sets

May 20, 2007

I argued earlier that it wasn’t actually possible to teach in mixed ability classes. In all the discussions that followed, nobody actually managed to explain how it would be possible. But this does leave the question of why any school, even one run by rampant ideologues, still teaches mixed ability when it clearly doesn’t work. Of course, part of the explanation is simply that mixed ability can be used to spread out the worst behaved students so as to hide the problem in a way that might not be possible if too many of them were in the same class.

However the main explanation is, as ever in secondary schools, the sheer lack of people in positions of responsibility in schools who are capable of managing even simple logistical tasks. Where setting occurs it is haphazard, arbitrary and incompetent. It should be based on the objective use of assessment data. In practice setting invariably involves the following phenomena:

The Parental Request. It would be complete madness to set up systems of testing and setting and then move students at the whim of parents who call in. However, this is exactly what’s happened at some of the schools I’ve worked in. Common parental complaints are that their child isn’t being stretched enough and needs harder work (particularly when different classes are being entered for different exams), or that they haven’t had enough chance to prove their abilities, or that they are unhappy with the class they are in. The most odious complaint of all is the “Personality Clash”. This is where a badly behaved student finds they keep getting punished for their disruptive behaviour (because the teacher is good at managing their classroom, or because others in the class are well behaved and won’t join in with the disruption). The parent intervenes to declare that if their child is getting into trouble then it must be because they don’t get on with the teacher. They demand that their child be moved to a class where they are more likely to get away with poor behaviour. Incredibly they frequently get away with this, often complaining to members of senior management if heads of department are uncooperative.

The Excuses. Department managers are often reluctant to reset students. Usually this is sheer laziness, although sometimes it’s down to a desire to avoid having to teach students who are used to a less experienced teacher. As a result they develop a range of excuses for not resetting students such as:

  • It’s too early in the year to reset.
  • It’s too late in the year to reset.
  • It’s not long since the last time we reset.
  • They’ve got a test coming up soon.
  • It’s now so long since their last test it’s not worth using it to set.
  • The person in charge of setting is ill/pregnant/dead.
  • There’s no point changing sets now it’s near their end of year exams or SATS.
  • There’s no point changing sets now they’ve done their end of year exams or SATS.
  • If we’ve gone this long without resetting then we might as well continue without resetting.

At Woodrow Wilson School, legend had it that there was one particular cohort who were set for maths at the start of year 7 and remained in the same classes until the end of year 11. While I was at the school I found myself doing informal swaps with other teachers. This was more likely to get students into an appropriate class than going through the official channels, even in those extreme cases where children had been put in a particular class due to blatant errors. Another approach I’ve seen teachers use to get classes reset is to cry until the Head of Department gives in.

The Cheats. In schools where teachers are judged heavily by their classes’ results they become keen to keep hold of the most able students in their classes and become equally keen to lose the least able. Dishonesty becomes the best policy. Teachers fake test results, invent reasons why certain students shouldn’t be moved, or if they are in charge of setting, move students with no reason or explanation and hope nobody notices (a particularly popular option if the class below is taken by a supply teacher). At Stafford Grove School it took me a term and a half to move a boy who was at least two sets too high, because the set below was taken by Mertha, the struggling head of department who was fighting to avoid losing any of her more able students. At Woodrow Wilson School one member of staff with responsibility for setting managed to arrange to have no badly behaved students in her set at all while filling up parallel sets with the lunatic element.

The Cock-Up. Even where there is no dishonesty or laziness to wreck the setting there are always stupid mistakes. The most common are:

  • Children who have left the school remain on the set lists.
  • Students who have missed a test are counted as scoring 0 and are moved down.
  • Scores are muddled up due to misuse of sorting on Excel.
  • New students never appear on the class lists.
  • School registers for the sets never match the class lists the department has worked out.

The Time-Tabling Disaster. School time-tables are incredibly complex involving thousands of students, hundreds of rooms and staff and literally millions of possible permutations and combinations. Consequently they are usually put together by people with at most basic secretarial skills and a Grade C GCSE in maths. As a result setting can’t take place across whole year groups but instead is restricted to different bands and streams of the year group. Often these streams are so small that sets still contain a wide range of ability. Sometimes, particularly for year 7, it becomes impossible to set at all. Efforts to set across the entire year by streaming across two subjects (like Maths and English) are often doomed by interference from other departments (particularly SEN) and new students to the school being placed in the wrong streams.

I wish this list was just a few isolated examples of incompetence. However this level of ineptitude has been pretty much standard in every school I have ever taught in. The terrifying part is that it is used as an excuse not to set classes at all, in effect saying “there’s no point trying to do things well, we’re too stupid to get it right”. Perhaps should be adopted by Senior Management Teams as a motto.


  1. You have missed another reason: the cold hard fact of having to label a child thick. If children are set by ability, it stands to reason that there is going to be a bottom set. No-one wants their child to be in it, no-one wants to teach it.

    I have seen two schools use this way around it: children fail at school either because they lack ability or because they lack will. Sometimes the two go together, often one predisposes to the other; but it doesn’t take a very experienced teacher to see that in every bottom set, there are those willing to learn but who are prevented from doing so by those willing to do nothing but disrupt. In a top-achieving state school I taught at, these were observed in Y7 and split in Y8 into two sets: those who would learn with appropriate support and those who were shat on from a great height and MADE to work by the school ‘ard men (women in fact). There were two qualified teachers plus BSW and TA in every lesson. The school reckoned it was money well spent because it stopped them contaminating the rest of the school, which was mixed ability within upper and lower bands.

    Is now a good time to out myself as A Cheat who did indeed once falsify test scores to rid myself of a troublesome brat who spoiled an otherwise lovely class? It’s OK though because he and I had A Personality Clash so it was best he was moved :)

  2. Lost a paragraph there.
    It worked because the bottom baddie set was genuinely mixed ability as far as innate ability went. The thing that united them was their bad attitude. And therefore the other set wasn’t the bottom set.

  3. Suddenly your dislike of students makes sense, oldandrew:

    315 | Posted by: oldandrew at 25 May 2007 10:02

    But you are a sinner. I’m not judging you, I don’t even know you. But you are a sinner. Everybody is.


  4. You know for a philosopher, Newisgood, you seem to have a lot of problems with understanding the philosophy of others. I don’t dislike students and I don’t dislike anyone for “being a sinner”, that’s just the human condition.

    That said having a traditional view of human nature does influence my educational philosophy, in as much as I do not believe these infantile fantasies that all students are naturally saints and intellectuals who only misbehave or show ignorance because they are oppressed by the system.

  5. I have only recently come across this blog and as you mentioned the claimed timetabling difficulties of what in the UK is called setting, I thought I’d dispute that as a former timetabler in three different schools in Australia, the last two of which had extensive what we call blocking, which makes setting easy. Timetabling is complex, but is often made more so by ad hoc curriculum decisions which work against each other in terms of practicalities. The computer program I used, First Class, was an excellent program and would perform tens of millions of calculations in doing a timetable and would always leave a couple of dozen periods – out of c 3,000 – for me to fill myself, which can always bee done by over-riding the parameters set for the computer. However, if the structure being timetabled makes sense, the results will be better.

    I see that this blog is mostly about student behaviour. I believe that the smaller classes and lower teaching loads in Victoria contribute to the better behaviour and better results of students in our school when compared with schools in the UK, where class sizes and teaching loads seem to be absurd.

    Australia consistently performs in the top ten countries in the world in reading, mathematics and science. The most recent OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA2006_PISAinbrief.pdf) put only five countries statistically significantly ahead of us in reading, only eight countries in mathematics and only three countries in science.

    Victorian Class Sizes and PTRs
    The primary school pupil-teacher ratio in Victoria was 15.9:1 in 2006, and the secondary PTR was 11.9:1. The overall Australian figures were 15.8:1 and 12.4:1.

    Victorian schools are funded to cap prep to year 2 classes at 21 pupils each, while the overall maximum average for classes is in a primary school is set at 26 pupils. The average prep class in the state has 19.4 pupils. The average prep to year 2 class has 20.7 pupils. The average primary school class has 23.4 pupils.

    Secondary school classes are generally capped at 25 students. The average secondary English class has 21.6 students, while the average year 12 class has 19.7 students.

    I taught in Victoria from 1974 to 2007, and I never had a class with more than 29 students in it, not for even one day. In 1975, I had one class of more than 25 students, and in 1981, I had two classes of more than 25 students. Apart from those three classes, every class I ever had for a full year was limited to 25 students. There were a few classes in all those years which had more than 25 students for short periods while things were sorted out. In 2005, my year 7 English classes were 14 and 16 students each.

    HPSC Conditions
    As the Hampton Park Secondary College timetabler until the end of 2004, I organised that school with a maximum teaching load of just under 18 hours a week, and average regular class load of 15 hours 45 minutes and the capacity for decent time allowances (deductions from teaching loads for leadership responsibilities). The maximum timetabled teaching load in that school when I was the timetabler was 21 48-minute periods a week (16 hours and 48 Minutes) plus a home group (nine minutes a day) plus an extra once a fortnight. These were the best conditions in the state.

    To put it another way, a teacher at that school would have got 42.9 per cent of his or her timetabled class load for preparation and correction, with the proviso that one of the 18 periods thus made available in a fortnight could be taken as an extra to cover the class of an absent colleague, which still would have left 40.5 per cent – and that teacher wouldn’t have been doing preparation and correction for classes of 30-plus students, but classes of 25 students at the maximum and 21.3 students on average.

    The curriculum structure at Hampton Park meant that no teacher could have more than seven classes, while no teacher could have more than four classes of maths or English. It would not have been mathematically possible for any maths or English teacher to have more than four groups because all maths and English classes were 4.5 periods a week, and no one could teach more than 21 periods. A maths or English teacher would have had another subject, such as science or history, for 3 periods to make up the load.

    The school had 92.3 teachers for 1187 students in 2004.

    Curriculum structure details are at:
    and timetabling policies are at:
    while accounts of some of the realities of the school are at: http://pub39.bravenet.com/forum/3280197123/show/618849
    and at:

    I hope this is of interest to teachers in the UK.

  6. Chris Curtis’ makes sense though it is very confusing. When I was doing sociology of education I distinctly remember learning that 25 was the maximum size a class could before it become extremely difficult to manage. The big question is why is this being routinely ignored in UK secondary schools. Even with top set groups it is dificult due to the sheer amount of work/marking etc. I have never had a class smaller than 26 (although sometimes a lot didn’t turn up so in a way it was about 22-23) How am average calss size was aroung 31 and I even had a class of 36. To make matters worse the 36 class was not a top set but made up of middle and bottom sets – the consequence of this it that no-one in the school could control them. The fact the it was impossible to even see the whole class because of the room gave plenty of opportunities for disruption.

    At the same school (in the North East of England) the art department had the best results in the country. Interesting how anyone not expected to get an ‘A’ at GCSE was removed and sent to do history (consequently turning our results and classes in to a nightmare) but the SMT wanted to maintain the high standard of the Art department and regualry praised them for their excellent teaching and hardwork – its nice that there are so many ‘dedicated professionals’ out there!

  7. I’m currently in Year 11 and in/around top set for subjects that we’re set for (Math, Biology, Physics, Chem, English etc).

    In each of these classes, there are over 35 pupils. In my science classes, there are 47. As a student, I’m increasingly frustrated by our class sizes and the behaviour of many pupils that make it nearly impossible for the rest of us to learn.

    When we go into VI form, we’re being promised a max class size of 15. However, given this years VI form have a Chemistry class of 36, I feel that that is unlikely to happen.

  8. I left school in 2004 and was in the top set out of 5 (set 2 for maths). If I had to have been taught in mixed ability classes I think I would have gone insane. The humanities were bad enough; having those trouble makers in English or Science lessons would have completely ruined my school experience. Mixed ability classes make no sense.

    Class size in my school was about 30.

  9. I’ve had primary classes, as a supply teacher, with 36 or 37 kids. The worst I had was reception (aged 4-5) with OVER FORTY in one class, one teacher & one TA.

  10. My son, now grown up, was put in a bottom English set for GCSE because of his SATS result in year 9 – he said to me that he had missed out the main question (much later). Due to family circumstances this did not emerge for 2 years as he resolutely said he was in set 2. It mucked up his English A level results down the line. What really got me cross was that his English teacher knew (and therefore taught differently ) that he and 2 other children in her set should have been in a top set and nothing was done about this. Son was in tops sets for everything else and was an avid reader.

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