Why I Am Against Mixed Ability: Part 1

November 27, 2015

Last weekend, I spoke at the Debating Education event, at Michaela School, opposing mixed ability teaching. Hopefully the video of the event will appear in the next week or so. The following is a rough summary of what I said (i.e. it’s me going back over my notes and reconstructing my argument but nothing like my exact words). Obviously, it is in no way intended as a research article on mixed ability teaching or a summary of the evidence, just an explanation of my views.


I’ve hated mixed ability teaching since I was 12. As a year 7 student I had the misfortune to be in a mixed ability French class where many of my peers had learnt some French at their primary school. I hadn’t. Worse, these were the days of the “immersion” method of language teaching where the teacher would speak French at us in the hope we pick it up. I couldn’t understand a word of it, while others could. The presence of more able students didn’t allow me to catch up, it just meant that for a year I got further and further behind. The following year we were allowed to do another language; I did Latin, and was amazed to learn it wasn’t that I was terrible at languages, it was simply that I was in a mixed ability French class where I couldn’t learn. I always think of this when people tell me that mixed ability classes are good for the self-esteem of the least able. That nightmare did nothing for my confidence with French, and I gave up the subject at the first opportunity.

As a teacher, I’ve experienced mixed ability classes a number of times, even as a maths teacher. Often, some newly promoted manager declares “we should try something different with year 7” before introducing an experiment with mixed ability, problem-solving, group work in maths. An experiment which is invariably abandoned at the end of the year due to low academic progress. I’ve also had the experience of being told to teach foundation and higher maths simultaneously to a mixed ability year 10 class, and been handed two different curriculums and two different schemes of work, to be taught at the same time to the same class. I’ve also seen what happens when schools keep kids in mixed ability form groups for much of KS3 and they become so used to being together that any teacher is seen as an invader on their territory, and their disruptive behaviour is honed to perfection in the many hours they have together.

Now, of course, these anecdotes of bad mixed ability teaching, could be balanced by examples of bad setting. But I would argue that we tend to find that stories about the failure of ability grouping are actually about failures to ability group enough. I am not going to defend all practices that might be classed as ability grouping, so I will be very careful to make it clear what I am arguing for. I am using “ability” in the usual way, of referring to what somebody can currently do. I am not using it to describe innate ability. I am not claiming it to be fixed and defending setting which does not allow movement. I am only arguing against teaching an unnecessarily wide range of ability. I am not interested in situations where the range of ability is already narrowed, say in a grammar school, or on a university course, or for that matter in a country where the weakest students are held back a year. I am arguing for a narrow range of ability in classes in English secondary schools. Now when you hear complaints about students losing out due to setting, it is, more often than not, about sets where the range wasn’t narrow; where students didn’t get to move, or where some classes were neglected. Where ability grouping fails it is because there was too little, not too much, ability grouping, and this is in contrast to where mixed ability fails, which is usually because of, rather than in spite of, the wider range of ability, and is very often blamed on the teacher.

I prefer a narrow range of ability because it makes the two most important parts of teaching easier and more effective. Firstly, it makes it easier to teach students the knowledge they don’t have, if they start from roughly the same level of prior knowledge. Secondly, it makes it easier to practise knowledge and skills to achieve greater fluency if the levels of fluency the students already have are about the same. Because these two vital parts of teaching are limited by mixed ability, support for mixed ability is usually combined with advocating some pretty ineffective or impractical teaching methods. For instance, using massive amounts of different, personalised worksheets, asking students to learn from each other (rather than the expert in the room) or focussing on skills instead of knowledge.

Continued in Part 2


  1. […] Why I am against mixed ability:Part 1 by Andrew Old […]

  2. Michaela videos? That’s good news.
    I’m glad you mentioned the class dynamics of teaching a group who spend too long together (e.g. tutor groups used for teaching). The same thing can happen with streaming; I remember a group who I taught on a PGCE placement who had had 3 years to practice their routines. In an ideal world, that wouldn’t matter, but in reality, some variability in teaching groups helps a lot.

  3. Makes a sensible case, thanks. I’m absolutely not an authority on this question, but a thought occurred to me when reading this.
    Are some of the issues or criticisms of setting linked to how teachers are deployed to each set? In any department, however good, there’s likely a range of teacher quality, based on relative subject knowledge, pedagogical skill, experience, confidence. This might be particularly the case in science where it’s likely that some teachers may lack a specialist background in the subject they are teaching.
    How often are teachers at the lower end of this range directed to teach lower ability sets, with the consequent impact on those pupils’ attainment and progress?
    Are the better teachers assigned to top (or other critical, e.g. C/D borderline) sets?
    Should pupil ability level and teacher quality be directly inverted? Or sets rotated through different teachers? What do Heads of Maths/Science commonly do? What would you do?

    • When I taught basic literacy skills to KS3 SEN pupils, I decided on a spelling-based approach because this was the only effective way to teach them in groups; only one pupil can read at a time, but any number can write. One of the basic principles of instruction I learned in the Army was to keep everyone busy all the time; it’s remarkable how quickly students go off message otherwise. Which is one of the main reasons that direct instruction came out near the top of the Hattie & Yates’ list. This is especially true with low ability pupils.

      Needless to say, advocates of mixed-ability teaching are seldom, if ever, advocates of direct instruction. And for it to be effective, pupils do have to be closely matched in terms of their progress in a given subject, which is why setting should be preferred to streaming whenever possible. I went so far as to mix my classes by age in order to ensure the closest possible match in terms of phonological skills–in some groups I had year 7s mixed with year 8s and 9s. One doctrinaire teacher was aghast–“You can’t do this!”–, but the kids didn’t mind in the least. They were rapidly learning skills which had eluded them all through primary school, and considerations of their age-defined peer group mattered not a jot.

      Indeed, the last is one of the most destructive notions ever dreamed up by educators and sociologists. There was a time when you had to reach a certain standard before being promoted to the next form, but of course this creates administrative problems as well as violating the egalitarian sensibilities. If you think about it, grouping pupils by attainment rather than age has the advantage of mixing pupils according to ability and parents SES, but alas I think we can take it as read that this is far too radical for modern educators.

      Lastly–with mixed-ability classes, textbooks are off the menu, and teachers have to spend ages photocopying differentiated worksheets. I once attended a training course where we were told that pupils should never be given worksheets because kids got the message right away–“You’re a dummy and I can’t be bothered to teach you”.

  4. What if mixed ability were the norm through primary and secondary. Might the range then be narrow enough to make it viable for you?

    • That’s what they do in Finland. However, in order to make it work, something like 6% of children are in special schools. In addition, each school has a special education classroom, and in practice some students spend all or most of their time there. This is supplemented by classroom teachers doing catch-up tuition individually or in small groups after school.

      It also seems likely to me that the traditional style of most Finnish teaching has a role to play in making this possible, given the evidence that lower ability children are the ones who suffer most when instruction is not sufficiently explicit and when they don’t have enough practice. “Group work” is apparently rare in Finnish schools. However, there is still quite a lot of concern among Finnish teachers about more able students being bored and insufficiently challenged, with a possible detrimental effect on their work ethic.

  5. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  6. I think your post makes two erroneous assumptions. Firstly that if you have set by ability then you have a homogenous group of pupils and therefore you can teach the same thing in the same way to them. This is clearly not going to be the case because even within this class there will be big differences in how a child learns, what they have already mastered, and what special needs they may have. Also some of the pupils may have better acquisition of certain concepts than others within the same subject – so you are still going to have to differentiate.

    And secondly, that the choice is either mixed ability or ability setting. There is a middle ground and this is backed up by 30 years of educational research.

    Before discussing best practice, I think it is helpful to clarify what is meant by ability.

    You state that ability as what a pupil can currently do. However, this definition doesn’t really explain why children are at different points in the learning when they have all experienced the same input. It is more helpful to think of ability as the rate at which a child learns information and retains this new information. Those children we label as high ability are likely to be learners who learn new things faster and need less practice to master the new skill. They are also likely to have a good memory and good vocabulary as well as curiosity (ask questions) and have high task commitment (i.e. need little external task motivation). These children are more likely to have come from families where the parents had positive experiences themselves in school. Therefore high ability children are much more likely to overrepresented in higher socio-economic groups. Those children labelled as low ability, on the other hand, learn things more slowly and need more to practice before mastering a new skill. They may not have such a good memory or have such a wide vocabulary, they are less likely to show curiosity and need more external motivation to achieve their goals. They are also more likely have come from families where the parents did not have good experience of school.

    Thinking of ability in this way you can see why ability setting may not be the best way to improve the attainment of ‘low’ ability students. By placing them all in the same class they are not exposed to curious and motivated learners and therefore are unlikely to develop the skills and habits of those learners. This perpetuates the cycle, where children in lower socio-economic groups do worse on average than those from higher socio-economic groups. Although this finding does not apply to children from immigrant families, who despite having to also learn English often out-perform native speakers at GCSE in the same socio-economic group. A number of reasons have been given for this finding, one is that bi-lingual learners are better at switching attention and are less affected by extraneous ‘noise’. Also socio-economic status is a blunt measure and the parents of these children may well have high level of education (but due to poor English skills may work in low paid positions). These parents may also value education as well providing opportunities for learning at home.

    One of the reasons why being placed in low sets is detrimental to progress is because it undermines learners confidence and can foster a fixed mindset: “I will never be able to do well at maths that is why I am in set 5”. Also, teachers and parents expectations of learners in the lower sets may not be sufficiently challenging enough and could also reinforce the idea that the child is just not good at this subject.

    This effect is particularly apparent in maths and is likely to be because, certainly in the UK, we hold different beliefs about maths than we do about literacy, i.e. we expect all children will learn to read and write, but we assume some children just won’t be able to do maths. We also tend to reinforce this belief to our children based on our own experiences: “I was never any good at numbers.”

    The evidence of the negative impact of low ability learners in sets is robust and has been collected over 30 years of educational research. Ability setting for the non-gifted and talented student leads to them falling behind by one or two months when compared to similar learners in mixed ability classes. That does not mean that there is never a need to teach these learners differently or separately, but if this is to happen then it needs to be in a small group with a high performing teacher who has a clear aim and outcomes. Unfortunately, in many schools, this small group work is conducted by a learning support assistant, and although there are some amazing LSA’s out there – they do not have formal teacher training. It is rather silly that our weakest learners are taught by the least qualified staff.

    There is some evidence that for high ability or gifted and talented learners they will not make as much progress in a mixed ability class than if they were in a set. However, these students also benefit from being taught as a group away from other students on occasions – this could be in pull out classes, or stretch and challenge activities and this will mitigate any negative effects (which are very small in comparison to the negative effects of setting on all other learners).
    The evidence is quite clear on this. Setting only benefits gifted and talented students and is detrimental to low ability learners, widening the gap between them. High ability learners will do well in a mixed ability class as long as they are exposed to enrichment and stretch activities which can either be additional to the lesson or on occasions instead the usual lesson. Low ability learners will do much worse in sets than mixed ability classes, but they too will benefit from the occasional small group approach with a high performing teacher.

    Therefore the only sensible way forward is to be flexible. And the only way to flexible to have mixed ability as the starting point or default position.

    Recipe for success for ALL students

    Take one mixed ability maths class.

    Add some within grouping designs that sometimes have high ability learners working with low ability and sometimes working with others at a similar level to them.

    Change these groupings regularly taking into account pupils strengths and weaknesses and the nature of the task.

    Ensure both low and high ability pupils get quality time with a high performing teacher and that any small group work has clear aims and outcomes.

    Ensure all the adults that work with these children understand what is meant by ability and that intelligence is not fixed but has the potential for growth.

    Ensure all the children are made to feel as if they can achieve through effort and practice.

    For me this is a bit of a non-debate. Neither approach works in isolation the key is to combine the two.

    A bit about me. I worked as a secondary school teacher for 15 years. I am currently in my second year of a child and educational psychology doctorate. My thesis is about using behaviour specific praise to develop growth mindsets in maths for children in upper primary school to improve effort in class and at home, which research suggests will improve motivation and attainment. The results will be published in the summer of 2017.

    For research on this post, a good place to start is the Education Endowment Fund (Setting and Streaming tab in the Toolkit). Further research papers can be found on the reference page.

    • Research conducted on mixed-ability teaching is generally conducted by researchers who are far from disinterested. As one wag commented about research in all social sciences, “Tell me the conclusions you want, and I’ll find you the research”.

      As David Cameron points out, the worst teachers are generally assigned to the lowest sets. Fortunately, there isn’t much that can be done to force schools to assign the best teachers to the lowest sets. This would be perverse, and it wouldn’t really answer the problem, and we would simply demoralise the most able pupils and waste their potential. The future of Britain rests in their hands.

      For a more useful perspective, ‘Real Education’ by Charles Murray argues that lower-ability pupils can successfully engage a curriculum oriented to knowledge and understanding, but are doomed to failure when they are expected to perform tasks requiring higher-order skills. This, he argues, is largely due to limitations imposed by innate intelligence. The failure of America’s Head Start programme to make any lasting improvements in the cognitive abilities of the least able pupils is a damning indictment of those who argue that social deprivation is the problem. Head Start has been absorbing huge amounts of money for over half a century, yet the best efforts of some of the most dedicated and determined educators has yet to bear even the most meagre fruit.

      Andrew makes the excellent point that when you lack the talent to master a given educational objective, exhortations to ‘aim high’ are hugely demoralising. It is well to remember that these exhortations are not entirely disinterested: post-16 education is a growing industry, and legal compulsion is widely evaded. Egalitarian idealism, however well-intentioned, has a lot to answer for.

    • “I think your post makes two erroneous assumptions. Firstly that if you have set by ability then you have a homogenous group of pupils…”

      I explicitly said that I wanted to narrow the ability range. I never claimed to be able to eliminate it. It is not that ability grouping will end the need to cater to different abilities, just minimise it.

      “And secondly, that the choice is either mixed ability or ability setting.”

      Again, I never claimed this. I argued for narrowing the ability range.

      “Before discussing best practice, I think it is helpful to clarify what is meant by ability. You state that ability as what a pupil can currently do. However, this definition doesn’t really explain why children are at different points in the learning when they have all experienced the same input.”

      Why would it?

      “It is more helpful to think of ability as the rate at which a child learns information and retains this new information.”

      Helpful to whom? It strikes me as something both difficult to measure and beside the point. I was pretty good at learning new information, I just didn’t learn it fast in a mixed ability French class.

      Anyway, I’m not going to go through the rest of your comments checking which paragraphs have redefined “ability” in this way. If you let me know which paragraphs address my actual argument, I’ll happily look at those ones.


  7. I think it depends on the subject. Maths, science, languages there may be others should never be taught via mixed ability in KS3. But drama, music or art can work well. I am told by music teachers that mixed ability in KS3 is by far the best option.

    But what of KS4 – it’s all very well for the core but invariably if your subject is an option subject, teachers will more than likely be teaching to mixed ability groups and there isn’t much anyone can do about it.

  8. […] Teaching in British schools « Why I Am Against Mixed Ability: Part 1 […]

  9. […] Teaching in British schools « Why I Am Against Mixed Ability: Part 1 […]

  10. […] posts I wrote about it can be found here and […]

  11. Hear, hear!

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