On Ability Grouping and Gifted Education – Part 2

In Part 1, I sought to:

  • clear away the terminological difficulties that complicate international discussion of this complex and sensitive issue;
  • set ability grouping within the wider education policy-making context, specifically the relationship between excellence and equity and the choice between prescription and school autonomy; and
  • summarise the key points from an objective review of international research on the benefits of setting and tracking relative to mixed ability grouping.

In a nutshell, the research tells us that, while mixed ability settings tends to favour the lowest achievers and setting/tracking is typically better for the highest achievers, when we look at the impact on the attainment of all pupils there is little difference in overall outcomes, because the benefits and disbenefits broadly balance out.

But, compared with mixed ability scenarios, setting/tracking is more likely to increase attainment differences between low achievers and high achievers and, because disadvantaged learners are more prevalent in lower sets/tracks, setting/tracking is relatively more likely to increase the achievement gap between rich and poor.

I argued that, when we develop gifted education policy – and even when we advocate for gifted learners – it behoves us to understand and accept this reality, rather than taking a partial view that concentrates solely on the benefits for the group whose interests we exist to serve.

The fundamental point is this: it cannot be right to insist on improvements in G&T education which can only be achieved at the expense of other learners. Instead of a simplistic either/or debate, we need to look at more sophisticated hybrid solutions that retain the benefits of the two different models and mould them into a better ‘third way’.

The more promising elements of such a ‘third way’ will begin to emerge from deeper reflection on the research findings.

Setting versus tracking/streaming

If we look at the issue from a UK perspective, there is seemingly broad professional consensus that streaming is less effective than setting. Streaming typically depends on crude distinctions that fail to recognise the full profile of a learner’s strengths and weaknesses. So it is quite likely that learners – even many gifted learners – will find themselves relatively under-challenged in some subjects and relatively over-challenged in others.

Conversely, setting enables schools to tailor their initial selection criteria and pedagogical approach to the subject in question. It is quite conceivable that some subjects will use sets while others remain mixed ability – that is standard practice in many English schools. It may also be possible to run sets and mixed ability groups in parallel in the same subject – eg a set for high achievers and/or a set for low achievers with other learners taught in mixed ability groups.

Setting also provides greater flexibility for schools to move pupils when necessary, in recognition that children develop at different rates in different subject areas, with lags and spurts at different times. By offering a more flexible, dynamic model, they are better able to respond quickly when a learner needs extra challenge or greater support in one particular part of the curriculum.

This is not to say that setting inevitably delivers these advantages – rather that effective setting practice does so. As with the identification of gifted learners, it can be all too easy for poorer schools to undertake setting as a once-and-for-all judgement rather than an arrangement kept under regular review and informed by careful analysis of individual pupils’ progress.

I am not sure to what extent setting (maybe we should call it ‘subject-specific tracking’) has been adopted in the US, though it clearly exists in some areas as an alternative to the cruder standard tracking approach. Setting does appear to offer more inherent advantages than the cruder alternative, but there is no reason in principle why elements of both could not be combined into a workable hybrid.

And we should not discard entirely the possibility of a workable model based exclusively on tracking. Advocates of both tracking and of setting are right to assert that, given the right kind of implementation, it ought to be possible to utilise either technique to raise standards for all learners while simultaneously narrowing achievement gaps. The big – and seemingly unanswered – question is how to realise that in practice.

How Big are the Attainment Differences Between High- and Low-Achievers?

Within the research canon, the scale of the performance gap between different tracks/sets is disputed territory. This is probably because of the statistical difficulties involved in isolating the effect of the pedagogy from the effect of prior achievement attributable to gender, ethnic and socio-economic background (amongst other variables).

More recent research suggest that the gap is probably less significant than was earlier believed. Some argue that it is negligible, but there does not seem to be a reliable body of evidence to support that contention. And, even if there were, this does not impact on the ‘sorting hat’ effect that is potentially so detrimental to those from disadvantaged backgrounds (an effect that we know well because it also undermines the effective identification of G&T populations the world over).

Teacher Quality and Deployment in Tracks and Sets

One might reasonably hypothesise that performance gaps between upper and lower tracks, streams and sets are much less likely to appear in schools which ensure that their more experienced subject-specialists are more regularly deployed at the lower end of the spectrum.

Conversely, given the impact of teacher quality on pupil performance, it would be no surprise to find that schools which deployed their best teachers at the upper end were more likely to see performance gaps widen.

This is not to suggest that it would be appropriate to load all the worst teachers into the upper sets, but merely that the distribution might be weighted more towards the lower end than it is now in a typical school. For it is an inconvenient truth often ignored by gifted educators that, by and large, high-achieving gifted learners tend to benefit from the typical distribution of teaching talent across sets or tracks.

It may or may not be attributable to teacher quality, but there does seem to be some research evidence that students in upper sets and tracks typically encounter a more enlightened pedagogy, with more opportunities for student engagement and interaction, whereas lower sets more often experience a more didactic ‘remedial’ teaching style.

Teacher Quality and Deployment in Mixed Ability Settings

In schools that follow a mixed ability approach, there is a different kind of issue about the distribution of pedagogical skill. In this context, the most important consideration becomes the effectiveness with which teachers can cater for widely differing needs within a single classroom.

While the best teachers may be able to differentiate their challenge and support across a mixed-ability class of 30 or more students, the critical issue is whether this can be achieved consistently by all teachers. This is straying into yet another contentious research area – and not one that I have yet explored in any detail.

So I am not equipped to challenge the orthodox anecdotal view – often heard from the parents of gifted learners in particular – that this is a bridge too far for many teachers, particularly if the school cannot afford to reduce the class to a more manageable size. So, they argue, these teachers need the pedagogical ‘crutch’ of a narrower achievement range within which to operate.

In passing, we should not forget that effective differentiation remains an issue even within a smaller top set or upper track. There may be a tendency, particularly amongst inexperienced staff, to assume that it is more acceptable to teach to the middle in a top set, so underserving those who are struggling to stay with the set and those who need extra challenge.

We must also acknowledge potential subject differences. It seems to be a widespread view amongst professionals that setting is potentially more valuable in the linear subjects such as maths and modern languages where the acquisition of subject knowledge is critical to progress, whereas in English and arts subjects it is not quite so essential to divide pupils on the basis of past achievement. Whether this view is reliably supported by the research literature is more open to question.


The case for and against detracking seems to hinge on this issue of teachers’ capacity to differentiate effectively in mixed ability settings. If they are not up to mark, it is of course the pupils at either extreme who are most likely to suffer, including the high-achieving gifted learners.

And it is high-achieving learners from disadvantaged backgrounds that are most vulnerable. They are more likely to be found in schools in disadvantaged urban areas: precisely the schools that cannot attract a critical mass of high quality teachers able to differentiate effectively in a mixed ability setting. It is another inconvenient truth that the better teachers are found disproportionately in more advantaged areas and schools, despite the redistributive impact of initiatives like Teach for America/Teach First.

This means that – contrary to the conclusions above about the overall negative impact of sets on performance gaps – detracking may unintentionally widen the excellence gap we have discussed in previous posts on this blog.

In my view, detracking is unlikely to succeed as a crude stand-alone adjustment. It would be much more likely to work as part of a sophisticated suite of reforms that supplement the support available for all learners, but especially those at either end of the achievement spectrum, whether that be by means of in-class ability grouping, pull-out for catch-up and extension, targeted 1:1 tuition, additional enrichment, independent learning opportunities…and so on.

The critical risk that proponents of gifted education must guard against is that, when such a suite is designed and implemented, all the funding and support is targeted at the lower achievers, while comparable support for the high achievers is neglected on the mistaken assumption that they will succeed regardless. That is against the spirit of personalised education and is manifestly unfair and inefficient.

A more sophisticated approach

Too often, the debate about tracking/setting and mixed ability settings is over-simplified into a straightforward either/or choice between two mutually exclusive options. But in reality the real issue is how effectively a school deploys its professional and para-professional resources and a rich pedagogical armoury to personalise learning for all its pupils.

Schools need to think carefully about the needs of all their learners and to devise solutions that will enable them to deliver improved standards for all (excellence) and a narrowing of achievement gaps (equity). The latter must not be secured by holding high-level achievement steady while the poorer performers catch up.

In the English context, as we move towards greater institutional autonomy, this requires each and every school to secure the necessary expertise to make such decisions with confidence, to evaluate their reforms properly and to adjust them in the light of the evidence.

The trick, as always, is to provide a broad, flexible and non-bureaucratic review framework that supports the weaker schools without limiting the options of the stronger ones. In an ideal world this would be mediated by a School Improvement Partner or similar, but it should also be capable of direct use by the school’s staff and governors, possibly in partnership with another school, so providing some degree of objective external scrutiny.

On the surface, the politicians seem confident in schools’ ability to deliver and are freeing them from several constraints upon their autonomy; but it would appear that they also continue to hanker after prescription in certain areas – perhaps those where they hold strong personal beliefs, or those (like setting) where they know that opinion in schools is divided. For I would be wrong to give the impression that setting in English schools is a ‘done deal’.

Once again there seems to be a dearth of reliable national data. But a crude estimate can be derived from OFSTED 2007/08 observation data quoted in a 2009 PQ answer. This suggests that only around 15% of primary lessons are organised on the basis of ability, whereas the comparable figure for the secondary sector is 45%. So, even in the secondary sector, the small majority of lessons is still likely to be mixed-ability.

There is a case for including within a review framework an expectation that setting will be considered, but only as part of a much wider-ranging assessment of school organisation, teacher deployment and classroom pedagogy. It doesn’t make sense to consider setting in splendid isolation.

As part of this process, schools would need to satisfy themselves that a decision to introduce setting would not inhibit them from narrowing achievement gaps. They might be invited to consider setting as a default element of their strategy if they have no evidence to suggest that an alternative arrangement would result in better achievement outcomes for their high achievers and their low achievers, especially (but not exclusively) those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Some Innovation Pointers

Such a framework should overtly encourage schools to experiment and innovate, to evaluate carefully and to learn from each other’s experience.

Ironically, while mainstream US opinion seems relatively wedded to tracking, US educators (and Australian educators too) have experimented much more thoroughly than England with hybrid solutions, innovative classroom grouping techniques and other promising approaches to organisation and differentiation.

Let us hope that the greater autonomy promised to schools here allows them to be equally innovative. They might begin by giving more serious attention to the potential of vertical grouping – where pupils are organised on the basis of achievement, but across year groups rather than within them. With one or two honourable exceptions vertical grouping is not deployed here as a means of improving differentiation, but rather as a pragmatic solution to small classes in rural schools.

And we could do with significantly more English school experience of cluster grouping, where the G&T pupils (or low achievers for that matter) are concentrated in a single mixed ability class with a specially trained teacher rather than being dispersed across a range of classes, so relatively isolated from opportunities to learn with their peers.

For the research demonstrates two things above all else:

  • There is no single right answer to the question how best to organise and differentiate within a school; and
  • We have very much more still to learn about what constitutes effective practice per se.


September 2010

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