Setting students: What do we mean by ‘that bottom set feeling’?

There has been a recent discussion around the setting, or streaming, of students on twitter. This tweet by Dylan Wiliam seems to give a slight nudge towards mixed ability favouring less able students.

Some people are very much in favour of sets. The use of rank order as a tool to make the setting process transparent and motivate students is used widely in some academy chains. Others point to the ideas of institutionalisation of bottom set students. “They only know what a bottom set feels like so they lose motivation.” is a trope of this argument.

Like all things in life The Simpsons often provides the best comment on the issue with this classic scene.

For this discussion I am going to assume that we can measure performance of students accurately and fairly, although I am very aware this is not necessarily the case and this adds an extra level of complexity to the debate.

The issue of setting is one of context. In my opinion there are two issues that are most significant to the context of schools when it comes to setting, and to be fair many other things:

  • Ability profile
  • Behaviour

Ability profile

If you are a big school with a huge range of ability, lets say 300 students in a year (2 bands of 150) and around national average with a full range of ability. In that context there is a strong argument for some setting. It will make it easier to plan and pitch lessons correctly and scaffold for literacy in certain classes. Dare I say it will even help you manage your expectations of the work produced. At KS4 in subjects which have tiered exams this is a real benefit as well.

Conversely a small school with 90 in a year which is significantly above national average might not really gain much from setting. Is it really a bottom set if all the students are aiming for 6+?

In that situation I think the power of the label outweighs any perceived teaching advantage. I know some people think that students don’t care what set they are in, or you can hide it by changing the names to colours, or whatever. To those people I say; Are students really not aware of their set? Are we that naive to think that label has no impact?


The next and most controversial aspect of setting choices is behaviour. I believe that the argument for mixed ability and reducing institutionalisation is basically a way of saying “But have you tried teaching that bottom set?”. Adam Boxer brilliantly once blogged about the veil of ignorance, the concept that decision makers need to consider their position if they are the ones that end up with the less desirable outcome. This is a version of ‘skin in the game‘. If, as a leader, you decide to go for setting then you better be teaching that bottom set.

Some schools have immovable students. Students that have irreparable behaviour. Students that will not behave. Not all schools have these students and not all students who misbehave are immovable students. For immovable students there is essentially three futures:

  1. They are in a school that facilitates them with specialist provision s they do not mix with the main student body.
  2. They are allowed to push the boundaries and disrupt learning for others throughout their school careers.
  3. They are excluded.

Without getting too off track, if you are reading this and saying ‘we don’t have these students in our school because our behaviour system is so robust’ then you have missed my point. These student don’t go to your school. They go to a different school round the corner. To be clear these students will never fully submit to a system. They will always push back and always need to have sanctions. They will spend their entire school career on reports, being removed, changing bands etc.. until either option 1 or 3 occurs.

Using mixed ability groups helps if these students are in your school. For arguments sake lets say you have 5 of these students in a group of 150. They all score badly in tests, mainly due to lack of effort and engagement in learning, so in a setting environment they are in a bottom set of 27 students. What happens to that class over the years is they get a greater amount of disruption. Even if your school has a strong behaviour policy that uses removal rooms, you still have the disruption that occurs to precipitate their removal. Then, most likely, there will be an increase in low level disruption. This is due to the large number of potential distractors in the room. The teachers attention is split and issues are harder to deal with efficiently. Very much like spinning plates*. Over time the standards in the bottom set erode. Those well behaved less able students who get 5+ hours a day of being with the most disruptive students get tired and demotivated. This is what I think people mean by “what a bottom set feels like” that feeling of trudging through treacle trying to get work done. In this scenario spreading the students out actually reduces the erosion because the teacher has to only focus on one or two students. This means the systems in place can be used effectively and standards can remain high.

I have also heard people argue that by mixing ability the students get to be experience the ideas of the more able students and get uplifted by their examples of great work. I agree this is much more likely in mixed ability groups, but it is not limited to mixed ability. Use of various examples and teaching techniques can provide the same benefit within sets.

In a perfect world with strong teaching and impeccable behaviour setting or mixed ability would have no consequences, but that is not the reality for most schools. So I think we are best to assume that the only wrong answer is an answer based on ideology over pragmatism. In my opinion it is best to always be open to different ideas around the structure of classes and timetables and to be willing to try out ideas in a certain year and see if it helps.

A possible third way

Every time someone proposes a hybrid model in anything my skin crawls. It always feels like a cop out. Stop sitting on the fence and pick a side! I think the 3rd way is often a grey area that lacks clarity and never achieves the benefits of either model.

However, over the years our department has been trialing different models of setting and mixed ability. We have tried using different metrics to decide the sets and having different frequencies of set changes. When it comes to setting I actually think a hybrid model has been the most productive for us.

We have a top set and 4 mixed ability in each band of Year 7+8. In year 9 we add a second set, this essentially allows us to group what will eventually be higher and foundation tier in year 11. It means we can target triple science effectively at the top 60 in each band. In year 10+11 we have a triple class, a combined top set and the foundation tier is mixed ability. We have an assessment model that has a mid year synoptic test and performance in this is used to dictate potential set changes in negotiation with students.

For our context and cohort we find this works really well in science.

I’m not saying this is the best model for you after all, context is key.

* Which for the record is not a great lock down hobby. Coincidentally, if anyone has any spare plates I’d love to borrow them.

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