Scope of Paper
The paper explores the impact of mixed-attainment grouping on the academic and personal outcomes of students.
The analysis focuses on the opinions of students from three different attainment levels: high, middle and low, and compares mixed-attainment grouping with ‘homogenous’ setting.
The factors discussed by students include:
- equity and individualism,
- comparison, competition, and status,
- empowerment and learner identities,
- feeling threatened and exposed,
The paper is an output of UCL's ‘Best Practice in Grouping Students’ research project, and uses data from randomised controlled trials. Data is collected on 89 Year 7 students from eight different schools in England. Students of multiple socioeconomic and academic backgrounds were interviewed, either independently or in small groups.
The study identified a strong preference for mixed-attainment grouping from students with low prior attainment. This is attributed to an increased sense of inclusion and greater opportunities for success in life.
High attaining students also have positive opinions of mixed-attainment grouping. This is attributed to an increased sense of fairness, equality, and social inclusivity.
Middle attainers tended to be more divided on mixed vs. homogenous grouping.
These findings are presented as significant in the context of the status quo in England. Schools practising mixed attainment in core subjects are unusual, and yet:
- The literature highlights that lower attaining students experience significant detriment as a consequence of setting, while high attaining students experience only a very small benefit of setting, and,
- On average, low attaining students from schools using setting have delayed progression of 1-2 months per year, as well as decreased confidence and engagement.
Previous research has discussed the use of mixed-attainment classes in humanities, music and arts. It is rarer to find mixed-grouping in core subjects such as maths, English and science, where ‘setting’ or ‘homogeneous’ approaches are widely preferred in the UK.
The widespread use of setting in the UK has been discussed extensively in the past. The literature highlights that lower attaining students experience significant detriment as a consequence of setting, while high attaining students experience only a very small benefit of setting.
On average, low attaining students from schools using setting have delayed progression of 1-2 months per year, as well as decreased confidence and engagement.
The aim for this research was to address how different learners perceive mixed-attainment grouping, as the majority of previous research is qualitative, and lacks the detail and insight of student opinion.
Preceding research suggests that high attaining students tend to prefer setting systems, whereas disadvantaged students, such as those that qualify for free school meals, are likely to prefer the mixed-attainment approach.
This is further demonstrated by sociological research that has suggested that learner identities are interconnected with race, class and gender, where there is potential for disadvantaged and minority students to be overlooked.
High attaining students
The study's data analysis does not align with previous research suggesting that high attainers prefer setting. In this study, more than half of high attaining students reported a positive opinion of mixed-attainment grouping.
A significant proportion of high attainers described how mixed-attainment grouping promotes fairness and equality of opportunity. In addition, they discussed how this approach increased social inclusivity for the whole class, as they were aware that some low attainment students study reduced curriculum content when taught in sets.
High attaining students also cited increased diversity within the class as a benefit of mixed-attainment grouping, which they considered to promote the understanding others' opinions, and seeing how other students thought. They mentioned that the opportunity to work with other students and help them understand concepts had helped them deepen their level of understanding (this is related to the cognitive theory of learning strategy of 'elaboration').
The paper discusses that there were also negative opinions from the high attaining group, particularly as some students displayed a competitive and meritocratic approach to their learning. Some students described their mixed-ability lessons as ‘easy’, ‘boring’ and ‘not challenging enough’.
This may be due to teachers not differentiating or providing challenges in class, but may also be due to the entitlement that some students held, which previous research suggests originates from academic labelling. This results in a ‘learner identity’ associated with their experiences within lower school or primary school. The theory suggests that some students may feel that they have a superiority over other students based on how they were grouped in KS1 and KS2, as well as due to their race, gender or socioeconomic status.
When discussing what limits high-attainers' progress in mixed classes, students tended to prefer the use of the word ‘behaviour’, rather than ‘ability’ or academic status. Many of these students stated that they preferred to be in a high-attaining class with other students who share their values of wanting to do work, thus avoiding the distractions of students who mess around and are not engaged with lessons.
Middle attaining students
Middle-attaining students held the widest range of views on grouping practices. Those that had positive views of mixed grouping tended to focus on the benefits to themselves, where they could potentially achieve more and enable their progress within the class.
Similarly to the views of high attaining students, some students suggested that the diversity that comes with mixed-grouping could help them learn more by hearing a range of answers from other students.
Some students within the middle-attaining group identified that students are aware of the 'ability' hierarchy which is often present in schools. They lamented that there is a priority placed on the top students that achieve high grades and the lower attainers who need further support. Mid-attaining students can feel that they are missing out on attention and progression.
Other middle-attainers cited that they felt inferior and frustrated in mixed-attainment classes, feeling embarrassed if they were struggling with work. They felt that teachers often asked high attainers that completed their work first to help other students. This left some students feeling ‘humiliated’ and ‘babied’, reducing self-confidence.
Some middle-attaining students complained that lower-attaining students interrupted the flow of the lesson and stopped the class from doing their work, mainly due to asking multiple questions.
Low attaining students
A large majority of low attaining students preferred the mixed-attainment approach to grouping. They felt that this increased the range of opportunities available to all students. They noted that some students had reduced curriculum content in lower sets, which results in students feeling excluded from their peers.
In particular, one student reported that she had the opportunity to learn about ‘what the good people are doing’ within the mixed-attainment groups, which she would not have had in a homogenous lower-set environment. This helped students discover things that they were good at and learn about themselves, which can improve self-confidence.
Other students noted that they were initially nervous about sitting next to higher-attaining students, with students doubting whether they 'belonged' within the class.
One exchange between two students highlights the percieved opportunities of mixed-attainment grouping:
Colm: But now I know if you're sitting next to smart people, you can get a better job, then you can –
Debbie: Get a better grade on your GCSE’s.
Colm: Yeah. Then you can get a lot of money to have a nice family and have a nice house.
This exchange illustrates that lower-attaining students can feel as though they are ‘left for unemployment’, but that they perceive mixed-attainment groups as a route to increased opportunities for gaining academic qualifications and the potential for better long-term prospects.
Whilst a large majority low attaining students reported positive views of mixed-attainment grouping, 10% of these students reported that they could feel intimidated and disheartened by the faster pace and more challenging work in a mixed-attainment environment.
Teachers reported that collaborative work within mixed-attainment classes can provide opportunities for lower-attaining students to thrive, taking on responsibilities which can increase self-concept and self-efficacy. This can provide a mutual benefit to learners of all levels of attainment, and brings a sense of community to the school.
Teachers argued for the need to remove 'ability' labels from students, instead producing ‘empowered learners’ who want to learn.
The research shows that students attitudes to mixed attainment classes are largely related to their prior attainment levels. In particular, lower-attaining students tended to view mixed-attainment classes more positively due to the increased inclusivity and collaboration.
In comparison to previous research, which has suggested that higher-attaining students hold negative views of mixed-attainment grouping, this study suggests that high-attaining students reacted favourably to the mixed-attainment approach, especially in terms of social justice and inclusivity.