Mixed Ability Grouping in Primary Schools: How Does It Compare To Ability Grouping And Setting?

Is mixed ability grouping in primary schools the new ability grouping? The debate about setting in schools is ongoing, but where do you stand on this perennial debate in primary schools? What does it mean for maths especially? 

Ability groupings in primary school are extremely common across the country. Even if it’s more often vertical setting than streaming, it became the norm many years ago, especially for maths. However, are ability groupings in schools the best way forward, especially for the lower ability pupils? This post shares experience and research from my own primary school teaching experiences with ability groups in the classroom and the place mixed ability groupings have within the new curriculum.

It’s important to address the language we use to talk about ‘ability’ and ‘attainment’. Indeed, although ‘mixed ability’ is an oft-used phrase in the educational community (and within our blogs), it can carry the assumption that learning potential is fixed. Using terms such as ‘middle attainers’ can support a more developmental mindset.

Should you set for mixed ability in your primary school?

What is the basis for setting or grouping by ability? It was originally thought that this would be the best way to teach children. You can provide lessons to ensure you are challenging higher attainers with higher level teaching. The lower ability learners can slow down to the pace they may need to catch up and grasp the basic concepts they may be lacking. When used well that is certainly the case within a lesson.

There is overwhelming evidence, however, which points to some more worrying conclusions about setting. One of the key findings shows that, whilst setting works well for the high attainers enabling accelerated progress, it has no long term benefits for the low ability students in primary maths.

There was generally found to be very little movement between sets (and even less between streams) showing that it was not in fact impacting on factors such as social mobility. This is also an argument used against the return of grammar schools.

The longview from the primary school classroom

As someone who has taught in schools with setting and schools without, I have found that maths, in particular, lends itself most to setting and it could make things more straightforward for the teacher. Especially on the old levels system, it would be tricky teaching maths with a Year 3 class covering level P6 through to a 4b. Not impossible, but certainly hard work.

In a later school, I taught a low ability maths set consisting of Year 5 and 6. While it was easy to plan for them as I was able to go back to concepts they needed – number bonds to 10 being repeated daily! – I felt that they were already a lost group by this stage.

The Year 6 children left my group halfway through the year to start sitting mock SATs on a regular basis. I knew, however, that by having them in sets covering the basics that they had missed huge chunks of the curriculum. I had made them confident in number but that wasn’t enough to do well in the SATs. It was simply too late by the time I taught them.

Age vs level based curriculum

Part of the problem with setting in the old curriculum was the focus on linear progress. Although children like those in my bottom set would never get a level 4 in Year 6, so long as they had made the 2 sub-levels progress each year then it was deemed successful in terms of the teaching.

This is one of the reasons that levels have been scrapped and the new curriculum is age, not level, based. Children now who are in Year 3 should all be learning the Year 3 content, so that when they go into Year 4 they learn the Year 4 content, and so on, ensuring that in Year 6 they have covered the Year 6 content and are ready for the SATs and (most importantly) are ready for the content at secondary school so they do not get left behind.

This poses a new challenge for schools, however, as it is essential that resourcing is provided to make sure children are able to stay up to speed with their peers at every stage of their schooling. As soon as they fall behind and end up learning Year 3 content in Year 4, then we come back to the old levels problem where they get gradually left further and further behind.

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Mastering Mixed Ability Maths Resource

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Mixed ability: no one left behind

So how does ability grouping in education help/hinder this? Part of the issue is simply perception. As soon as a child is in a lower ability group then the assumption is they cannot do more difficult concepts.

So, if you have a grouping that is falling behind in Year 4, and you start using Year 3 content to catch them up, they will catch up in that area, but the Year 4 class have carried on without them so now they are behind again.

The idea (in theory!) of the new curriculum is that you never allow that to happen – that you teach everyone in the same class but use differentiation in teaching to support or adapt to ensure every child has access to the relevant curriculum content.

Opportunity for mastery in the new curriculum

This does pose challenges further up the school, although the feedback I received from schools who fully implemented the new curriculum is that their Year 1s (and Year 2s) were all moving much more as one cohort without the spread that used to happen.

By teaching them all the same content from day 1, it is more likely that intervention happens quickly and therefore children are able to keep on top of the skills. The curriculum itself, too, gives more time for stopping and going into a strand in more detail, where required.

This gives a chance for some children to get to “mastery” whilst the teacher can also help with input for any child who needs it BEFORE moving onto something else. This freedom was difficult with the old curriculum, which had become so prescriptive with the numeracy hour, making everyone feel that you could never stop for more than 2 weeks on one topic.

There is still some resistance amongst proponents of maths mastery to mixed ability grouping in mathematics unless it has been rigorously applied right from the start. If not, the difference in attainment and understanding for a Year 6 class can be almost too immense for one teacher to handle.

Setting in the classroom

It is likely that schools will need to think about smart ways to resource every year group to stop children falling behind at any stage, and ongoing formative assessment is key to ensuring gaps are spotted quickly and acted upon. Mixed ability can work and very effectively so. The Wroxham School in Potters’ Bar, for example, scrapped all setting many years ago and have no ability groupings.

Every lesson has 3 challenges – easy, medium and hard – and, demonstrating a true growth mindset in the classroom, children self-select the one they feel suits them after the input. If it’s too easy, they can stop and get a harder one; if it’s too hard they can stop and go back to an easier challenge. This involved a huge culture shift, but they have proven the success of it.

Challenges of mixed ability

Make no mistake, there is a challenge in getting rid of ability sets – especially in maths – but it has also been shown to have an impact on every child, whereas ability setting has an impact usually at the top end.

By being in a class and on tables altogether, children can see positive role models in every subject, and the higher ability children can show their skill with the maths mastery approach by teaching other children and coaching, which helps to embed their own knowledge too! Low threshold high ceiling activities are ideal for this.

When to use interventions

In some schools, 1-to-1 interventions like the online tuition for maths provided by Third Space Learning can be used to either rapidly bring children up to speed, or to diagnose and address learning gaps earlier on in the year to ensure pupil readiness and confidence for SATs.

Third Space Learning maths intervention session report
Third Space Learning’s Mission Zero report diagnoses learning
gaps at the beginning of the maths intervention programme

A maths intervention programme built around one to one tutoring can be a fairer, more effective way to address misconceptions, accelerate progress and build your pupils’ confidence.

Typically, this kind of tutoring navigates one of the other negative effects of setting – the child is taken for very specific tutoring rather than simply being put in the “bottom set” and the intervention can be very targeted and specific rather than a blanket “you are struggling with maths overall” type approach.

Then the child comes back to the main class after the intervention which shows them that this is not their status quo but is a resource to help them.

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Learn how the programmes are aligned to maths mastery teaching or request a personalised quote for your school to speak to us about your school’s needs and how we can help.


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