Setting vs. Mixed Ability

I regularly have students who say things like ‘I was in bottom set so I can’t…’ or ‘I was in top set but now…’


Last week I started writing about differentiation and ended up writing a lot about mixed ability groups, which I had to cut. So I thought I’d write a post about the setting vs mixed ability debate this week.

In mainstream schools, setting by ability is used to combat the problem of differentiation. Even down at primary school students are grouped by ability.

The argument is that this helps teachers as they can’t cater for such varied needs; and that the gifted shouldn’t be held back by those who learn more slowly.

Also, low achievers could find being around high achievers quite daunting.


Whilst this may be true, Jo Boaler conducted a comparison of schools with mixed ability groups and set groups.

She found that when mixed ability grouping was done right (with differentiation by group problem solving) the school outperformed others in external exams

Not just for the low ability students. High achievers did even better than their counterparts in a set group.

I believe this is because setting gives students fixed mindsets.

Carol Dweck gave a very interesting talk on fixed mindsets vs growth mindsets. She concludes, from robust research, that even telling students that they are smart can damage their achievement.


They fall into the trap of believing that because they are smart, achievement should be effortless.

When they find a concept challenging, they think it’s a waste of time because effort is for people without natural intelligence. Trying hard is for dummies, everything worth knowing should already be known by smart people.

If something is difficult it must only be achievable by people in an even higher intelligence group.

Mixed ability groups teach that with enough effort, everyone can achieve. Some will need more than others, but everyone can grow and change. That effort will be rewarded by achievement equalling that of peers

We shouldn’t praise students for intelligence, but for effort. Its not achievement but struggle, followed by achievement that should be praised.

This teaches a growth mindset. The idea that struggling with a concept expands your mind. Achievement is won by effort, not talent. It is the very definition of learning.


In mixed ability groups, people with different strengths get to contribute in a way that grows their confidence.

When they struggle, they don’t feel like they’re failing. Just that they need some help from someone with those strengths.

This also stops high achievers from feeling superior and disregarding others, which is a skill for life.

To differentiate in mixed ability groups requires more interesting problems and team work as I wrote about last week. This is better learning and creates better people, ready to work in the real world.

Further Reading

A good article on this topic from TES (though based in Scotland)

Another TES article on the interrelatedness of mixed ability and differentiation.

An Ofsted article with a different opinion.

Carol Dweck books on minsets


One thought on “Setting vs. Mixed Ability

  1. Pingback: Teachling | Mixed-ability classes: How do we teach when the kids are all so different?

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