Many white working-class boys say ability-based grouping dampened their aspirations, says Mary-Claire Travers

White working-class boys in England are the lowest academic achievers at 16 for any socio-economic class grouping, according to Sutton Trust data, with only 24 per cent achieving five or more A*-C GCSEs, compared with a national average of 69 per cent. However, there are some from this cohort who do succeed educationally.

Over the past few years I have been exploring the educational trajectories of a small group of academically successful white working-class boys and the multifaceted variables that contributed to their success. When asked what they saw as dampeners on educational aspirations, many referred to setting in the classroom.

While my findings are qualitative in nature, the perceptions reported by participants are backed up by data. Research has consistently failed to find any significant benefits of ability-based grouping. Yet setting continues to be used in most schools and, as such, remains a contentious issue in UK education.

Many find themselves in the bottom set for reasons other than academic

The following quote from a study participant, David, makes for sobering reading: “I was in the bottom set for everything, I didn’t really do anything I just messed about . . . No one really taught anyone . . . but I ended up doing all right. I got A-Cs. I could have got higher but you can’t really get out (of the bottom set) . . . It’s the write-off class, the bottom one.”

David was not “blaming” anyone and was aware that this was very much from his perspective. He was the exception in his GCSE bottom set: he went on to the sixth form and university. His classmates did not have any expectation of experiencing academic success and from what David said, neither did the teachers.

It could be argued that the “habitus” of the school positions white working-class males as “deficit” and as not academic, and that this view underpins everything that takes place.

Sadly, many children find themselves in the bottom set for reasons other than academic. Researchers Hallam and Parsons reported that children in the bottom set often exhibit characteristics such as a low socio-economic background, being male, a mother without educational qualifications, raised in a one-parent family, born in the summer and not being read to at home. If a child experiences these initial educational disadvantages he may well find himself in the bottom set at school.

Could it be that some “problem children” are created by setting? Ireson and Hallam found that students’ academic self-concept was strongly related to the set they were in, with those in the lowest ability set having a negative academic self-concept and those in the highest ability set having a positive academic self-concept.

In their survey of 1,500 teachers they found that there were considerable differences in the teaching of low and high-ability groups, even when the same teacher taught both groups. The children in the lower sets were taught a different curriculum in a different manner with less discussion, less homework, less feedback, more practical work and more repetition.

They are just saying, right you are a problem child, you’ll go to one side

In my work with working-class young males, participants repeatedly said that they thought their peers were negatively impacted if they were in the lower-ability groups: “they see it as people giving up on them more than anything”, said one study participant.

Another was critical of some teachers, suggesting that: “They aren’t putting the work in; they are just saying, right you are a problem child, you’ll go to one side . . . If the teachers don’t help then the kids have no hope.”

Some school practices, as reported by the participants, need to be addressed. Participants recognised what went on in schools and how this appeared to cement white working-class boys into a subordinate position.

On a positive note it needs to be highlighted that, as one researcher found, “teachers and schools can make a difference – by believing, and acting as if, all students have the potential to succeed”.


Mary-Claire Travers is an associate team member at UCL Institute of Education