Classrooms will inevitably feature children of very different ability levels, but keeping them apart helps none of them, argues Mary Myatt

There are a number of problems with setting by ability and the first is the term “ability” itself. It is fraught with difficulty: all we can talk about with any confidence is prior attainment: in other words, whether it’s low, middle or high.

The second is that setting by ability means that pupils are often given a different academic diet. Those in lower sets are provided with work that is often scaffolded and doesn’t make sufficient cognitive demands, which means the gap between low and high prior attaining pupils is more likely to widen.

Children self-identify with the level of work expected of them

In many schools, a higher proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds populate lower tables in primary and the lower sets in secondary. As a sector, are we saying that ability is related to postcode? Are we really serious about closing gaps? If we are, we need to give this some serious thought.

This is a sensitive topic. In every classroom there are children with different levels of prior attainment who have differing capacities to engage with the work. However, labeling them through setting will limit their learning.

Pupils are often placed in groups that determine the level of work they are expected to do. Whether they are on a table called leopards or lizards, children are remarkably astute at knowing what it means.

The problems emerge when the labels stick. Children self-identify with the level of work expected of them.

This is not helpful for kids of any ability: high-attainers see themselves as worthy of greater challenge and more able than others. That might be the case, but if their work drops and they are allocated a different label they are likely to see themselves as failures. Similarly for the other groups, children who have the lowest labels (and they do know they are at bottom) feel that they cannot tackle more demanding work. They are often supported by an adult, which may be appropriate, but will sometimes become dependent on the adult to help them, even when they don’t need it.

Alison Peacock, in Assessment for learning without limits, has this insight into children’s views on setting: “The ‘more able’ loved it; the middle group were annoyed that they didn’t get the same challenges as the other group – they wanted to try harder work but had worked out they would never be moved up as there were only six seats on the top table. The ‘less able’ were affected the most and felt dumb and useless.”

The paradox is that by giving them easier work, you can often close down their capacity and opportunity to do more

Many of the lower groups do not have the same expected of them and as a result, don’t make the same gains as their peers. This extends the gap in their knowledge and attainment. The paradox is that by giving them easier work, you can often close down their capacity and opportunity to do more.

Some schools have done away with naming tables or groups. Instead, they promote teaching to the top, rather than putting a lid on what children might produce by preparing materials which only allow them to go so far.

The mastery approach to teaching maths in primary schools means that the whole class is taught together about the main ideas, and those who need additional support are given this through guidance and discussion by an adult. Those who are early graspers are kept on the same material but are expected to work on aspects of greater complexity and depth.

It means that all children are exposed to the material at the same time. There will always be exceptions, but for the majority of children in most classes, the expectation is that by teaching to the top – and providing additional support for those who need it and challenge for those who are capable – everyone is exposed to a rich and demanding curriculum.

We do not truly know what anyone is capable of until they are given interesting and difficult things to do.

Mary Myatt is an education consultant, speaker and author