Setting and Streaming

Setting and streaming in education is where students are put into groups based on ability. The most academic students are placed in the top sets or streams and the least academic being placed in the bottom.

Grouping and teaching by ability allows for the more academic students to be taught faster and pushed harder, and for the less able students to be taught at a pace suitable for them and given the extra support they need.

However, this methods of organising teaching and learning has attracted criticism from interactionist researchers who have found that students tend to be put into sets and streams based on teacher stereotypes rather than their actual ability, so for example we tend to find more middle class children in the higher sets!

This topic is very closely related to the labelling theory of education. It is teachers labels that determine which ability group a students is put into.

Setting and Streaming: Definitions

  • Streaming is where students are grouped by ability for all or most of their subjects. So a student will be in the top set for ALL subjects, with the top set being the most academic and the bottom being the least.
  • Setting is where students are grouped by ability for particular subjects, so a student may in the top set for maths and the second set for English and so on.

Two related concepts are banding, which is effectively the same as streaming, and the phrase ‘tier teaching‘ is sometimes used which could refer to either setting or streaming.

The opposite of setting and streaming is mixed-ability teaching where students of different abilities are all taught together in the same class.

The consequences of setting and streaming

Setting and streaming has a long history in the British education system. Especially since Comprehensive education was introduced it has been extremely popular, and continues to this day.

Those in favour of teaching by differential ability groups claim that it allows for students to be taught at a level and pace appropriate to their abilities, so teachers can focus more on pushing the more academic students all in the top sets, while given appropriate support to those in the lower sets.

However, there is also research evidence that shows streaming

  • It denies equality of opportunity to those in the lower sets. They may not be entered for higher level exams as a result.
  • Placement into sets is often based on teacher stereotypes rather than ability. It tends to be the working classes, boys and ethnic minorities (especially Black boys) who get put into lower sets.
  • Being placed in the lower sets can produced anti-school attitudes in those students placed in them.
  • Streaming and setting thus reproduce social class, gender and ethnic inequalities in educatinal achievement.
  • It reduces school cohesion and togetherness.

Two pieces of research highlight the problems above:

Social class and streaming

Stephen Ball (1981) conducted a classic study of banding in Beachside Comprehensive school. Banding is essentially the same as streaming.

Students at the school were placed into one of three ability bands when they first came to the school based on information provided by their primary schools.

While the bands were supposedly based on ability, Ball found that other criteria such as social class background determined what bands pupils were placed in. Pupils of similar abilities were more likely to be placed in the top band if they were from non-manual, middle class backgrounds.

When pupils first entered the school they were all eager to learn and co-operative with teachers, but over time differences in attitudes to learning and behaviour emerged dependent on which bands the students had been put into by teachers.

Teachers expected those in band one, the most academic group, to do well in school, and these maintained their enthusiastic pro-school attitude.

Those in band three were viewed by teachers as the last able and expected to have learning disabilities and not progress much, most of these were not a problem either.

Band two was viewed as the band where pupils might display behavioural problems, and this was indeed the case. Pupils in this band were the most likely to develop anti-school attitudes which manifested as putting less effort into homework, messing around in class, and higher rates of absenteeism.

Teachers also had different approaches to teaching the different bands

  • Pupils in band one were ‘warmed up’: they were pushed harder, and directed towards doing the more academic subjects and more difficult O-level exams.
  • Pupils in band two were ‘cooled down’: they were directed to doing the easier CSE exams and more practical subjects such as woodwork.

The conclusion of this study is that teachers label students based on their class background, and lower class students are more likely to placed in lower sets and achieve lower grades in school, and vice-versa for middle class students. Hence teacher labelling helps to reproduce social class inequalities in educational achievement.

Setting and streaming in primary schools

Hallam et al (2004) explored pupil perceptions of ability grouping in primary schools.

They conducted interviews with six pupils of high, moderate or low ability in every key stage two class in six primary schools some of which taught in mixed ability groups and some organised teaching through streaming and setting.

  • Social-adjustment, social attitudes and attitudes towards peers of different ability were ‘healthier’ among children in non-streamed schools.
  • The more streams there were, the more negative the attitudes of those in the lower streams were.
  • Pupils of below average ability who were taught by teachers who believed in streaming could become friendless or neglected by others.
  • In reading most students wanted to be in the top set because it gave them a sense of superiority. Most pupils, except those in the top groups, preferred either whole class activities or individual work because they didn’t want to feel left out.

The authors concluded that streaming can play a major role in polarising anti-school attitudes among students placed in the lower streams, and mixed ability teaching overall was the preferred choice among students, except for those in the top sets or streams!

Setting and GCSEs

Some schools organise the teaching of GCSEs in different tiers. Students in the top tiers will be entered for regular GCSE exams and so they have a chance of getting the top grades, but students in the bottom, or foundation tiers will be entered for a lower level of GCSE where the maximum grade they can achieve is a C grade.

Gilborn and Youdell (2001) conducted research in two secondary schools in London and found that teachers were less likely to place working class and Black students into the top GCSE tiers even when they had been achieving similar grades in previous years to middle class and non Black students.

Thus teachers were stereotyping these students and denying them the opportunity to achieve the highest GCSE grades.

Advantages of mixed-ability teaching

Given all of the above you might want to consider whether mixed-ability teaching is best, it does seem to have several advantages over teaching based on ability groups…..

  • There will probably be a broader socio-cultural mix of students (especially if teachers label based on racist and class stereotypes) which may help foster consensus in society.
  • It gives lower ability students more exposure to higher ability students which could help them progress faster.
  • It recognises that ability isn’t fixed and students can ‘spurt’ at any time in the year, rather than them being stuck in the wrong set for their ability for a year or more.
  • Teachers can still differentiate by ability within a mixed-ability class by setting ‘stretch and challenge’ activities.

This material is mainly relevant to the education topic, a compulsory aspect of the AQA’s first year A-level sociology.

To return to the homepage –


Gilborn and Youdell (2000) Rationing Education: Policy, Practice, Reform and Equity

Ball, S. (1981) Beachside Comprehensive: A Study of Secondary Schooling. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.






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