Setting and streaming in UK schools

UK Schools – What is streaming and setting?

The terms streaming and setting refer to the practice of separating students within a year group into classes based on attainment/ability levels for certain subjects, so that students learn with peers of a similar level. Streaming is normally practiced only in secondary schools, not primary schools, and usually only for key stages 3 and 4.

What is the difference?

The terms can be used interchangeably, but streaming tends to be used more loosely and can refer to a particular grouping that is used across several subjects. This type of grouping can be based on attainment, or a different factor such as option choices, pathways, or simply to ease the logistical problems of timetabling by dividing, for example, one year group into two halves.

Setting and streaming are optional for schools, and across every type of institution (state/private/grammar) you will find schools that strictly adhere to streaming, some that don’t stream at all, and many variants in between. Here are some of the common choices:

Setting for core subjects

Most schools that opt to set students do so in English and maths (and sometimes science) only. This is especially likely in Years 10 and 11 once students have chosen their options, since many option subjects will only have enough students for one class per year group.

Broad setting

A less strict system of assessing students for setting, or a conscious decision to create overlap between the different sets.

Delayed setting

Some schools prefer to see how students perform in a new academic year before setting them, and this is particularly common after the transition from primary school. Secondary schools often like to assess students themselves, rather than only relying on data from primary schools, before setting, and it can be common for setting to take place after the first half term or full term, or to keep Year 7 in mixed ability groups, only setting for Year 8 and above.

Movement between sets

Some schools (or departments within them) opt to allow movement between sets, resetting students every term, or even every half term, to prevent complacency and give students an incentive to stive. Downsides to this practice include additional and more frequent pressure on students to perform well in assessments, and the need for students who change set to adjust to a new teacher and classmates.

In most instances, setting occurs once per academic year. Sometimes movement can be even less frequent, for example, when students are studying for a formal examination early, or for different examinations. It is becoming increasingly common for a small group of high-attaining students to be fast-tracked towards a GCSE or AS Level qualification early, making movement into this group once the course has started very difficult. Maths, English and Science are subjects in which different pathways are commonly offered, and, while some movement between sets might be possible, movement into, for example, an English Literature and Language pathway from Language only, or into three sciences from double-award, is understandably difficult.

Advantages and disadvantages of setting

Some educators are strongly in favour of mixed ability groupings as they believe that setting limits the opportunities of students in lower sets, either through the psychological effects of being labelled a certain ability level, or the literal limitations on the qualification opportunities offered. There is also an argument that students’ abilities are raised by working with able peers, and that learners of all abilities learn better in a mixed group, which includes the learning done through teaching and helping others.

An argument in favour of setting is that teaching can be tailored to the precise needs of the group. Class sizes can also be varied so that more able students are in larger groups, allowing a more advantageous teacher/ student ratio to be reserved for students who require more help.

Making a Decision

Everybody has an opinion on setting, and you may already have decided whether you would like your child to attend a school with setting, or with mixed ability across all subjects. When choosing a school, find out if and how streaming are used, and ask for the reasoning behind the choices: if the setting policy is working, the school should be able to convince you with their evidence.

by Alexandra Wood Wilkinson, British Tutors, 2021