On the Octagon Table: Does Mixed Ability Teaching and Learning Work?


Would you prefer your seven year old child to be taught in a mixed ability class or not?

According to the Millennium Cohort Study whether a seven year old child is taught in a mixed ability class or streamed makes a significant impact on their attainment. This paper from the IoE draws on the evidence from the study and draws some stark and not altogether surprising conclusions: “Children in the ‘top’ stream achieved more and made significantly more academic progress than children attending schools that did not stream, while children in the ‘middle’ or ‘bottom’ streams achieved less and made significantly less academic progress.”

I have not had access to the rest of the report so I am not sure what conclusions it draws but from this statement alone the challenges for primary education are huge. Streaming is not good for ‘middle’ ability and ‘low’ ability children, however it is good for children in the ‘top’ stream. If you are a parent of a child who would be potentially in the ‘top’ stream the likelihood that they will achieve more and make significantly more progress if they were streamed than they would in a mixed ability class is something to ponder. In order for the majority of children to do better as a whole parents of children who are highly able should think carefully, do I want my child to do worse so that others might do better or do I want my child to do the best that they can so that they might have an academically flourishing life?

This is something that is very close to home for me. My little ‘un, when she was six, was taught in a mixed ability class. I guess that she was one of the ‘top three’ pupils.  What do I mean by ‘guess’? Well, her teacher and the school went to great lengths to deny that they were ‘setting’ within the ‘mixed ability’ class. The children were assigned to tables which were given names to differentiate them: Octagon, Hexagon, Pentagon, Rectangle, Square, Triangle, and Circle (despite the names hinting that the tables would be different shapes they all, somewhat disappointingly, looked the same). My little ‘un and her little friends were sat at the Octagon table; there were three children sat at the ‘Circle’ table.

What angle were the school trying out with this I wondered, only to be told again and again that the names of the tables were not significant. However, the children knew,.. they told us octagon got the difficult work and circle got the easiest. The tables were there to serve some hidden purpose, I can only think it was probably to do with worksheet distribution. In the hothouse atmosphere of the Octagon the children were given worksheets and when they had completed the worksheet they were given ‘extension work’ worksheets to do. The teacher spent most of the time teaching to the ‘middle’ where the majority of the thirty or so other children found themselves (the bell curve…) The two assistants spent a lot of time working with the ‘circle’. The result was that the Octagons decided, as they ended up with more worksheets by completing their worksheets, to stop completing worksheets and talk to each other instead. By the end of year two my little ‘un got a report which said she is always chatting and never completes her work. This was her experience of the Octagon for you: chat to your friends and do the minimal amount of work. I’m sure that this ‘Ofsted Good’ school is not typical but it does seem to reflect something inherent in the report and somewhere along the lines that those who are ‘top’ might be left to their own devices a bit more and that the pretence of mixed ability might be not as mixed as we would expect it?

If some primary schools are ‘setting’ by tables in mixed ability classes, is ‘this’ really mixed ability teaching? If it is, I suppose my little ‘un and her fellow octagons in the classroom had some positive effect on the others in that class, well according to the report cited above ‘they’ did but for me this is all most unsatisfactory. What does really good mixed ability teaching really look like and even ‘if’ this is done can it truly fulfil the needs of all pupils? I doubt it.

The problem is, what can be done? Either we pitch parent against parent in the battle for their little ones’ futures or we try and do something else, is there a solution that can help all children to fulfil their potential, not streaming, not mixed ability, but a mix of the two? Are there schools who teach part set and part mixed ability across all subjects at Primary and I mean in all subjects, in a fluid way? Would this be possible in primary schools or, at least, in some primary schools? Or should we just not worry about it and carry on as before?

27 thoughts on “On the Octagon Table: Does Mixed Ability Teaching and Learning Work?

  1. Yes, it seems there are simply some negative outcomes whatever you choose.
    I teach mixed ability GCSE history sets (range generally A*- C/D) without any significant problems. Clearly there should be some choice for schools and then they can weigh up the pros and cons on a subject level. Sometimes mixed ability teaching is highly impractical and will mean an enormous extra workload for the teacher. In those situations, if it is possible, I am persuaded towards setting. The need for planning sanity for teachers is not a minor point. It seems more likely you can address the problems of setting by raising expectations of progress with lower sets than that a teacher can ever teach effectively to a vast range of different abilities.
    I do think claiming differentiation is the answer when other options are possible is wrong and it is actually the worst of all worlds. The teacher has the enormous burden of planning a range of tasks for every lesson and being run ragged dashing between groups while the kids in their differentiated groups experience all the drawbacks of setting as expectations are as fixed as if they were in different classrooms. To my mind, if the ability range is such that the teacher can’t teach to the class and all kids can’t access the task set then the ability range is too wide and setting would be better when it is possible.


    1. It’s a very difficult one and as more research is done I think rather than clarify things the water might, indeed, get muddier! I have always taught mixed ability classes, inevitable in my subject. I have always taught in schools that teach in mixed ability classes except in Maths and/or MFL and, in these contexts, I have seen it work… But, I wonder, could more be done, differently for those at the ‘top’ end – sporting analogies are interesting here – there used to be house teams, school teams, athletics club/county, national for those who had prowess (still is for many) Is there a way this analogy could be used for schools and beyond? Should it?


  2. Interesting post Martin. There has never been any conclusive evidence either way, but what strikes me about your daughter’s experience is that no matter whether the class is ‘organised’ by ability groups or not, the quality of the learning and teaching is poor – especially if there is a heavy reliance on the completion of worksheets. Although your piece is entitled ‘Does Mixed Ability Teaching and Learning Work’ your focus – and it would appear the school’s – is very much on teaching. Perhaps if the emphasis was to shift towards learning everyone in the class would be better off.


    1. Thanks Bill,

      I wonder if the focus, for me, was not on teaching ‘enough’ or at all? (I don’t consider work sheets teaching 😉 ) Also I don’t think this was a mixed ability class. This was a stratified class, using a ‘mastery’ method (as Hattie describes it) organised for teacher convenience. That parents are told the classes are mixed ability when I don’t think they are is a major issue I believe…

      If there was a shift towards learning as you say, what would it look like?


      1. Sorry for the delay Martin. What I was getting at, I think, was that in order to make judgements about the suitability or otherwise of the organisational arrangements within the class, we need to know what the learning outcomes are, and the extent to which the young people are meeting them i.e. it isn’t simply about the teaching element. No matter, it strikes me that a ‘mixed-ability’ class must be the best possible arrangement, reflecting as it does the ‘mixed-ability’ reality of the outside world, and allowing the teacher complete flexibility from day-to day and indeed hour-to-hour. I think any good teacher should make it clear to his or her class that seating arrangements and working groups are flexible and subject to change on a regular basis.


  3. Teach to the top, the language, discussion and thinking that this ignites will support all and those that need more support can be given it in many creative ways. After 20 years of teaching this is the method, for me, that enables more children in a class to surpass expectations.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Where children sit is flexible. There are no fixed table spaces. If I want the children to sit in a specific place e.g a focus group, next to a peer who can coach, to foster relationships, to encourage collaboration, to inspire etc then I lay out children’s books in specific places. If I don’t specify a space, they choose and know that it is their responsibility to focus and work hard on their learning. I believe that this enables me to respond to all children’s learning more often and it revolutionised my teaching! I could never go back to fixed places and definitely not to fixed places based on ability. However, children will always be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their fellow classmates, they are wise in their young age! it is our job to support them in understanding that this does not mean someone is a better, brighter, cleverer human being than anyone else, we are all valuable and celebrate and share strengths.


  4. Interesting post. I can’t help wondering if all teachers stream the children in class without realising or thinking about it. Surely they rank them in their heads just a little in order to differentiate their questioning. Just a thought.


  5. I suspect that the school was just being disingenuous. They were streaming in class…differentiating according to grouping…but doing it badly. The expectation should have been that all children would be pushed to achieve as highly as they can, and no group should have been neglected (this isn’t rocket science). The grouped tables just makes it easier to direct appropriate resources, but should never be an excuse to ignore a group because they are the potential high achievers (or potential low achievers for that matter). Another example of a practically good idea being distorted to negative impact by a failing SLT (because, from what you say, this was a covert school policy)…….


    1. It worries me this ‘covert’ thing… Here we have a ‘grammar school table’ within the implied ethos that this is a bad thing… If they built walls around each table we would see this in a darker light…


      1. Clearly, schools should have the confidence to describe their practices to parents, and the practices should be robust enough for the schools to be able to defend them. Then, as a parent, you might disagree, but at least you would know that the school has thought it through and is confident in what it is doing…..


  6. I am always suspicious that education research finds what it needs to find. And at the moment they need to find that streaming is bad.

    It would be a disaster among the more politicised educationalists if it is found that streaming is definitely effective. Imagine the horror if it was shown the grammar school system was better than the current system (which, incidentally is definitely true for social mobility — the current system locks poor students into poor schools, whereas grammar schools let the smarter rise easily).

    I believe, from my own practice, that (broad band) streaming by class is effective in Mathematics. The good students shoot ahead, and the poor can be taught at their own pace. A good teacher can move a class of the lower ability ahead tremendously without the constant distraction of trying to keep the good ones with something to do. (In class groupings are just a headache for the teachers, to the point of barely being worthwhile at all — you might as well just teach to the middle.)

    However, and this is a vital caveat, for streaming to work the teachers need to be spread evenly across ability levels. The lowest students should have the best teachers too. And teachers need to not fall into the trap of lowering expectations for the bottom students.

    Because what often happens is that the worst teachers are assigned to the “worst” students, and the lazier teachers don’t work hard with the slower ones. That destroys any benefit from grouping by ability.


    1. The problem finding the best teachers for bottom groups and top groups and all groups in between is… are there enough of the best teachers? I sometimes wonder whether we should have just one subject teacher per class, if it is possible would it be better to share classes more, this way a better teacher can mentor a weaker teacher by setting an example and sharing their work/resources/ideas etc.?


  7. Hi Martin. An interesting read and I think there will be quite a different approach within Primary to Secondary Education. I took the decision to stream in PE a few years ago, but only in team sports from Year 8 to 11. After assessing in football, rugby, basketball, waterpolo, handball in Year 7 we would then set in Year 8 onwards. The rationale behind this? The differing size, strength and physicality that comes through puberty. The groups are flexible and students can move between them during the year, especially if we have made errors in judgement as its subjective. Has it improved technical ability of our students? I do not think so, looking at pervious data and assessments there hasn’t been a significant change. However the feedback from students we get each year means a lot more of them are happy within PE, and that can only have a positive outcome on them being physically active outside of the lessons.


    1. It is interesting to me how some football clubs have begun to move beyond ‘age’ teams and have either split their youth teams up in six month Jan-June, July-Dec, teams or into teams of similar physical maturity… Do you know of how this might work in academic subjects though?


      1. I think sports are looking at this due to mainly two reasons. The first one is to reduce the potential of injury. Throught puberty there is a significant change in sizes of students and competitive sport injury increases, especially in something like school boy rugby http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/11331343/Gladiatorial-culture-of-school-rugby-is-too-violent-for-small-children-warns-surgeon.html It is right that sports should be looking at different options to reduce the risk of serious injury and puts off children playing reguarly. The second is that physically developed children, rely on their physical attributes and dont necessarily look to develop thier skills or tactical awarness. Ensuring children play with others who are similar weights, sizes or strength means that pyschomotor abilities are developed more. Neither of these two are issues in the academic classroom environment. I’m unsure of how it would work within that set-up. Do you think it would have a positive impact?


  8. Wendy Smith and learningsomemore – the simplicity: teaching to the top, and valuing each individual.

    Research does show top ability children progress better in their own group. Whilst I know this, and have two bright children, I am uncomfortable with the idea of putting primary school children into ability groups.

    Teachers are qualified to assess a child’s work against a set marking criteria.
    Teachers are not qualified to assess a child’s intelligence/potential (although I believe some teachers will have a talent for this).
    Children are taught by teachers who vary in their professionalism, experience, and ability to teach the subject (different subjects in primary).

    On the basis that teachers are not adequately skilled to identify a child’s potential neither should they be able to limit children in primary school.

    Our experience has reflected Martin’s, to the extent that our child wasn’t just chatting and failing to develop (academically, work ethic) but convinced he was stupid – his interpretation of his lack of growth.

    Every child should receive adequate supported challenge; building confidence, self-belief, resilience. Otherwise children will arrive at secondary school ill-prepared: bright kids who have cruised adequately above the ‘teach to the middle line’, who then crumple when they finally receive academic challenges in secondary; or they disengage and become lost even before they make it out of primary school.

    The research shows top ability children often do less well at secondary. Just a theory, but if the lower/middle ability children have received the lion’s share of the attention and support in primary school, perhaps, just perhaps these children have been properly supported whilst they have experienced challenges and have developed an attitude which encourages them to keep trying when they hit a difficult patch.

    Teach them all to the top; don’t privilege any primary child/group over another. Turn the light on all the little saplings and let them all grow without limits.


  9. I’m coming back to this late, but this time to bring the collected best evidence on this.

    This is taken directly from “What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research”. Available via http://www.suttontrust.com/researcharchive/great-teaching/

    Evidence on the effects of grouping by ability, either by allocating students to different classes, or to within-class groups, suggests that it makes very little difference to learning outcomes (Higgins et al, 2014). Although ability grouping can in theory allow teachers to target a narrower range of pace and content of lessons, it can also create an exaggerated sense of within-group homogeneity and between-group heterogeneity in the teacher’s mind (Stipek, 2010). This can result in teachers failing to make necessary accommodations for the range of different needs within a supposedly homogeneous ‘ability’ group, and over-doing their accommodations for different groups, going too fast with the high-ability groups and too slow with the low.


  10. As usual so many different elements in a classroom mean that it is difficult to identify which factor is impacting most on the achievement of the children. Is it the fact that the children are sat in ability groups that impacts most, or the fact that they have less contact with the teacher, or the quality of worksheets, or motivation levels of children etc etc.
    On the topic of the worksheet, again more research needed. If the teacher has specifically designed / written a sheet to give a group of children targeted practice at a targeted level and at a specific skill / activity I have no problem at all, indeed much of the new curriculum now demands a great deal of reinforcement of teacher input. However, an off the shelf worksheet taken from a random book is worse than useless.
    Biggest problem I see in primary is one teacher and 30 children – not sure how you set in this situation, also there can be an inherent problem in settled lessons – are you telling me that in a set of 30 the difference in ability between top and bottom is such that no differentiation is needed? So you split them into groups ? And sit them at tables? …….


  11. Hello,
    Wish I had seen this sooner. We over think the impact. Teach them all the hard stuff. Monday morning, after register, randomise places using lolly sticks to draw names. The deal is: you could be sat next to your sworn enemy for a week or you may be sat next to your best friend. Either way it is only for a week. I expect everyone in my class to get along and work hard. Every lesson I support those children who need support to achieve as highly as anyone else in the class, including abeyond what the top 3 might get to. Of course they don’t all get there but the effect on children who would never, for example get any where near sitting next to your daughter is massive. The know when less is expected of them. That is plain wrong and a relic of closedmindset pedagogy (like not using pens in maths books). Though the research does not look at this – the acadmic stretch of the most able would reduce in terms of acceleration through content but the different skills of working with different people is possibly more valuable for the academically higher attaining. The effect on the lower attaining pupils is significant. Seen this first hand. Enjoyed the post. Thank you.
    Gareth Denman


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s