10 Dec 2019

Setting and Streaming in Schools: Explained for Parents

  • By Jodie Lopez  | 
  • 10 Dec 2019  | 
  • 9 min read
  •  |  Free download

When your child is in school you may hear them talk about “setting” tests or the “streams” they are in for certain lessons. 

That, coupled with their reports and results, may make you question how they are grouped and what impact these groupings have on their schooling. 

Your child may be telling you the work is too boring or too hard, or may be complaining about which group or class they are in for a certain subject. Or you may just be curious to see where your child fits in academically compared with their peers. 

This is all natural, but the terminology around groupings in school can be confusing. So let’s have a look at the differences between setting, streaming, and groupings in school; and why they might matter.

Sets and streams in schools – what they are and how they’re different

What is ‘setting’ in schools?

Setting is grouping students together based on their ability in specific subjects. So a child might be in a “top” set for maths but a bottom set for English, based on their performance in class and/or on tests.

(Note: We use the terms “top” and “bottom” for sets in this blog because that’s most likely what the students will call them. In school they will usually have names designed not to give away the ability of the set)

This can happen in larger primary schools, but if they attend a smaller primary or junior school your child may not be put into a set until secondary school.

Setting is usually only used for the “core” subjects – maths, English, and perhaps science – although it can also happen across the curriculum. 

English may also be split between reading and writing, as the tests at Key Stages 1 or 2 separate these skills. So a child may be in top set for reading, but if they struggle more with writing they may be in a lower set for this. 

Setting can happen within a year group or may happen across multiple year groups. For example, in primary schools, if you have 3 classes per year group in Year 5 and Year 6, setting may occur across all of these. 

How does setting work?

Usually setting is used to allow for teachers and teaching assistants to work with groups for focused work in a subject. This may mean the 6 total classes (3 from Year 5 and 3 from Year 6) turns into 9 possible sets taught by a mixture of teachers and teaching assistants. 

This can allow students to have more 1:1 help if they are in a lower group. The top set will likely have more children in it than the lower sets, as top-set students are more able to work independently.

For example: Group 1 (top set) may have 32 pupils, whereas Group 9 (bottom set) may only have 4 or 5 children working with a teacher or teaching assistant. The staff may also switch around so that students get a mix of working with different specialists.

an example of how setting works in schools

Although this may seem confusing or even concerning if your child is in a lower set, it can often represent the best way to get the most support for your child.

Students may move up or down the sets depending on their progress or needs, and retesting at the end of the term or year could determine any mixing up of the groups according to the latest results.

Some schools may use setting for maths but not for English, as English is easier to plan and deliver for mixed ability classes than maths is.

What is ‘streaming’ in schools?

 Streaming usually doesn’t happen until your child gets to secondary school. Streaming is where students are grouped based on general academic ability. Although it’s widely used, there is some debate about whether it’s an effective strategy for getting the best out of students. 

Students may be “streamed” based on the results of their Key Stage 2 SATs from Year 6, or on tests during Year 7. Some schools stream pupils as soon as they arrive, while others may not stream until Year 8 or 9, in preparation for GCSE study.

example of how streaming works in schools

Streaming can be confusing for parents and students because it means that a child is put into a group based only on core subjects like maths or English. 

So a student could be placed in a lower stream because their KS2 SATs scores were low. But since streams apply across classes they will be considered a low attainer for subjects like art or sports, even though how good they were at either of these wasn’t considered when their stream was decided. 

This is mostly not a concern for parents, as streaming in this case is usually more to make timetabling and admin easier. 

The stream will be together for the majority of their lessons, much like any “class” at school. Streaming simply helps a school identify the groups of students who may need more support overall, so they can attach the right staffing and resources to this stream. 

Do schools use setting and streaming at the same time?

Yes – a school might use setting within streams for core subjects, or possibly every subject depending on their resourcing needs. 

So your child might be in a bottom stream overall; but within that stream they could be in the “top” set for one or more subjects. 

In some schools they use the 11+ results to create a “grammar school” stream of higher ability students. Within this stream they may also set students for individual subjects. 

Occasionally you may hear that students in lower streams are not offered as many options for certain subjects as higher streams – for example they may have fewer choices of activity in sports. 

This may be a question for you to take to the school if you feel this is changing your child’s choices based on academic ability rather than sporting ability. 

However, usually the stream does not affect much in non-core subjects since, outside of maths and possibly English, most subjects are taught in a way which works across a wide range of abilities.  

What is ability grouping?

 Ability grouping usually happens in all classes and sets in one form or another. This happens at primary school and secondary school, though mixed-ability grouping is more common with younger students. 

Even in a set there will still be a range of abilities and needs across the class, although the breadth of the range may be narrower. 

Therefore within the class the teacher may set different work for different groups of students, or offer differing levels of support or resources based on each pupils’ needs.

example of how ability grouping works in schools

In-class groupings are usually as subtle as possible – each table may have a colour or animal name, for example, so that students are less aware of their position within the class. 

However, parents and pupils may still realise whether they are in a top/middle/bottom set based on the work they are given or the other pupils they are working with.

What does ability grouping look like?

In an ability-grouped class, students may be given a task which is differentiated by their skill level. For example: if the task is to write a poem, a lower ability table may be asked to write a poem all together, and a middle ability table may be asked to work independently. 

A top ability table may be asked to write their poems independently and then have an extension task to challenge them further by incorporating a certain style of higher level vocabulary. 

In maths students may be given a sheet of questions which is differentiated for their group – easier or more challenging question types.  Or they may be offered more resources to help them e.g. physical blocks to help with counting and ordering. The top group may be expected to work with mental maths and show more of their working out. 

It really does vary lesson to lesson. Adults in the room – teachers and teaching assistants – will also concentrate their time more on who needs help in one lesson, but then work to challenge the higher ability in another lesson or a different part of the same lesson.  

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What are the pros and cons of sets, streams and ability groups? 

Whether schools use streaming, setting, and/or grouping it is natural for parents to wonder what their child’s place in the groups means in terms of their opportunities, expectations, and outcomes. 

Firstly, as with any concerns with school, it’s always worth talking directly to your child’s teacher(s) to find out how they are doing and what impact the groups are having. 

Each school approaches setting/streaming/grouping in their own way, and this can be based on many factors outside of just your child’s academic skills – e.g. staffing and available resources – and they take all this information into account before they decide how to provide the best possible education they can for every child. 

Schools may also consider what the most recent educational research about setting and streaming is, especially if they have many students of similar levels.  

With that in mind let us first look at some of the common benefits of streaming and setting:

Benefits for individual students

Pupils in higher ability groups can work more independently in most cases, so by setting and streaming more resources can be offered to the pupils who need it most. 

You may have a concern that your child is in a lower set than you feel they should be in, but this lower set might give them the attention and support they need to gain confidence in the longer term. 

Teacher helping a student 1-to-1

Being in a lower set can offer children more chances to receive 1-to-1 teaching.

This is a “big fish in a small pond” effect as opposed to moving up a set and feeling like the “little fish in a big pond”. It’s always worth considering the emotional impacts linked to what set your child in, not just their academic ability. 

Schools usually take this into account when deciding where to place a child who is on the borderline between sets/groups. 

Benefits for the teacher and the whole class

Ability groupings allow teachers to better plan lessons which meet pupil needs. In mixed ability groups the range of ability can be too large for a teacher to plan for every child separately. 

One teacher with 32 children already means it is difficult to give every child a lot of 1:1 attention. With ability sets/groups at least they are pulled in fewer directions, and they can plan lessons which everyone can access and do their best in.

Where setting does not happen a teacher could have a range of ability levels to work with, from a child with multiple learning difficulties through to a child working 2 or 3 years above their age-related expectations. 

This can be really hard to manage. It could mean they have to either focus all their time on the lowest ability, who cannot work independently, or the middle ability (to try and get them across the threshold for exam results the school needs for the league tables). 

This may leave the highest ability with the least teacher-time to challenge and extend them. 

Where setting includes smaller classes with specialist teachers or teaching assistants, pupils have greater time to slow down and consolidate when needed, or to race ahead in topics they are confident rather than everyone waiting for the whole class to catch up. 

Disadvantages of setting and streaming in schools:

It can happen that the lower ability groups also contain many of the pupils with behavioural issues; they might get poor results in tests because of their behavioural problems instead of their academic ability. 

This can take teaching time away from the subject content because the teacher must focus on low level through to high level behaviour concerns, which can impact on the whole class.

Although setting and streaming is shown to have a positive effect on the higher ability groups – allowing them to move onto more challenging content without having to wait for lower ability students to catch up – there is less evidence that it has a positive impact on the lower and middle ability pupils. 

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Studies conducted by prominent research groups such as the UCL Institute of Education and the Education Endowment Foundation have concluded that setting in fact had a small negative effect on low-ability pupils, especially compared to mixed-ability teaching. 

This can be caused by lower ability groups being given lower expectations by teachers, or due to the lack of pupils having strong role models in the room. 

In English, for example, it can be harder for pupils other children using more complex vocabulary in sets.  In mixed ability classes this is much more likely to happen, as the higher attaining and low attaining students are all working in the same environment. 

Setting and motivation

In some schools pupils have no opportunity to move from one stream or set to another no matter how much effort they put in. This can demotivate them from trying their best. 

Often, setting is more successful where the students can aspire to move up the streams by working extra hard, or by changing their behaviour if that was affecting results.

Even when there is the option to move up however, if everyone is doing their best then the bottom group might still be the bottom group even though they show great progress. Students might feel there is no point trying in this case, as everyone will always be doing better than them.  

Simply being put in a stream or set might limit a child’s potential. 

Top set sometimes see it as an excuse to “take their foot off the gas” and coast along. If they see themselves as at the top of the pile in their own school it can be hard to motivate them to try even harder – especially because they can’t compare themselves to students in other schools.

At the other end of the scale a child put in the bottom set or stream may feel like they have failed, which can be especially hard if that’s how they start their time at secondary school. This can affect both their performance in class and their general emotional wellbeing and self-confidence.

Why do schools use setting and streaming if they know the possible negatives?

Schools always aim to do their best for every child no matter what the circumstances. But in a time of budget cuts, setting and streaming can help them to make up for the resourcing and staffing restrictions they face.  

This way they can offer the most support they can for every child, even though it may need extra effort from staff to ensure it does not have a negative impact on anyone. 

What should I do if I worry about which set or stream my child is in? 

Always talk to the school. Find out first of all how they reached their decision. It may be more than simply your child’s academic ability.

It may include assessments of their confidence and attitude to learning as well as making the most of practical elements such as school resourcing. 

A chat with the teachers or senior leaders of the school may help you to realise that this is the best possible chance for your child, even though it may not seem it from the outside at first. 

Of course, if you believe your child is really struggling in their learning, you can make the case to their school that they’d get a much greater benefit from moving sets.

If your child has concerns themselves, your first step should once again be to talk to the school. But it’s worth remembering that your child may change their mind over time too – they might not like their set at first, but grow to love it. 

Will moving sets or streams help my child?

Asking for a move to another group could be good for their learning but could also raise other concerns. Speak to the school and carefully consider any options available to you. 

If they have friends in the group then even this can have a great effect on their attitude to school and learning. Asking to move groups should never be as simple as “I think they can do better” from an academic point of view. 

Schools will always try their best, however, to ensure your child has everything they need in all subjects, regardless of their stance on the set or stream your child is in. So work with individual subject teachers too to ensure you are confident your child is able to reach their full potential.

Further Reading: