Setting is the act of ‘teaching students with similar levels of current attainment in groups’ (EEF, 2018). Theoretically, it might be suggested that the introduction of a promotion/demotion system, with better performance rewarded by being moved to a more elite set, might motivate students to excel, due either to the desire to move up or not be moved down. Additionally, it helps all ability groups by tailoring lesson content to their ability.
The revision of setting policies has attracted much attention in education because academics have increasingly started to explore the disadvantages of segregating students, especially those of a young age, into groups based on their ability. A study conducted by UCL in September 2017 claimed that setting is ‘detrimental to the learning of mid-range and low-attaining learners’; however, it observes that the effects of setting differ based on a school’s context. Hence it might be worth thinking about how setting affects Etonians specifically, and seeing how they perceive setting.
The data used in this study came from a sample of 40 Etonians in Year 12, all of them in Economics where classes are of mostly mixed ability. The data was collected via an anonymous survey which went out to a convenient sample of boys. The study has its limitations in that it is a self-reporting study and does not look at many variables which might affect boys’ performance in a set. However, here we are only looking to address how boys perceive their ability vis-a-vis others in their group and what impact they perceive setting to have on their performance. These are some of the main themes which emerged from the data.
The revision of setting policies has attracted much attention in education because academics have increasingly started to explore the disadvantages of segregating students
The difference between setting or not is marginal for those in Year 12
Out of the boys doing Economics, 47.5% of the boys did not even notice that their classes were chosen on different criteria compared to the rest of the school, possibly indicating that the change in learning environment from a set class to a non-set class is marginal. When asked about setting in general, the vast majority of answers mentioned that not setting would result in a much wider skill gap; however, when asked about skill-similarity in their own class on a scale from 1-5, with 5 being very similar, 80% of answers chose a 3 or above, suggesting that even though Economics classes aren’t chosen on ability, the students still perceive them to be of more or less of equal ability. Of course, we cannot draw any final conclusions from this perception but it is interesting to see that even though boys say that the ability will be very mixed if there is no setting, when it comes to their actual classrooms they do not seem to notice much difference.
The possibility of being moved to a higher division is not a priority for boys. There was almost a 50% split whether boys would like to have the opportunity to move to a higher set. They mentioned other factors which were more important to them, such as having a teacher who motivates them or being in a classroom environment they enjoyed. The latter might be because of how teenagers work: they tend to get motivated by their peers more than by anyone else. Changing divisions is not what they would like to do, even if it meant being put in a higher set. This might justify a statement such as this made by one boy: ‘I am very happy in my current division and I feel like changing my current environment would be a setback for my performance.’ We cannot assume that such a change would have a negative impact on their performance but it would certainly affect their social relationships, which is of major importance to them.
Perceptions are mixed when it comes to what affects performance and how sets should be arranged
There was a real mix when it came to what boys think affects their work ethic in the particular set they were in. This is the breakdown of how their perceptions varied. Even though the boys were not in a consensus as to what affects their performance in a particular set, when they gave qualitative responses they seemed to suggest that a mixed ability set would still encourage them to work hard since they can always look up to others: ‘my set already has clever people that already motivate me’ wrote one. There were boys who seemed to think that the subject is what matters, not the set: ‘I do not care about what set I am in, as long as I’m learning what I need to and improving my skills at the subject which should be happening regardless.’ Or: ‘My effort level does not depend on what a number next to my schedule says’. Another boy said: ‘Any grade I get I know reflects how hard I have worked irrespective of whether I’m going to move up a set or not’. Again, the comparison between peers is a strong element, since some boys said that they get competitive and want to prove to others that they can become better. However, there was the perception that the set is not what mostly affects that. In terms of how sets should be measured, summative assessments were not considered the best way to gauge ability. 67.5% of the boys said that they disagree with this being the norm in how schools arrange the sets. They gave other factors such as homework, participation in the classroom, and the teacher giving their own idea of the student’s level.
The study was limited by the fact it only used samples from a very specific cohort. Only boys in Year 12 were questioned and only in one department. Consequently, the survey did not give a holistic summary of the effects of setting in Eton. It was also a study which looked at pupil voice and self-reporting perceptions rather than into correlations between sets and examination results. Hence it might be worth questioning younger boys, as well as look at other factors which affect boys’ perceptions. As the participants in the study mentioned, there are many other factors which affect their perceptions of how their sets work or what might affect their motivation. Until then, a radical school-wide change in how sets work would be ill-advised.
EEF (2018). EEF Blog: Grouping pupils by attainment – what does the evidence say?. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/news/ eef-blog-within-class-attainment-grouping-setting-and-streaming/ [accessed 21.5.2019].
UCL News (2017). Schools ‘teaching in ‘ability’ sets despite evidence this may cause harm’. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2017/sep/schools-teachingability- sets-despite-evidence-may-cause-harm [accessed 21.5.2019].