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What is the best way to organise pupils in school?

The most controversial form of grouping is by ability, which can take the form of selective schooling, tracking, streaming or setting

Dr Fiona Curtis, a lecturer at the Institute of Education, discusses how children are organised and managed in schools.

In many schools there’s going to be a need for grouping, if only to manage the crowd. The most common form of grouping in the UK is by age – all but the smallest school will organise pupils into year groups.

Other reasons for grouping will be by gender (particularly for Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) type lessons), choice (for example GCSE selection), behaviour (if only in the short term, eg detention) or for administrative purposes.

The most controversial form of grouping is by ability. This can take the form of selective schooling, tracking, streaming or setting. Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Selective schooling

Selective schooling refers to a system of differentiation where a child has a choice of school types dependent on passing or indeed failing an entrance examination. In the UK, there are comprehensive schools in most geographical areas which all secondary aged pupils can attend.

However, 5% of state secondary schools are grammar schools, which pupils have to pass an exam at 11 years old to attend. This system is argued to be meritocratic, but very little impact on social mobility has been evidenced.

Tracking and streaming

Tracking and streaming are very similar. They both refer to the practice whereby pupils are assessed for ability across a number of academic subjects, and assigned a track or stream on this cumulative evaluation.


Setting refers to the practice of assigning a class according to a child’s assessed capabilities, one subject at a time.

The UK uses this form of within-class grouping more than any other country in the world and at an earlier age. This has the apparent advantage of providing a homogeneous class of similar ability, but in reality, every class is a mixed ability class, in that no two pupils have identical skill sets.

Setting has been found to be strongly influenced by issues of class, race and behaviour.


The disadvantage of any identification of ability is that it necessarily comes with an identification of low ability, with all the damage to self-esteem, motivation, expectations, and resilience that this implies. Any assessment is bound to be imprecise, as tests are subject to bias, are limited in scope, and only measure what’s easily measurable. Defining someone in terms of their ability is inaccurate and very short term.

Research regularly shows that allowing people of differing skills and prior knowledge to work together benefits everyone from the highest to the lowest attaining, in terms of social skills, self-esteem and academic progress.

© University of Reading
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