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Articles > Student Life February, 01, 2016

Sets In School Suck – And Here’s Why

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‘Setting’ involves putting the ‘most intelligent’ students into top set, and those who need ‘a little bit of support’ in middle and bottom sets. It’s something we are all too familiar with, we just accept our sets and get on with it… but should we?

Photo by Joe Phlintham

Photo by Joe Flintham

We’ve learned to just assume that teachers know what’s best for us but have they actually got it wrong this time? I feel like the set system puts students into separate ‘herds’ for the duration of the year… And that’s not right.

Here’s my opinion: students should be put in groups of mixed academic levels.

I think students should be in mixed groups, as it helps them learn, prevents elitism from staff, and encourages friendships not based on academic ability.

I believe that by being surrounded by people with different levels of intellect, and working with them, it helps students learn new things and may also allow them to assist the less able ones, thereby improving the class for these pupils as well.

In my view, a Utopian education system in Year Ten and Eleven involves the mixing of sets, not the complete isolation of them from each other.

The division of students also encourages staff not to expend as much effort on the lower sets. For instance, one time I (along with some other top-set students) got called to a presentation where the teachers called us “the cream of the coffee,” and offered us a variety of opportunities simply for being ‘smart.’ Now when my friends, who were not part of this “cream” found this out, you could literally see the disappointment on their faces.

These students, who worked so hard for their grades, who also wanted to get involved in opportunities to enhance their skills, were neglected like they weren’t even there. When I saw that reaction from my friends, I felt confused – should I be happy about all the opportunities I was offered, or feel bad about how my friends were ignored?

Why would you give the best opportunities to particular people, just because they’re doing better in some subjects? Why would a good educational system ignore the students who want to utilise these opportunities and trips in order to enhance their skills?

These sets also create a sort of mental boundary between students. For example, during group activities outside of lessons, I must admit that I used to depend more on the people of the higher sets to help with the work and marginalised the people who were in lower sets.

Immediately this set boundaries, causing people to view and treat certain students in different ways. This needs to be changed. The mixed-set GCSE education system I explained above is something that can be easily achieved: it may not seem like a big thing, but I truly believe it is.

Once you’re in a set, people think you’re either smart or dumb like it’s a part of your personality – even in the eyes of some teachers. You are stamped with this title until you finish your GCSEs, with the pupils in top sets feeling pressured by high expectations of them and pupils in the bottom sets feeling that they can never be as clever as the others.

So all in all, it’s simple. Sets suck – let’s scrap them!

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  1. Eleanor Walker

    Nope, definitely disagree with this one. I loved being in the top set as it meant I wasn’t in a class with the little shitstains who didn’t want to be there and were constantly disruptive. I wanted to learn, and resented being in mixed ability classes where a disproportionate amount of the teacher’s time was spent dealing with people who just didn’t want to be there.

  2. Zoe Braddick

    Whilst in theory this sounds an excellent idea, it only works when everyone is roughly the same level. I spent my secondary education in a school without sets and unfortunately it is very different to the picture you paint. In my class we had people who would end up with a U and people who needed up with an a or a* depending on the level. The elitism is gone from teachers as you hoped but this is purely down to the fact that they cannot cope with the wide range abilities displayed before them. Given the options, some choose to solely focus on those who need help and essentially throw a book and say ‘Go learn’ to the rest. In this situation the ones who need help the most are generally receiving it but everyone else suffers. However, most teachers just focus on the middle section of the class, that crucial c/d borderline that is so important to the schools statistics. This meant that the top level were not getting stretched, leaving many frustrated whilst the bottom were bored due to them not understanding the lesson meaning that lessons were more disrupted than before. The streaming system doesn’t work for everyone, but it does seem to better help the extremes more than the alternatives. Hope this sheds a little bit of light on the other side.

  3. Jess Broderick

    I find this interesting as I have had a vastly different experience with sets, as in both my primary and secondary school,we were placed in sets for maths and there was no additional pressure on higher set students and no discrimination against lower sets. Importantly, if there was a significant improvement in your achievement it was possible to change sets, but I do think it is highly unfair to give more opportunities to those in higher sets – for example, all students regardless of maths ability could enter the UKMT Maths Challenges. On the other hand, it is more difficult in an environment where you are judged for your set, but at the same time in my experience, lower sets offer more explanation and practice, whereas higher sets were faster-paced and so we could proceed to revision sooner. In addition, I believe my experience of sets has been so positive, as in other classes, Able, Gifted and Talented students were often either paired with students that were highly disruptive, had no interest in the lesson and often copied work, or students that needed extra support from the teacher and so unfortunately (but through no fault of their own) would require extra assistance from their partner – so that both were behind in lessons. In sets as students have a more similar level of ability, this system wasn’t required and helping each other was easier as we had a similar grasp of the subject.

  4. Chelsea Perrins

    I think…that sets should be scrapped. My sister was put in a lower set which was unfair because she’s actually very clever but quiet and shy. She missed out on a lot of opportunities and was basically ignored in lessons as teachers were more focused on the louder students. If sets were scrapped she would have had the same opportunities as the higher students and other teachers may have seen her potential. I also disagree with how limiting the grade boundaries are for the lower sets, as most universities only accept grades B and above so those in lower sets are pretty much stuffed as the highest they can achieve is a C.

  5. Regan Downing

    I was in a middle set and this meant that I DID experience both types of student. Those who wanted to learn and try their best to get the best results, and those who were simply there because they had to be. Although at times this works as it allows the students trying their best to do so, and those who don’t try their best felt inspired to try, pulley because their classmates did. However, the fact of the matter is that it was still incredibly annoying every time the teacher had to stop the lesson and progress purley because some students were intent on disrupting the lesson. I also think that it is very important to note that not all students in lower sets are like this! The majority still do want to get the best grade possible. But there are some who disrupt this from happening.

  6. Chelsea Peter

    I believe the sets can be a label; a categorisation for students, but I do still think they’re necessary – they wouldn’t be there otherwise. It is not just about how ‘intelligent’ one student is or isn’t, it’s also about the amount of EFFORT those students put in. I understand that there are many ‘lower’ students who put in more effort than the ‘top’ students, but we must remember that everybody is there for a reason. In some lessons, the predictions are calculated ridiculously – when a child first joins secondary school, their music or art predictions are based around their maths and English, which is absolutely ludicrous. I believe in creative or non-academic subjects, the sets should be devised based on effort and skill. That is what the sets come down to as a whole – how much time somebody is willing to put in. If they’re not going to try at all, and are failing to achieve the grades expected of them, they do not stay in top set. This idea of ‘elitism’ and higher affection to students is not carved out of the scores they get on a test – it is how they perform in terms of personality. If somebody isn’t a nice person, they’re not favoured, whether they’re on As or not. Educational sets are a requirement in the system, because they make life for teachers a lot easier, as well as the students. Without them, classes would be a mess of mixed levels through effort and skill, giving nobody a quality education.

  7. Lauren Pickens

    I enjoyed being in the top set as i had people in my class who wanted to be there, but i think that putting people into ‘sets’ can make the people who are less academically clever feel less of a person and may make them not want to try. I feel that, although sets are important to allow people to strive for their best, that the set problem could become more sensitive to people with a lower IQ

  8. Loz

    I commented about my opinion on most bits of this argument, it’s really long but should be somewhere here in the comments, try find it if you want, I tried to cover most points, 🙂 .

    However, there was one crucial thing that i missed out, although it can be beneficial for a student to be paired with another of a different ability as the more intelligent ( in that area or question, often the ‘higher’ level student will alternate depending on who better understands the content of the day) would be concreting their knowledge as one of the best ways to revise and cement knowledge is to teach it and the less intelligent (in that area) will be better off as it will be explained again to them and they will receive one to one help.

    BUT….!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    This also means that quite often someone who will be achieving high grades and is well behaved and can sit with a friend chat quietly and still get an B to maybe even an A* grade will be paired with that ‘HIM’ or that ‘HER’ -and everybody knows who I’m referring to- those students who don’t want to be there, that disrupt, that don’t try, that are arrogant, that are basically part of the only group of people that you wanted to avoid being partnered with. It is inevitable that when you achieve high grades and are well behaved you will be partnered with someone from ‘that group’ – if you don’t know what I’m talking about you were that group – these were usually the ‘cool’, ‘popular’ kids. Well, when you are paired together and the teacher says maybe you can help them be better….. Really?!? You think I can do anything?!? They are just going to copy my work and make snide comments about how they don’t want to be sat with you, they want to be with their mates… News flash, we don’t want to be with you either, we also want to be with our friends, JUST DEAL WITH IT AND STOP POINTING OUT THAT YOU DONT WANT TO BE WITH ME, YOU ARENT THAT GREAT A PARTNER EITHER!!! AT LEAST I DO THE WORK!!!! (Sorry… But this doesn’t help either party here and is why sets are sooooo necessary)

  9. Abi

    It is a waste of time to be in a class where teachers have to repeat everything and explain the simplest of things because of disruptive or struggling students. Whenever I was in a mixed set I found that the teachers would spend ages trying to help the students who were struggling or troublesome and never got round to answering my questions or helping improve my work.

  10. Hima

    In actual fact, as sets are there to separate deranged children from children who actually want to learn, for some children, sets are useless, children fail to develop the skills to carry on in lessons as they believe they’ve been placed in a bottom set because of their lack of work and progress, Some children refuse to work as they feel as they are less superior to children in what they call ‘top sets’, this can lead to depression etc.

  11. Joe G

    Sets exist to give people a more specialised approach with regards to their education. Inhibiting the potential of overachievers is a simply awful approach to teaching, and working without sets in compulsory education is a terrible idea.
    The only reason it works well in further education like sixth form or university is that your fellow peers will be on the same level as you, so there is no need for sets – everyone is as clever as everyone else. There’s also the fact that they chose to be there, meaning they won’t spend time pissing about and being a distraction.

    The reasoning that sets should be abolished because they develop a hierarchy is completely irrational, especially since they would only develop once more via the grades the students would then receive. This is evident from the inner hierarchy a set establishes within itself anyway, what you’re trying to do is simply communism – and look how much that works.

  12. Fred

    Ridiculous idea. Either you slow down every clever student and make everybody as bad as the worst in the class or you rush to teach the clever students and those who need more time to go over things have such a shaky understanding they just get more confused. It’s a lose lose situation.
    I’ve been in both mixed and setted classes and always done better in setted. It was wrong of your school to treat the upper sets as better but thats not what setting is about, I’m sure if groups were mixed teachers would still treat the more intelligent students in those groups better than the others anyway.

  13. Reece Whyte

    Although i agree with your view that this type of systematic hierarchy can enable boundaries within the educational system to be formed, you still have to consider the fact that those people in the higher sets may not be able to progress as well as they should if they have to work at the same rate as those of less capability. If the sets were mixed with high capability students and low capability students, then either the high capability students would not be challenged enough to develop their intelligence or the lower capability students would be over challanged. This is simply because there is neither the time nor resources (teacher, assistants or material) available within the UK school system to allow for variation in same class teaching.

  14. Storm Wind

    I totally agree with this hypothesis. Sets just don’t work and I myself am living proof of this. I was put into set 3 when I was in school and people viewed me as being quite thick. The worst part was that we were restricted into what we could learn and held back by teachers who had no interest in letting us go forward even when we did do well. I quickly lost faith by the time I got into third year, and things became worse during the years that I did my GCSE’s. It was only after I had left school that things suddenly turned from black and white to colour and I was able to pursue the career path that I wanted to take. Suddenly maths, a subject that I had been poorly taught became my main motive and I became so good at it that people who were meant to be better than me in the subject, eventually ended up asking me questions on the topic. I did Civil Engineering at University and got a First Class Degree. When I look back I think what the point of school actually was. I was more suited to individual learning and schools, with their sets system just did not cater for my needs.

  15. Holly Sedgwick

    Hmm have to disagree I guess this would work in some schools but my school tried this one year and literally every kid failed their GCSEs because some kids are disruptive or my just not be capable of the same stuff others are causing more able kids to be held back and frustrated with the poor behaviour of others

  16. Emily Willmoth

    In 6th form college, I found it difficult because there weren’t sets. For most of the subjects, the classes were too small to have sets, and I experienced both being a lower level student and higher level student in mixed-ability classes, both experiences of which were frustrating.
    In French, other members of my class were fluent and half fluent, whilst some of us were just coming up from GCSE French, and so the teacher moved at our pace, which made me feel bad for the more able students, who were constantly sat in the corner to get on with extension work.
    In English Language, meanwhile, I constantly knew more than the other students, and so I often felt the lesson was moving at a snail’s pace.
    In both cases, I feel all the class members could have benefitted from sets. Getting rid of sets only works if the most and least able students in a class are somewhat in the same sphere of capability. If they are not, this just seems, from my experience, to result in boredom and/or embarrassment.

  17. Loz

    I think…the setting systems are flawed but still, for the majority of the time, more beneficial than anything else. To set the scene, in my school we had 2 sides of the year, each with 4 sets. The two sides were… basically equal… although there was the idea of a better half, the two sides were mainly there to indicate when you would have your lessons for example, the two maths top sets could have the same teacher as they would never have maths at the same time but the ‘T’ top set might have maths at the same time as ‘T’ bottom set and ‘T’ second or third set and the same for side ‘S’. The sides were ‘S’ and ‘T’ but ‘S’ had sets 1,3,5, and 7 and ‘T’ had sets 2,4,6 and 8….now you might be starting to realise why it was thought that one side was a smarter side. It was seen that although 1 and 2 were top sets, one was clearly labelled ‘number 2’. That aside, generally, the sides were equal as there would be people in top ‘S’ English recieving A* and some getting B grades but also some in top ‘T’ getting A* and B grades so they did overlap (even if that one kid that always gets 100% – and is the nicest person ever making it hard to hate them for their unfair, annoying, intelligence and usually unobtainable work ethic- is always on ‘S’ side). This went until, GCSE years where your classes were in sets in the ‘blocks’ that you chose your options… ‘ A1,A2,B1,B2… And so on – maybe more sets if it is a common course, or only one class if it is not- This meant that how separated abilities were, depended on the popularity of the course, so it is fair to say that I have – in my 5 years of secondary school (education for 11-16 year olds, up to and including GCSEs or equivalent for those not in the UK) I have experienced highly set, (with 8 sets each of a class between 20 and 30 students) to completely mixed classes ( it reached as low as 15 people in one class, achieving from A* – U grades).

    I can honestly say that although it is completely out of line to only offer specific opportunities or activities to people of a specific ability (unless a specific ability is necessary for it) the sets were much more effective.

    I was a top set ‘S’ side student in every class for years 7-9 and the top set of each block that required sets, (excluding science where there were too many people for top set so everyone was given an option of whether they would prefer to stay in top or go to second -which had in my opinion better teachers- but both sets would be referred to as top and both would hold top set students…… I chose, second- had all my friends and one of the best teachers of the school :), Win!!! ). I had worked my ass off every single day and took pride that in certain subjects – maths – I was the second best student (apart from the annoyingly smart, always recieving 100% with little effort kid but super nice don’t get me wrong! No hate). Due to being in top set, we were given the option to complete our maths GSCE for the end of the fourth year (year10) instead of the fifth meaning year 9 was essentially year 10 in maths and year 10 was year 11, freeing year 11 for further maths studies such as statistics and an FSMQ-addition maths. If we were mixed we would not have been able to receive this as a teacher would be teaching two different years work in one class… I think we can all agree that wouldn’t work well. And don’t worry, those who did not want to were allowed to study with a different class of high abilities.

    Furthermore, my older brother was quite the opposite of me and I don’t mean that he was popular and cool and I was his book worm ‘beaner’ of a little sister, even though that is true :(, but he was generally in the middle or slightly lower sets. However, he spent two weeks in each deifferent set when he moved schools so that school could decide where he would go – there were 5 sets in his school. He believes that the 8 weeks he spent in the wrong sets were the worst of his entire school life up to this point, like another 5 years later. He could not work in the top set or the bottom set as both proved a challenge to concentration, one where for example in English whatever he said was reading into something too much and in the other, it was a childish and not complex enough interpretation. He benefitted profoundly from his middle set where they would challenge his grade to push for the next instead of telling how to reach the grade he already has or even lower or how to jump something like 3/4 grades up. In a situation which different abilities, a teacher is forced to choose a pace to work at which will be both too fast, too slow and just right to 3 different students, only benefitting roughly a third of the class. This would not be right and did occur at times during year 10 and 11 in classes with not enough students for even two sets meaning that at times I could be completely lost with the work, and others lost in my own train of thought because I understodd the work 3 lessons ago.

    That’s my opinion, I ramble on a lot… I know, in sorry, I need to work on that. I want to be a lawyer so covering a lot of material is key but it does need to be concise. If you actually read all of this, I salute you, and apologise once again

  18. Nazia Haque

    While this is a nice idea in theory, I don’t agree with it. Sets are designed so that the lessons can be tailored to the group of students – for example, my English class could learn by being lectured on the books we were studying while lower sets learnt more when the lessons were really interactive. In Maths, most of the class were getting A/A* in Year 10 so most of us took our exams that year and then were taught Further Maths in Year 11. If sets had been mixed, that wouldn’t have been possible. Besides, most of the lower sets just didn’t care when it came to exam season and would’ve affected the class because of it. Sure, it was funny when they did it, but I preferred staying well away from them when it mattered.

  19. Esther McNeil

    This is quite controversial. I think that its better in sets to allow students to work with their own ability, where they don’t get held back from other students who don’t want to learn or aren’t able to understand at the same rate. It is unfair to be held back by other students because of the school system and while I understand the negative effects it has on students who are in lower sets, if you want to learn in a lower set, you will! I was in a mixed ability class, and had started doing maths at an early age, so when I reached the higher level classes I was held back because the teacher said I wasn’t allowed to do short division because it was too advanced for the class. I also know I wasn’t the only one…
    I think that the sets shouldn’t limit the exams that students take though.

  20. Lucy Kerry

    I was in bottom set maths and this made me more determined to succeed. I think that mixed groups are a lot better as it’s surprising what the influence of others has on students: especially those who want to do well.

  21. Sam Davies

    I also have to disagree. I was average through out my time in school and spent time in the top set which to be honest gave me an incentive to work much harder to, if you like keep up with the others. When I spent time in lower sets the class was constantly being disrupted by pupils who had no intention to work what so ever. In my school being in a Lower set just meant you would have more support, support which you maybe wouldn’t get in a higher set becaus it worked at a faster pace.

  22. Leah Willis

    nope, sorry i completely disagree.
    As someone who is in year eleven and coming to the end of her GCSE’s i can say, with experience, that set system has truly helped me. i haven’t been in a fixed set my whole way through high school as i fluctuate between certain grades, as we all do. The set system puts a division between certain intelligence levels, division isn’t always a good thing, however in this case it is, purely because i would rather work with people of my intelligence bracket rather than people who are smarter and put you down because you feel stupid when your around them or people who are less intelligent and the teacher is waiting on them 24/7, therefore slowing the whole pace of the class down causing the class to fall behind or just generally taking longer to get simple tasks done.
    Keep the set system.

  23. liah Mitchell

    I think…this is interesting

  24. Mitchell Searle

    I don’t think that this really matters too much, look at it this way, if you are in bottom set for maths for example, and the career you want to get into doesn’t require you to be good at maths, than it doesn’t matter what set you are in. At the end of he day they are ways of stating the different social classes of the people being taught. Also, one of the best ways I learned in school and college was by leaning from my peers, not just the students, and for those in the bottom sets where there peers may not be able to do the task either, it makes it difficult as they can then only have the teacher as a single source of guidance. This in turn affects the education system as a typical teacher can only direct their full attention to a small group, making others miss out.

  25. Christine Entiwsle

    In both; Maths and English I was set wrong and taught at a lower level. I did move Maths sets but I was able to in English. It does build your confidence to feel as though you’re one of the top in that class and I’m certain many of my classmates took inspiration. Agreeing with this article, I can say with complete confidence that mixed sets help the less talented work harder, as well as the more fortunate feel as though they’re playing a more important role in helping their friend’s learning. Because once you’re made to feel like you’re stamped by others (that should know) you don’t always want to contradict.

  26. Aaron Singh

    This is certainly an interesting topic as many people of different intellectual levels will have ways of taking information in. I feel that although the set system does separate students of different abilities it allows students to work with people at their level. However, in years 10 and 11 i found that although I was in top set for maths I was still able to help people in my class as they would always understand things, so i think that the current system works to an extent but the integration of sets could help the less able students a lot as well as allow more able students to apply their knowledge and help others.

  27. Hannah Grainger

    I do understand the purpose of sets in some circumstances, catering education for the needs of the learner is a good thing and is something that needs to be encouraged. The problem is that some students in lower sets are capable of achieving more than what is accessible in their learning environment. A lot of these pupils are troublemakers who lack the motivation to work hard, and these individual can hinder the education of students with a lower ability, who want to learn however can’t due to the disruption and lacking of teaching skill provided. As some teachers assigned to lower sets are not necessarily the best to teach lower ability kids who need more support.

  28. Elizabeth Mangham

    I do agree with the whole idea of having mixed sets and learning from each other as my mixed ability A Level classes have shown. However, I believe this puts a lot more stress on the teacher, as instead of accommodating for a somewhat “uniform” class, they have to try and respond to the needs of students with different learning capabilities. Despite this, it does benefit students.

  29. Charlotte Amoh

    I totally agree with this article in my 6th form we didn’t have sets, and I could see the benefits of this. We were all able to encourage each other and learn from each other despite the fact that we were at different levels.

  30. Alex

    I have to say that I agree with the way you put the problem on the sets topic, however, not every student is able to learn and consume information at the same level as others, therefore making this a positive aspect regarding your point of view. I knew about the “sets” system for quite a while, but never experienced it directly from teachers. It is not directly applied where I live, making me think that maybe some changes need to be made regarding some educational system, or the attitude and managerial plan teachers make in order to completely do their job at their best abilities.

  31. Abii Hurrion

    I think I mostly agree with this comment however there are a few downsides to scrapping them completely, it would be really hard for a teacher to teach in a way that meets everyone’s needs and level of uderstanding. It could either cause more problems for kids who learn faster, like not being interested and becoming destructive, or the children who struggle will end up with a bad attitude to learning and could potentially become destructive as well. When I was at school my maths teacherror had this idea that worked really well. We were already split in to groups – the higher set, middle set and lower set. However these classes were quite large at least 25 children in each class if not more. I was in the middle group but there were children with in the class that were slightly more positive about learning and slightly better at maths than others in the class so by using our current level and grades compared to our predicted grades my teacher sat children on tables who were predicted Cs with children who were predicted Es we then worked together which improved team building and helped the teach teach 25 students in many different ways causing a lot of people in my class to get higher grades than they were first predicted. Many went from Es to Cs within a few months.

    Mixing groups who are roughly the same level will work better than getting rid of sets altogether, as children who don’t understand or who get bored in classes won’t learn a thing.

  32. Anonymous

    Just no. Just no. Removing sets will ruin the academic, serious students.

  33. ninja

    I think that it’s bad because if you have an intelligent person in the class, that person can help you. I think that the school system sucks at the minute

  34. Alexei Vasilev

    The top set people are disruptive for being over-malicious, show off-ish jerks, and sets two and three are full of idiots. People get moved down for reasons they cannot control due to sabotage by friends and the like. Sets are stupid, in my opinion.

  35. Jean-Luc

    If your dumb in sets or mixed ability classes you’re still dumb. You will be viewed and judged according to the way you present yourself. We will never eradicate judgement from humanity.

    Sets are important so that people of a greater intelligence dont waste time going over excercises that are easy for them, and similarly for less able students unnecessarily struggling with harder work.

    The fact you yourself stated you have friends in other sets proves the notion that students only associate themselves with people from other sets. It just doesnt happen.

  36. Paige Cowen

    I completely agree with this article as it is an issue. I had this problem where, even when the whole class was top set, there was a handful of kids who as you said were ‘the cream of the coffee’ and the rest of us barely got a word from our teacher. Would be much more beneficial if students of all academic levels were together and then there may even be less of a divide between social groups…