Numbers or People- Are ability-based classes worth it?

After leaving the safety of Primary School, most children are tested on ability and separated into classes based upon test results and these classes should, in theory, be better for pupils as they can be set appropriate work, avoiding the teacher having to cater for a variety of different pupils in one class. However set classes may actually be limiting children and placing them in labels ignoring the possibility for change.

Whilst classes determined by pupils’ academic ability are currently the norm, countries such as Finland and Japan, often have mixed-ability classes. In some Primary Schools, they use a mixed-ability system but this changes once children start secondary school and it may become blatantly obvious that there are boxes and labels for them all. Once they’ve adjusted to the new set classes, it could completely change again. In colleges and sixth forms, a lack of staff or a lack of interest in a subject can lead to fewer classes, so the classes are mixed. The education system seems confused about whether or not mixed-ability classes are a good idea or not.

Parents sometimes don’t want to send their child to schools with mixed-ability classes as they believe it will reduce their child’s chance of success. However, mixed-ability classes can encourage cooperation between pupils and less focus on competition about getting the top grades which can lead to children with inflated egos and fragile self-esteem. By comparing the number of marks on a test, it can make pupils feel deflated if they don’t do as well as their friends. Some pupils may use their good grades to put down other pupils and turn education into a competition. A mixed-ability class may be able to avoid this due to the diverse range of pupils in there and may lead to friendships being founded on more than just numbers.

However, in large schools, mixed-ability classes may be difficult to implement due to having large class sizes, with a shortage of teachers. Therefore a teacher providing support for a class of 32 with varying targets may seem impossible. Despite this, it could suggest that mixed-ability classes would work if only class sizes were smaller, but this leads to an issue deeply rooted within teaching, a shortage of teachers.

Furthermore, being placed in a lower set or band may make students question their self-worth as they are labelled as less capable so they may not try because they aren’t expected to succeed. Having these labels thrust upon a child can determine the person they become. After getting a lower grade in one exam, it isn’t expected that a child would jump up grades. If a teacher or school (who supposedly know better than them) doesn’t think they can improve, why would they?

Having ability-based classes could also be unreliable for showing a student’s true capability due to class inequalities. Whilst it could be argued that classes are based on how well someone can write an essay or do calculations, class inequalities play a pivotal role in who is in which class. Middle and upper-class families are more likely to be able to provide their children with extra support at home with their studies, pay for them to have a tutor, or provide them with educational opportunities like visiting different countries, which may help them in their studies. Set classes aren’t based on ability but advantage.

They also help to legitimise class inequality. If a working-class individual is placed in a lower set, they may not receive the same support and be labelled as “low achieving”, this could impact their motivation and result in them not being able to move up the social hierarchy due to potentially rejecting their education. This makes it seem like it is their fault that they aren’t in the “top” sets or upper-class.

Therefore, set classes based upon attainment, help to perpetuate class inequalities and encourage competition amongst children over numbers, leading to low self-esteem or rejecting education. Whilst set classes may help ensure individuals are mentally stimulated, there may be a more effective way of ensuring every child feels valued and supported within the education system.

Article by Young Reoporter Ruby Winter
First appeared in Grimsby Telegraph 9th June 2020