Ability and Setting
In education, the language of ‘ability’ is often used to describe learners in permanent terms. Intelligence is seen as intrinsic and fixed. This leads to pupils being ‘set’ in classes or groups and given different levels of work according to their supposed ‘ability’. It is a fixed mindset approach imposed on children.
However, neuroscience teaches us that our brains are in fact very plastic. Our ‘intelligence’ is not a fixed entity, it grows with learning and practice. The ‘ability’ of any pupil is thus a current, not permanent or inevitable description; with high expectations, good teaching, the right attitude and lots of effort, everyone can make significant improvement in any field of study.
Systems that set pupils and their work according to ability are self-fulfilling. Pupils placed in lower groups are given less challenging work and so have less opportunity to learn. They are defined by their low status in school and so develop negative mindsets about their potential. Nationally, setting by ability tends to follow lines of social inequality. The disadvantaged are more likely to end up in low ability sets and advantaged children find themselves in top groups. Setting by ability creates and embeds inequality.
At our school, we use ability setting carefully and never in ways which determine children’s outcomes or identity as learners. We focus less on setting and more on giving pupils choice; we support our children in knowing themselves best as learners and knowing what the appropriate level of challenge is in any particular lesson. We expect everyone to be successful. We concentrate on providing excellent teaching, that rapidly helps pupils identify and close gaps in learning. We develop positive attitudes to learning in our pupils. We place a high premium on effort.