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Us and Them: a history of pupil grouping policies in England's schools
Derek Gillard
December 2008

copyright Derek Gillard 2008
This article is my copyright. You are welcome to download it and print it for your own personal use, or for use in a school or other educational establishment, provided my name as the author is attached. But you may not publish it, upload it onto any other website, or sell it, without my permission.

You are welcome to cite this piece. If you do so, please acknowledge it thus:
Gillard D (2008) Us and Them: a history of pupil grouping policies in England's schools

In references in the text, the number after the colon is always the page number (even where a document has numbered paragraphs or sections).


Up to 1900Mass education and social class
1900-1945Notions of 'intelligence'
1945-1960Doubts and concerns
1960sComprehensivisation and unstreaming
1968-1979The heyday of mixed ability teaching
1979-1997Conservative attempts to introduce 'differentiation'
1997-2008New Labour's assault on the comprehensive ideal

ABSTRACT In this article I describe the ways in which pupils in England have been allocated to teaching groups during the period in which the state has provided education - roughly from 1860 to the present. I note the views expressed in government reports and White Papers, the arguments made by educationists, and the findings of research projects.

Introduction: terminology

This article describes the ways in which pupils in England have been allocated to teaching groups during the period in which the state has provided education - roughly from 1860 to the present. It summarises relevant sections of government reports and White Papers, the arguments made by educationists, and the findings of research projects. All this material is presented in chronological order.

The selection of children in England's schools for different types of education can be seen operating at three levels: between schools, within schools and within classes. This article deals mainly with the second - the allocation of pupils to classes - but it also refers to selection for secondary education (because this clearly affects pupil grouping policies in primary schools) and to the grouping of pupils within classes (because decisions in this area are affected by policies at the other two levels).

The following brief definitions of the terms involved may be helpful, especially to non-UK readers.

Selection between schools

This is sometimes referred to as 'secondary selection' since it refers to selection for the secondary phase of education in England (usually covering ages 11 to 18). In this context, selection is the separation of children into schools of different types at the age of 11, based on some measure of general intelligence or some perceived aptitude for or ability in either a particular style of education (academic, technical etc) or a particular curriculum area.

Secondary selection has mostly been based on the results of tests (often in English, arithmetic and 'verbal reasoning'), known collectively as 'the eleven plus', but has sometimes taken into account teachers' assessments of pupils' ability and, less frequently, parents' wishes about the type of secondary school they wish their children to attend.

Only a handful of local education authorities still retain eleven plus selection and in these the proportion of children who 'pass' depends on the number of places available at grammar schools. In other local authorities there may be 'covert' selection of children - for faith schools or specialist schools, for example. (That in itself is a long and sorry story which I do not propose to deal with here).

Selection within schools


Almost all schools in England group their pupils according to chronological age. A 'year group' will thus contain all the pupils who were born in the twelve months from 1 September in a given year to 31 August in the following year. Prior to the 1988 Education Reform Act primary and secondary schools numbered their year groups separately, so pupils moved at age 11 from the fourth year of primary school to the first year of secondary school. Students who stayed on after the age of 16 to take A Levels were in the 'Sixth form'. Since the 1988 Act the years of compulsory schooling have been numbered consecutively from Year 1 (five to six year olds) to Year 10 (fifteen to sixteen year olds). Those who stay on for A Level work are now in Years 11 and 12.

Vertical grouping (sometimes called family grouping)

This involves creating classes which contain children from more than one year group, and so is the exception to the above. It is mostly used in small (often rural) schools (for obvious practical reasons), can be found in some larger infant schools (as a matter of policy) and has been experimented with in some primary schools.


Pupils are divided into classes on the basis of some measure of intelligence and/or attainment and remain in those classes at all times for all lessons. Traditionally, the streams were named 'A', 'B', 'C' etc, and children were often spoken of as 'an A stream pupil' or 'a C stream pupil'.


Commonly, pupils are allocated to mixed ability classes and remain in these for most of the time, but are divided into ability-based groups for certain subjects (typically English, maths, science and modern foreign languages). The groups are constructed on the basis of ability in the particular subject. So, for example, in setting for French the groups would be based on pupils' ability in that subject. An individual pupil might therefore be in the 'top' set for English and a lower set for maths.


Pupils are allocated to broad ability bands, typically the 'top' 25 per cent, the 'bottom' 25 per cent and the 50 per cent in the middle. There may be several class groups in each band. Obviously this can only work in relatively large schools. Banding has sometimes also been used by local education authorities (LEAs) to allocate children to secondary schools in order to ensure a roughly equal distribution of ability in each school.

Mixed ability grouping

Mixed ability classes contain the full spread of ability in the year group and are intended to be as equal as possible: no class should contain a disproportionate number of pupils who are either especially able or have learning difficulties. Some measure of intelligence and/or attainment must therefore be made. Note that this is not the same as random grouping.

Random grouping

Pupils are allocated to classes with no account taken of their ability, perhaps on the basis of where they live, their friendship groups, or their position in an alphabetical list. Random grouping is relatively rare.

Selection within classes

This concerns the policies adopted by schools or individual teachers for grouping pupils within a class for all or some of their work. As with selection between classes, such groups may be constructed on the basis of overall ability (i.e. always the same, whatever work is being done); or on the basis of ability in the work currently being done; or they may be of mixed ability (where children of different levels of ability work together in a group - ideally collaboratively); or they may be constructed randomly (perhaps on the basis of friendship groups). The membership of such groups may be changed from time to time or from activity to activity.

Having established the terminology, we now turn to the history.

Up to 1900: Mass education and social class

Human beings have always been obsessed with labelling one another. Skin colour, nationality, religion, gender, sexuality, political allegiance - all have been used to divide 'us' from 'them'. In England, the most divisive and damaging of such criteria historically has been social class. The division of the population into upper, middle and lower (or working) class has bedevilled English society for centuries.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the very idea that the mass of the population should learn to read was seen as 'a foolhardy and potentially dangerous enterprise' (Chitty 2007:12). In 1535 Henry VIII's Vicar-General and chief adviser Thomas Cromwell ordered that copies of Tyndale's new English Bible were to be placed in every parish church. Parliament was clearly unhappy with this decision, because in 1543 (three years after Cromwell had fallen from grace and been executed) it passed an Act which banned artisans, husbandmen, labourers, servants and almost all women from reading or discussing the Bible. The prohibition proved impossible to enforce. Indeed, the brief availability of the English Bible had already encouraged many to learn to read and had made them think about the nature of society and the church. 'This was indeed a cultural revolution of unprecedented proportions, and one whose consequences stretched far beyond the period of the Reformation and the English Revolution' (Chitty 2007:14).

Opposition to mass education, however, was to continue well into the nineteenth century (and remnants of it even into the twentieth).

In the eighteenth century, 'proponents of liberal political economy objected to all forms of education for the poor - and particularly Charity Schools - as dangerous and misconceived prototypes of benevolence' (Chitty 2007:14). Too much schooling, they believed, would simply make the poor discontented with their lot.

In the early nineteenth century middle class radicals campaigned for national state education but were repeatedly thwarted by an alliance of Lords and Tory MPs. In a notorious speech attacking the Parochial Schools Bill, for example, Tory MP Davies Giddy, declared that:

However specious in theory the project might be of giving education to the labouring classes of the poor, it would, in effect, be found to be prejudicial to their morals and happiness; it would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture and other laborious employments to which their rank in society had destined them; instead of teaching them subordination, it would render them factious and refractory, as is evident in the manufacturing counties; it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets, vicious books and publications against Christianity; it would render them insolent to their superiors; and, in a few years, the result would be that the legislature would find it necessary to direct the strong arm of power towards them and to furnish the executive magistrates with more vigorous powers than were now in force. Besides, if this Bill were to pass into law, it would go to burthen the country with a most enormous and incalculable expense, and to load the industrious orders of society with still heavier imposts (Hansard House of Commons 13 June 1807 Vol 9 Cols 798-9 with minor corrections).
Elsewhere, attitudes were rather different. By the 1830s the United States was establishing a public school system based on a common education for all its citizens, and around the world the development of industry, commerce and international trade was persuading governments that they needed to educate all their peoples.

Yet England was still reluctant to embrace the concept of state education. The public (i.e. private) schools of the Victorian period offered a curriculum that 'paid little or no attention to the scientific and the technical', but they enjoyed 'enormous popularity and prestige with industrialists, entrepreneurs and technological innovators'. As long as these schools held on to their dominant role in the nation's life, 'there was little incentive for the new bourgeoisie to create state schools with different values' (Chitty 2007:11).

However, the campaign for mass education continued to grow and was given a boost by the passing of the 1867 Representation of the People Act, which doubled the number of people who were allowed to vote. When it finally became clear that the country needed an education system which catered for all, those who were horrified at the prospect of children of different classes being educated together sought to ensure that the school system itself was clearly divided on class lines. Thus three commissions produced reports, each relating to educational provision for a particular social class:

The Forster Act introduced universal education for all children aged 5-13 and can, with some justification, be viewed as the moment at which the government finally began to take the education of the nation's children seriously. However, the Act was restricted in scope. It sought only to supplement existing church provision, and it did not provide for compulsory education (which would have to wait another decade) or free state education (which would have to wait until 1891). Furthermore, the elementary education it offered was limited and inferior. Nonetheless, the Act was 'a truly radical measure in that it laid the foundations of a universal system of elementary schools for the working class' (Chitty 2007:16).


Streaming and setting were unknown at this time. From 1862 children in elementary schools were allocated to classes on the basis of 'standards'. The standard was the level the average child was expected to have reached at the end of a year's work and most children were expected to progress at one standard a year. Schools were anxious to get children into Standard I as soon as possible after the age of six because they were financed under the system of 'payment by results' up to - but not beyond - Standard VI.

Payment by results ended in 1898, but the notion of standards regulating promotion through the school survived because the 1902 Education Act (which abolished the School Boards and established a rigid distinction between elementary and secondary education) introduced a system of junior scholarships under which 'free places' in grammar schools were offered to the most able children. The vast majority of children remained in elementary schools until they reached the statutory school leaving age, which had been set at 12 in 1899. They were encouraged to progress quickly through the standards so as to have a better chance in the scholarship examination at the age of ten or eleven. Unfortunately, 'Accelerated promotion for some was counterbalanced by delayed promotion for others who repeated the same work year after year. Some left from Standard II or III. Practice had not made perfect' (Plowden 1967:283). The school leaving age was raised to 14 in 1921, though many working class children were forced to leave school at 12 to seek employment.

1900-1945: Notions of 'intelligence'

As the state system of education developed and expanded, those who still objected to the idea of working class children being educated at all, and especially to the notion of children of different classes being educated together, looked around for other ways of segregating children. A number of developments came to their aid. First, psychologists, whose science was gaining in respect and influence, warned that having too wide an age span in one class was undesirable, and that the grouping of children by chronological age produced fewer learning problems. Second, Binet's work on intelligence and Burt's on backwardness 'encouraged the view that ability could be measured and used as a basis for grouping and that less able pupils in particular needed to be given special treatment' (Kelly 1978:7-8). And third, the supporters of 'eugenics' (a term coined by the explorer Francis Galton in the 1880s for the study of the use of selective breeding to improve the innate quality of the human race) warned of the dire consequences of 'the spread of a physically degenerate population in the cities' (Chitty 2007:45), especially immigrants and the working class. These three developments provided the excuse for segregating children on the basis of 'intelligence'.

The idea that each child had a fixed level of 'innate intelligence' which could be measured and presented as an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) score was widely promoted, most notably by psychologist Cyril Burt, who did more than anyone to advocate the widespread use of IQ tests 'for the purpose of pinning permanent labels on schoolchildren at the age of eleven' (Chitty 2007:66). Burt provided much of the theory on which the Hadow Reports were based and was to wield enormous influence over many years - through the 1938 Spens Report to the structure of the secondary education system in the wake of the 1944 Education Act.

Another influential eugenicist was Professor George Adami, who served on the Hadow committee for its Reports of 1923, 1924 and 1926. In an address to the International Eugenics Congress in New York in September 1921 and reprinted in The Eugenics Review in 1923, Adami emphasised the importance of selecting the most able pupils for entry to the country's best schools, so as to prepare them for leading positions in society. We must, he urged, identify 'the real aristocracy of the nation', especially as the prevailing social conditions favoured 'the preponderance of what are from every point of view the lower classes, the survival of the unfit and the inevitable deterioration of the race' (Adami 1923:176, quoted in Chitty 2007:72).

The Hadow Reports (1923-1933)

Four of the six Hadow Reports published between 1923 and 1933 are relevant here: Psychological Tests of Educable Capacity and their possible use in the public system of education (1924), The Education of the Adolescent (1926), The Primary School (1931) and Infant and Nursery Schools (1933).

The 1924 report began by reviewing the available tests, including 'the celebrated Binet-Simon Scale' which, with its various modifications, could be 'regarded as the model of all individual tests of "intelligence" which have been devised up to the present'. It was especially useful for identifying children who were 'definitely above or below the average' and had been used extensively since about 1910 'as an aid to the discovery and special treatment of mentally defective and subnormal children, and to a less degree of supernormal children'. It had also been used 'as an aid for internal classification in elementary and special schools, and to a very much smaller extent in secondary schools' (Hadow 1924:78).

Hadow warned of the limitations of such tests. 'The so-called "mental ratios" (intelligence quotients) of individual children obtained by the application of such tests represent a succinct and highly abstract method of presenting the results ... the mental ratio of any individual child should always be used with discretion and in association with the information available from other sources' (Hadow 1924:142).

In fact, the members of the Hadow committee were clearly not entirely impressed with the measurement of 'intelligence' for the purpose of selection at 11, the age at which they were proposing that all children would transfer from primary to secondary schools. In their 1926 report they warned that it was 'difficult to forecast how a child at the age of 11+ is likely to develop'. As a result, even when Free Place Examinations were conducted 'with the greatest care' some of the pupils who failed went on to show 'a real capacity for studies leading up to the First School Examination'. The committee therefore urged that 'every effort should be made to facilitate the transfer of such pupils to Secondary Schools' (Hadow 1926:139).

Neither were they convinced that intelligence was entirely a matter of heredity. In their 1931 report they noted 'a marked correspondence between the distribution of poverty and the distribution of educational retardation' (Hadow 1931:54). They concluded that: 'In the past, eugenic and biometric investigators have rightly emphasised the effects of heredity; but there is now an increasing tendency to believe that they have underestimated the effects of environment' (Hadow 1931:55).

On the issue of selection for secondary education, the committee declared that 'all children should enter some type of post-primary school at the age of 11+', that it would be necessary 'to discover in each case the type most suitable to a child's abilities and interests', and that for this purpose 'a written examination should be held, and also, wherever possible, an oral examination'. Psychological tests, they suggested, might be useful 'in dealing with borderline cases, or where a discrepancy between the result of the written examination and the teacher's estimate of proficiency has been observed' (Hadow 1926:139).

The committee recommended that children below the age of 11 should be 'classified' according to their 'natural gifts and abilities' (Hadow 1931:77) and they argued that one great advantage of the new 'self-contained' primary schools which they were proposing was that teachers would have special opportunities for making a suitable classification of the children on this basis. 'On the one hand, immediate treatment of an appropriate character can be provided for retarded children, and on the other hand, suitable arrangements may be made for specially bright children' (Hadow 1931:77). They recommended that in large primary schools there should be a 'triple track system of organisation, viz. a series of "A" classes or groups for the bright children, and a series of smaller "C" classes or groups to include retarded children, both series being parallel to the ordinary series of "B" classes or groups for the average children' (Hadow 1931:78). This policy was endorsed by the Board of Education in its Handbook of suggestions for teachers and was recommended for the 'multilateral' (i.e. comprehensive) school in the Spens Report on Secondary education in 1938. 'The ideology behind this was, of course, the ideology of the day which led to the organisation of secondary education itself as well as the grouping of pupils in classes along selective lines' (Kelly 1978:8).

Hadow did, however, warn against 'a rigid classification of the entrants from the infant school' and urged 'the desirability of classifying by capacity rather than by attainments'. Simple tests in reading and calculation might yield misleading results because 'retardation at the end of the infant stage is frequently due, not to any inherent defect in the individual child, but to prolonged absence through illness, or to unfavourable home conditions' (Hadow 1931:78). The committee also stressed the importance of easy transfer of children between the A, B and C classes. Unfortunately, as Plowden would later note, 'These reservations tended to be forgotten. Grading by ability, in one form or another, became almost universal in all but the smallest schools' (Plowden 1967:283).

The Hadow committee bemoaned the fact that teachers 'still fail sometimes to make appropriate provision for the specially gifted children' but deprecated 'the opposite practice, which to judge from our evidence still obtains in many schools, of devoting over much attention to the clever children who give promise of winning free places and scholarships, with the result that insufficient care and thought are given to the problem of making adequate provision for the average and retarded children in the school' (Hadow 1931:79).

They stressed the importance of group and individual work, especially in small schools, quoting a memorandum from the Education Section of the British Psychological Society: 'The diversity in age and attainment, together with lack of opportunity for group classification, makes flexible and individual methods essential, if good work is to be done. A well-organised arrangement of individual work in definite study together with abundant opportunities for group activity in the directions where such activity is really fruitful is particularly important in the rural school' (Hadow 1931:80).

And they noted that setting (though they didn't use that term) and individual work was being practised in some small rural schools. 'Teachers in schools which have been converted into primary schools for pupils between the ages of five and eleven are developing a technique and a type of organisation which are yielding good results' (Hadow 1931:81).

They gave two examples:

In a small country school in the north with an average attendance of 12 children under one teacher, the pupils are grouped for the different branches of the curriculum. The teacher makes the fullest possible use of individual effort on the part of the children by training them from the very beginning to work for themselves, and by allowing them all to make their own pace. ... By encouraging individual work within reasonable limits, the teacher is able to give her attention to different groups of children in turn.

The head teacher of a primary school in the midlands, containing 21 pupils, stated that she placed her pupils in sections according to their ability. As soon as a child could do the work of a subject in one section it passed on to the next. It did not follow, however, that a child would be in the same section for every subject or for a whole year, e.g. a pupil might be in section F, i.e. the top section, for reading, and in section C (equivalent to standard II) for arithmetic (Hadow 1931:81-2).

The committee concluded by reiterating their support for streaming. 'Older children differ far more widely in intellectual capacity than younger children. It would, therefore, seem that while at the infant stage children may be grouped together without much regard to varying degrees of mental endowment, by the age of ten pupils in a single age group should be classified in several sections, though there is not the same need for elaborate gradations before the age of eleven as after that age' (Hadow 1931:137).

The Committee's final report (1933) dealt with Infant and nursery schools. It noted that classification in these schools was usually by age, a tradition which could be justified because 'differences in intelligence are not so wide as they become in later stages' (Hadow 1933:138), but that many schools had experimented with vertical classification. 'Here each class contains children of all ages from five to seven or eight, each occupied with work appropriate to his powers, and they remain throughout the infant stage in the care of the same teacher' (Hadow 1933:138-9). There were advantages in this system for both teachers and children. It 'obviously calls for special gifts in the teacher, but it "works"' (Hadow 1933:139).

To sum up, then, the 1924 Hadow Report considered the applicability of psychological tests of intelligence in schools, decided that they could be useful in some circumstances but had reservations about their widespread use. The 1926 Report recommended that schooling for all children should be divided into two phases, primary and secondary, with the break at the age of 11. Written (and, where possible, oral) tests should be used to select children for different types of secondary education, with the use of psychological tests restricted to deciding borderline cases. The 1931 Report urged the creation of A, B and C streams in primary schools, especially the larger ones. And the 1933 Report supported the practice of most infant schools in allocating children to classes on the basis of age, but felt there was value in experiments involving vertical classification.

Many of Hadow's recommendations were implemented, though some - nationwide provision of primary schools, for example - took many years. Undoubtedly, two of the most significant outcomes were the introduction and widespread use of streaming within schools and a much greater emphasis on selection procedures at the age of eleven, both based on measurements of attainment or 'intelligence'.

There was an apparent contradiction in the committee's recommendations. On the one hand, Hadow promoted a 'progressive' child-centred and activity-based style of primary education. On the other, its recommendation that pupils should be selected for different types of secondary school resulted in primary education becoming 'a sorting, classifying, selective mechanism' which necessitated streaming as 'the basic form of internal school organisation for all primary schools large enough to form parallel classes in each age group' (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:36).

How could the committee reconcile a 'child-centred' approach to education with streaming on the basis of intelligence? Galton, Simon and Croll have argued that child-centred approaches, particularly Froebelian, were 'based fundamentally on the notion that the child's inborn characteristics must be allowed to flower ... the school's role is to provide optimum conditions for such development'. Since, according to the dominant school of psychology in the inter-war years (psychometry), a child's 'intelligence' was fixed, inborn, and not subject to change, 'what was necessary was to provide an education appropriate to the child's inborn, and measurable, intelligence level' (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:37).

The Spens Report (1938)

The theory which underpinned the Hadow Reports also informed the Spens Report on Secondary Education with Special Reference to Grammar Schools and Technical High Schools. This recommended that there should be three types of secondary school - modern schools, grammar schools and technical high schools - for which children would be selected at the age of 11.

The committee did argue that 'many benefits might accrue if children above the age of 11 were educated together in multilateral [i.e. comprehensive] schools, since the transfer of pupils at various ages to courses of teaching appropriate for their abilities and interests would be facilitated, and children differing in background and objective would be working in close association within the same school' (Spens 1938:375-6). But they decided they could not advocate the adoption of multilateralism as a general policy in England and Wales because it would be 'too subversive a change' (Spens 1938:291). They did, however, support the establishment of multilateral schools, 'especially in areas of new population' (Spens 1938:376). They were right to think that the notion of children from different backgrounds working together was a subversive one, but it's a pity they didn't pursue the idea: it might have changed the whole nature of English education in the post-war years.

The Norwood Report (1943)

The Norwood Report on Curriculum and Examinations in Secondary Schools endorsed the Spens committee's view that there were 'three broad groups of pupils', i.e. the academic, the technical and the practical. 'Accordingly we would advocate that there should be three types of education, which we think of as the secondary grammar, the secondary technical, the secondary modem, that each type should have such parity as amenities and conditions can bestow' (Norwood 1943:14).

The 1944 Education Act

Regrettably, these two reports, based on the still unquestioned belief that a test at the age of eleven could accurately predict what a child might go on to achieve, underpinned the divided education system which emerged in the wake of the 1944 Education Act. Few technical schools were ever built, so the vast majority of children either 'passed' the eleven plus and gained access to the grammar schools; or 'failed' and went to one of the new secondary moderns, which many saw as 'merely the old elementary schools writ large' (Chitty 2007:20). Thus England's post-war system of education was based on old ideas. The new primary schools streamed their pupils because that made it easier to prepare the more able children to pass the eleven plus, and the new secondary schools divided children into the academic (about a fifth) and the less able (about four fifths). And even within these secondary schools, the pupils were streamed. There was now 'education for all' but it was an education based on division and segregation at every level.

Facilitating the selection of pupils for secondary education had always been part of the role of elementary schools. Before the 1944 Act roughly ten per cent of pupils were selected for secondary schools, while the rest remained in the elementary system either in the same school (if it was 'all-age') or in the senior school. After the 1944 Act, the increased importance of the 11 plus examination put greater pressure on the new primary schools to stream their pupils, since a school's success was now measured largely by the number of its pupils who gained grammar school places. As Galton, Simon and Croll put it:

It is difficult now to reconstruct the intense pressure on schools and teachers that built up in the 1940s and 1950s relating to the selection examination; the league tables that parents drew up for local schools, the telephoning round to find out who had done well and the sense of failure that some teachers experienced when their pupils won fewer places than others, or than expected; not to speak of the effects on the children (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:37-8).
(Galton, Simon and Croll could not, of course, have foreseen that within a decade of the publication of their book, politicians would have recreated - and intensified - that pressure through SATs and league tables.)

1945-1960: Doubts and concerns

Concerns about the dangers of selection and streaming began even as the new system was being implemented. A Ministry of Education booklet, The Nation's Schools, published in 1945, questioned the desirability of streaming, and in his 1947 book Activity in the primary school MV Daniel noted that the allocation of children to classes on the basis of ability had resulted in 'the unfortunate practice' of labelling children A, B or C and of speaking of an individual as 'a "C" child', 'sometimes even in the presence of the child himself' (Daniel 1947:87). Furthermore, streaming limited the range of ability and therefore restricted the work that could be done by the class as a whole.

Such concerns grew during the 1950s. Children who had 'failed' the eleven plus were seen to be successful in the newly-introduced GCE O Level. Some even went to university. Many teachers and educationists began to doubt Burt's 'confident assertions about innate intelligence' (Chitty 2007:3). Brian Simon argued that all children were educable and would benefit from 'the stimulus given by other children within a cohesive group'. Such a view was 'diametrically opposed to the philosophy underpinning mental testing' (Simon 1953:103, quoted in Chitty 2007:127-8).

The Labour Party was in a mess over selection. In 1954 Minister of Education Florence Horsbrugh intervened to stop London County Council (LCC) closing Eltham Hill Girls' Grammar School and transferring the pupils to the new Kidbrooke School. So London's first purpose-built comprehensive school 'was not as "comprehensive" as it might have been' (Chitty and Dunford 1999:20). But Anthony Crosland (who would later become Secretary of State for Education) argued that the class distribution of the grammar school population was 'still markedly askew' and that many children of average ability suffered from the 'appallingly low quality of some parts of the state system'. Selection was now indefensible and there was 'every reason to move to a non-segregated, comprehensive system of schools' (Crosland 1956:188-204, quoted in Jones 2003:51).

A report published by the British Psychological Society in 1957 concluded that it was now obvious that many pupils could enhance their IQ scores, and that therefore 'environmental' factors must have some effect on the development of abilities. It expressed reservations about the validity of the eleven plus examination and was also critical of the widespread practice of streaming in junior schools. The report was 'one of the important factors which lay behind the growing support for the comprehensive ideal at the secondary level of schooling' (Chitty 2007:3).

While the Labour Party was moving (haltingly) towards a pro-comprehensive policy, it was still committed to streaming within schools. Crosland wrote of the 'alpha' and 'beta' material with which schools had to deal, and believed that streaming on the basis of ability remained essential. And in a 1959 election pamphlet The Labour case, Roy Jenkins insisted that students would still have to be divided 'according to intelligence and aptitude', though the divisions would be 'less sharp and less final' (quoted in Jones 2003:51).

Primary education (1959)

The politicians were behind the times. Some primary schools - and even a few secondary moderns - had already abandoned streaming. This was made clear in the Ministry of Education's Primary Education: suggestions for the consideration of teachers and others concerned with the work of primary schools, which described the practice of streaming as 'peculiar to our own day' (MoE 1959:69). It argued that streaming reduced the stimulus to learning, so that the slower children appeared slower still, 'accepting the fact that they are too often called "only B stream", and making less effort than they might'. It also warned of the danger that children in a streamed class appeared to be 'more on a level', tempting the teacher to underestimate 'the diversity of quality and pace of learning which in fact still remain and which must still be catered for' (MoE 1959:69).

The handbook noted that, in order to avoid 'the predicaments to which any rigid system leads', some heads had adopted a flexible organisation, creating different groupings for different kinds of work, or adopting, for example, 'a classification for the morning session that may be changed in the afternoon' (MoE 1959:69-70). It praised teachers for developing the skill of educating children of very different abilities in one class 'by arranging the environment in the classroom and school so that the children learn a great deal for themselves, either individually or in small groups'. This style of teaching was not easy, 'though to many who have an understanding of children and a fertile inventiveness it appears to come easily'. Others were 'wise to avoid arrangements too ambitious or too complicated for their capacity' (MoE 1959:70).

The handbook gave legitimacy to the trend away from streaming and many schools began planning for the introduction of some kind of mixed ability organisation. In some cases, this may have been prompted by a desire to 'leap onto any bandwagon' or to 'clutch at any straw' that seemed to offer the hope of providing 'a panacea for the obvious ills that have beset many secondary schools in recent times - truancy and other behaviour problems in particular'. But there is no doubt that the movement was also prompted by an awareness on the part of many teachers and heads of the dangers of streaming, a recognition that change was necessary and 'a zeal for a system that seemed to be based on a sounder interpretation of the egalitarian philosophy of the 1944 Education Act' (Kelly 1978:3).

1960s: Comprehensivisation and unstreaming

Comprehensive reform gathered pace during the 1960s, though its implementation was halting and patchy. While it necessitated changes in curricula and pedagogy in all schools, its most immediate effect was undoubtedly on the primary schools. 'The abolition of selective examinations at 11 or 12 had a rapid effect on the ways in which primary schools were organised: at the start of the 1960s, most primaries were streamed; by the end of the decade, most were not' (Jones 2003:80).

In the new comprehensive schools, streaming and setting were still very much the rule. Indeed, a survey by the LCC in 1961 declared that none of its comprehensive schools based its organisation 'upon the impracticable assumption that teaching groups covering the whole range of ability are suitable or desirable' (LCC 1961:32, quoted in Benn and Chitty 1996:249). There were, however, examples in some schools of mixed ability groupings in some subjects (art, music, drama, handicrafts and physical education). Similarly, in 1963 GC Firth found that while all Coventry's comprehensive schools used various forms of streaming or banding, some schools did have mixed ability groups for non-academic subjects (Firth, 1963:78-85, quoted in Benn and Chitty 1996:249).

The Newsom Report (1963)

In his preface to the 1963 Newsom Report Half our Future Lord Boyle, then Minister of State for Education, wrote 'The essential point is that all children should have an equal opportunity of acquiring intelligence' (Newsom 1963:iv) (my italics). This was a significant statement, for if intelligence can be acquired it is clearly not innate and therefore predictive intelligence testing is invalid. AV Kelly commented: 'It is the possibility of such acquisition that offers scope to the teacher. Streaming was based on a denial of that possibility and the assumptions behind this have been roundly questioned' (Kelly 1978:9).

Newsom noted that the wide range of ability which all secondary modern schools contained presented real problems and had implications for the way the schools were organised. The commonest solution was 'a simple division by ability, even though it may be half-concealed by various tricks of nomenclature'. Streaming, 'which starts well down in the primary schools', was 'a matter of acute educational controversy'. The committee declined to take a stand on the issue, saying that much would depend on the conclusions of an NFER enquiry then being undertaken. In the meantime, schools had to deal with 'an inherited situation' (Newsom 1963:170).

Tensions grow

Others were not prepared to wait. Many teachers and educationists now argued that the concept of 'innate ability' was not a valid one and began campaigning for an end to selection and streaming.

In his 1963 book The comprehensive school Dr Robin Pedley claimed that none of the intelligence tests of the previous sixty years could satisfactorily distinguish 'natural talent' from 'what had been learned'. Heredity and environment were too closely entangled to be clearly identified, and this meant that children from 'literate homes', with 'interested and helpful parents', had an enormous advantage over 'children from culturally poor homes' where books were unknown and conversation was 'either limited or unprintable' (Pedley 1963:16-17, quoted in Chitty 2007:88).

In The home and the school (1964) JWB Douglas noted that children who came from well-kept homes and were clean and well dressed stood 'a greater chance of being put in the upper streams than their measured ability would seem to justify'. Their performance would improve as a result. This was in stark contrast to 'the deterioration noted in those children of similar initial measured ability who were placed in the lower streams'. Thus 'the validity of the initial selection appeared to be confirmed by the subsequent performance of the children' (Douglas 1964:118, quoted in Benn and Chitty 1996:252).

And in 1965 the head of Woodlands Comprehensive School for Boys in Coventry wrote an article for Forum in which he warned:

The concept of 'innate ability' is not a valid one. That there are hierarchical boundaries between groups of pupils of different abilities is an epistemological concept which we define as an 'a priori' element in our thinking about education. We then set up various criteria in order to 'discover' who those different groups of pupils are and the groups we form reflect not so much natural differences in ability as the nature of the methods we have adopted in choosing the groups. From then on the pupils are conditioned to a level of response which we set for them and which we and they come to believe is a measure of their 'innate ability'. - such is the true nature of streaming (Thompson 1965:89).
By the mid 1960s, then, the eugenicist theories of Burt - and in particular the concept of 'innate ability', on which the practice of streaming depended - had been discredited. For this reason, the arguments about streaming were at first largely negative, emphasising its educational and social disadvantages, rather than the advantages of non-streaming. But as the 1960s progressed, more positive arguments in favour of mixed ability teaching began to circulate. Heads and classroom teachers noted increased levels of motivation among the pupils, better standards of behaviour and a greater willingness to participate in the life of the school.

Unfortunately, the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE), introduced in England and Wales in 1965, created even greater pressure on schools to divide students between 'academic' and 'non-academic' streams. 'Within comprehensives, GCE students were placed in different teaching groups from CSE students, while in the secondary modern school ... students who were deemed capable of CSE entry were separated from those who were not' (Jones 2003:84-85).

Peter Mauger, then head teacher of Nightingale County Secondary School in the London Borough of Redbridge, argued that non-streaming, though clearly important, was not an end in itself. What was also needed was 'a fundamental examination of the content of the secondary school curriculum' (Mauger 1966, quoted in Benn and Chitty 1996:259).

Not everyone agreed, of course. In a speech attacking Labour MPs for their support of comprehensivisation in January 1965, Conservative MP Quintin Hogg declared that secondary modern school pupils were happy 'banging metal and sawing wood'. These boys and girls were getting 'an education tailor-made to their desires, their bents and their requirements' (Hansard, House of Commons, Vol. 705, Cols 423-4, 21 January 1965, quoted in Chitty 2007:20-21).

The tensions for pupils, teachers and schools created by attempts to reconcile 'progressive' education (child-centredness, individualisation, 'discovery' methods etc) with selection and streaming were coming to a head. 'The post-war divided system, underpinned by spurious notions of "intelligence", was seen as having to be drastically modified or perhaps even abandoned altogether.' Parity of esteem between grammar and secondary modern schools was a sham and 'failure' in the eleven plus was 'invariably a cause of much distress both for a child and its parents' (Chitty 2007:91-2).

The Plowden Report (1967)

So the publication of the Plowden Report Children and their Primary Schools could not have come at a more appropriate moment. Across the country, local education authorities were now 'going comprehensive' and primary schools, freed from the constraints imposed by the need to 'get good results' in the eleven plus, were beginning to experiment with the curriculum, teaching methods and pupil grouping policies. Oxfordshire was one of the first counties to scrap the exam, along with Leicestershire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, Bristol and London.

It was in these areas, also, that the system of streaming, which reinforced the methodology of class teaching, was most rapidly discarded. The swing from streaming in the junior schools in these and other areas, which started very slowly in the mid 1950s, meeting strong opposition, suddenly took off with extraordinary rapidity in the mid to late 1960s, gaining influential support from the Plowden Report of 1967 (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:39).
Plowden crystallised all the progressive ideas about primary education which had been propagated by the Hadow Reports of 1931 and 1933 and which now had widespread support, certainly among education professionals: 'child-centred approaches in general, the concept of "informal" education, flexibility of internal organisation and non-streaming in a general humanist approach - stressing particularly the uniqueness of each individual and the paramount need for individualisation of the teaching-learning process' (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:40).

On the issue of pupil grouping, Plowden began by describing current practice.

It noted that some infant schools arranged their classes strictly by age, though it was common for children who were making progress in reading to be promoted first. In a minority of schools, children were graded by attainment at the age of six; in a few grading began even earlier (Plowden 1967:284). Vertical classification, which had been seen as early as the mid 1930s, remained 'a minority practice' but the two or three areas in which it was prevalent were among those which had 'the most lively infant school work in the country' (Plowden 1967:284).

With regard to junior schools, the National Survey conducted for Plowden found that a majority of the schools took into account attainment as well as age in allocating pupils to classes. The much larger NFER survey put the proportion at 56 per cent 'for certain' with another 14 per cent 'probables'. In two-form entry schools each year group was normally divided into an 'A' stream and a 'B' stream (Plowden 1967:284).

In making class allocations, most head teachers relied on information from the infant schools: less than half the junior schools in the NFER survey used a standardised intelligence test. Other methods used, in decreasing order of popularity, were the head's own judgement, the results of internal school examinations, a child's position within the age group, and standardised attainment tests. In the later years of the junior school, increasing reliance was placed on school examinations, teachers' judgements and standardised attainment tests. 'Most schools would claim that they group children both on attainment and on ability' (Plowden 1967:285).

And what of mixed ability grouping? (Incidentally, Plowden rarely used the term 'mixed ability', preferring 'unstreamed'.) It noted that about a fifth of the children in schools included in the NFER survey were allocated to classes which were intended to include the whole range of ability in the school. Some schools tried to ensure classes were exactly parallel in ability by relying on children's records, test results etc. Others allocated children to classes at random, according to where they lived, or alphabetically by surnames.

Having described current practice, the report went on to discuss the various criteria for classification.

Age. Plowden was against moving children out of their own age group. It noted that research in European countries where promotion from grade to grade depended on achieving a specified standard showed that failure tended to be cumulative and that pupils who repeated a grade on one occasion, far from catching up with their contemporaries, were more likely to have to do so a second or even a third time. It concluded that 'children are better with their friends in their own age group, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary' (Plowden 1967:285).

Vertical classification. The report noted some disadvantages of vertical grouping in the infant school. 'For children to spend the whole of their infant school life with one or at most two teachers may be to distribute the strengths and weaknesses of the staff unfairly. It may also limit children's contacts with adults to too narrow a circle and some children may be too sheltered or lack stimulus' (Plowden 1967:286). Younger children might be 'overshadowed by the older ones, may imitate them too closely, and have insufficient experience of the kind of play that is an investigation rather than a use of materials' (Plowden 1967:286). However, the committee agreed that vertical classification could have advantages and they were 'impressed by the liveliness and good quality of the work in infant schools where classes extend over two or three age groups' (Plowden 1967:287).

Classes including less than a year group. Plowden was not generally in favour of sub-dividing year groups by age, warning that teachers needed to guard against regarding a younger class as a less able class (Plowden 1967:287).

Classification by attainment or ability (streaming). Streaming was still 'by far the most common way of organising junior schools' (Plowden 1967:287), but there was evidence that the picture was changing. In just two years - between 1962 and 1964 - the proportion of primary teachers who favoured streaming had fallen from 85 to 30 per cent (Plowden 1967:287). Teachers were ahead of the public in this respect: two thirds of parents still preferred their children to be taught in streamed classes (Plowden 1967:288).

Before the second world war, streaming had been seen as 'a device for opening the grammar schools to talented working class pupils'. But since the war, selection for secondary education had been challenged on three grounds: 'the accuracy of the selective process, the contrast in the provision made for children of differing ability and the effect of segregating them on their achievement' (Plowden 1967:288).

Similar arguments, said the report, could be made against streaming.

First, streaming involved selecting, and in schools which were streamed throughout this effectively meant that children were being selected at the age of seven. 'We know of no satisfactory method of assigning seven year old children, still less those who are even younger, to classes graded by attainment or ability' (Plowden 1967:288). It noted that between ten and twenty per cent of the predictions made at 11 were subsequently proved wrong and it warned that the earlier such predictions were made, 'the less relevant they are bound to be to an education which will continue to 15 or later' (Plowden 1967:289).

Because it was inevitable that many children would be wrongly placed at seven, ease of transfer between classes was important. It would be reasonable to expect ten per cent of pupils to be transferred each year, but the NFER enquiry had shown that the actual figure ranged from 2.3 per cent to six per cent over three years (Plowden 1967:289). Plowden argued that this was probably because, once in a class, children adapted themselves 'to the rate of progress or work which the teacher expects' (Plowden 1967:289).

The NFER enquiry had also shown that streaming favoured girls and older children within the year group (Plowden 1967:289) and that it served as a means of social selection. 'It is not simply that middle class pupils congregate in upper streams and the children of semi-skilled and unskilled workers in lower streams. That might be expected from the association of intelligence with social class and occupation. Evidence is also available that more middle class children are to be found in upper streams and fewer in lower streams than would be expected from their results in objective tests' (Plowden 1967:289).

The fact that selection was inevitably inaccurate would not matter too much 'if the conditions for upper and lower streams were equally good'. However, the NFER research suggested that upper streams were mostly taught by older and more experienced teachers. 'Teachers may be streamed, no less than pupils. The more established the teacher the more probable it is that he will get one of the better classrooms and a generous supply of books and equipment.' The NFER survey even showed that 'a higher proportion of the lowest streams were in classrooms which faced north' (Plowden 1967:290).

Plowden reviewed all the available evidence of the effect of streaming on children's achievement and attitudes, including the 1959 research by Yates and Pidgeon, the Manchester Survey of 1964, and its own National Survey, which included the NFER cross-sectional study of attainment in matched streamed and unstreamed schools. It noted that both the Manchester Survey and the NFER study showed that 'by ten the lead of children in streamed schools had been reduced in all tests and there was no significant difference in reading'. There was other evidence which suggested that 'children who are taught by informal methods make a slower beginning and catch up towards the end of the primary school' (Plowden 1967:291).

There was some evidence that achievement 'in the limited field of measurable attainment' was higher in streamed schools, but it was 'not so marked as to be decisive', and Plowden's view was that 'forms of organisation are less critical than the underlying differences in teachers' attitudes and practice which are sometimes associated with them' (Plowden 1967:291). Organisation was, nonetheless, important because it could 'reflect and reinforce attitudes'. Where unstreaming was 'established with conviction' and 'put into effect with skill', it produced 'a happy school and an atmosphere conducive to learning'. 'We welcome unstreaming in the infant or first school and hope that it will continue to spread through the age groups of the junior or middle schools' (Plowden 1967:291).

If schools were determined to retain streaming, it was essential that staff were aware that 'any classification is bound to be faulty' and that there would be big differences between individuals in a class which would increase as the children grew older. If all the children in a class were working at the same pace and the same level, 'they are probably conforming to what their teacher expects of them' (Plowden 1967:291). The distinction between streams should not be obvious: the fourth year 'A' class should cease to be the preserve of one or two teachers. This might be one way of 'speeding the disappearance of exercises which serve little purpose save to prepare for an examination which is itself now disappearing' (Plowden 1967:292). Finally, the report warned that 'Streaming can be wounding to children. Great care ought to be taken not to suggest that trust and responsibility, or prowess in games, or the ability to look after library books are the preserves of certain classes. No more certain way could be found of alienating children from school or of creating irresponsibility' (Plowden 1967:292).

Within the class, Plowden commended individual and group work. Groups should be based 'sometimes on interest and sometimes on achievement, but they should change in accordance with the children's needs'. There were still too many stories of children streamed by the tables they sat at, of 'top tables' and 'backward reader' tables (Plowden 1967:292). Group work fostered social skills. 'Children learn to get along together, help one another and realise their own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of others'. It also fulfilled a pedagogic function: children 'make their meaning clearer to themselves by having to explain it to others, and gain some opportunity to teach as well as to learn' (Plowden 1967:274).

What Plowden proposed, then, was a focus on the needs of individual children through a combination of individual, group and class work. And this seems to have been exactly the system many primary schools chose in the years following Plowden's publication. Class teaching was mostly rejected; complete individualisation based on workcards and assignments was fairly widely implemented. But the most popular option 'comprised individualisation together with the use of grouping within the class'. This provided 'a rational means of controlling (or managing) the independent activities of some thirty plus children' (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:55).

Research by Rosenthal and Jacobsen, published in 1968, backed up Plowden's views on streaming by revealing the extent to which performance depended on environment. 'Teachers were told that one group had scored high on IQ tests, and another low, when in fact both groups were randomly assigned. But the bright group got brighter, and the slow group slower' (Holt 1978:165).

Plowden's views were timely. Indeed, 'the period from 1965 to 1970 was one of intense interest in the whole question of pupil grouping' (Benn and Chitty 1996:250). Unstreaming was 'very much a teachers' movement, in its inception, at least' (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:54). There were well-attended conferences and workshops on this issue, and articles in Forum and Comprehensive Education. By the beginning of the 1970s it was 'difficult to find a primary school that grouped its pupils into classes on the basis of ability - at least in any overt manner' (Kelly 1978:2).

1968-1979: The heyday of mixed ability teaching

Mixed ability teaching was gaining in popularity in comprehensive schools, too. Research carried out in 1968 for Half way there (Benn and Simon 1970:146-53) showed that around a quarter of comprehensive schools were teaching their first year pupils in mixed ability groups, with some continuing the practice into the second and third years. A larger survey in 1974-5, undertaken by NFER as part of its Mixed ability teaching project, indicated that more than half the schools used mixed ability teaching groups for most subjects in the first year, a third in the second year and a quarter in the third. Setting was used, typically in maths and foreign languages, in almost half the first year classes, rising to ninety per cent of third year classes.

The Bullock Report (1975)

The Bullock Report A language for life noted that 'most primary schools still group children in classes according to the year in which they were born' while some, particularly infant schools, used vertical grouping (Bullock 1975:199).

With regard to secondary schools, the committee said 'It is not part of our brief to assess the respective general merits of various forms of grouping, such as streaming, setting, broad banding, and mixed ability. ... our concern here is confined to the implications for English of certain of the variations' (Bullock 1975:224). Research carried out for the report showed that 'the practice of mixed ability teaching, comparatively uncommon in secondary schools at one time, has become fairly widespread, especially for the twelve year olds. 18 per cent were in groups which drew from the whole of the school's ability range, while another 14 per cent were in groups which excluded only the "remedial" pupils' (Bullock 1975:224). The report went on:

Speaking purely for English, most of us have reservations about arrangements by which pupils are streamed or setted according to ability. However careful the process, classifying individuals in this way makes different pupils in the same group seem more similar than they are, and similar pupils in different groups seem more different than they are. Moreover, we believe that even if it were possible to grade children accurately according to language ability it would be to deprive the less able of the stimulus they so badly need. Less commonly acknowledged, but equally important, is the fact that it would steadily deprive the more able of opportunities to communicate with the linguistically less accomplished (Bullock 1975:224).
The committee concluded that mixed ability teaching 'is the form of grouping which offers most hope for English teaching', though they acknowledged its complexities: 'it requires a great deal of thought and planning' (Bullock 1975:226).

HMI Survey of Primary Education (1978)

By 1978, the HMI Survey of Primary education in England could report that 'In very few schools were classes streamed according to ability' (HMI 1978b:22). Within the mixed ability classes, some vertically grouped, teachers employed a range of methods. Most teachers grouped children in various ways for some of their work. These groups 'varied according to the subject being taught or the kind of activity being undertaken and were usually formed or reformed for particular purposes or according to the needs of the moment' (HMI 1978b:22).

Almost three quarters of the classes were grouped by ability for their work in mathematics, between a half and two thirds were grouped by ability for reading and, in fewer classes, for writing. 'Children were rarely grouped by ability for their work in any other area of the curriculum.' Individual work assignments were used in 'a considerable majority of classes for the teaching of reading, writing and mathematics' (HMI 1978b:22).

The Survey was unable to compare the attainments of 11 year olds in streamed and mixed ability classes because the number of the former was too small. It did note, however, that 'when the NFER scores in reading and mathematics for the streamed classes were omitted from the calculations there was virtually no change in the average scores' (HMI 1978b:94).

Mixed ability work in comprehensive schools (1978)

Meanwhile, between 1975 and 1978 HMI carried out an investigation into Mixed Ability Work in Comprehensive Schools. They found that just over a third of schools used mixed ability groupings for most subjects in the first year, almost a quarter in the second year, and more than one in ten in the first three years. Only two per cent of schools taught mixed ability groups in all five years (HMI 1978a:11).

Maurice Holt commented that 'to many educationists the streamed comprehensive school is a contradiction in terms.' He advocated the use of a range of teaching strategies and lamented the fact that 'most teachers have been trained, and are still being trained, to use teaching styles which work best with streamed groups' (Holt 1978:164).

Kelly: A rationale for mixed ability teaching (1978)

With mixed ability teaching now widespread, AV Kelly sought to offer a rationale for its use. In his 1978 book Mixed ability grouping, he argued that the production of such a rationale was bedevilled by problems of definition, the variety of practice in schools and the methods used to create mixed ability classes. It should be approached from two directions - 'from a consideration of the criticisms that have been levelled at the system of streaming ... and from more positive arguments for replacing that system with mixed ability classes' (Kelly 1978:6). The arguments against streaming had been dominant in most recent discussions and had led to 'something called "unstreaming" rather than mixed ability grouping' (Kelly 1978:6).

The first negative argument was that the assumptions underlying streaming had largely been discredited. Few now accepted 'the rather simplistic notion of intelligence which was clearly fundamental to the introduction of streaming' (Kelly 1978:8), or the concept of 'general ability' which proponents of IQ tests had argued would have significance for all kinds of intellectual activity. Streaming assumed an unsophisticated model of teaching in which the teacher taught the class 'the same material in the same way at the same pace and at the same time' (Kelly 1978:9-10). When more effective teaching methods were adopted, there was 'less need to attempt the impossible task of achieving intellectual homogeneity in our teaching groups' (Kelly 1978:10).

The second negative argument was that streaming had been a contributory factor in the wastage of talent which had been revealed by research preceding the publication of the Gurney-Dixon Report on Early Leaving in 1954 and the Crowther Report 15-18 in 1959. It had had damaging effects on the progress of individual pupils and on the morale of teachers. There was no evidence that able pupils achieved more in streamed classes or less in mixed ability classes, while the less able did better when when working alongside pupils of all abilities. What was clear, however, was that streaming impacted adversely on the social development of children. Pupils allocated to lower streams appeared to lose 'all sense of identification with the aims and purposes of the school'. The result was that 'a delinquescent subculture' emerged, the prime goal of which was 'to reject and even to subvert the values of the school rather than to embrace them'. Unstreaming, on the other hand, had positive effects. 'Every study undertaken has revealed the same thing' (Kelly 1978:15).

Finally, Kelly argued that the development of children's ability to think divergently was more likely to happen in 'the less formal atmosphere of non-streamed schools than in the more formal atmosphere of those that stream' (Kelly 1978:16-17).

Kelly's positive rationale for mixed ability grouping had three strands. First, it was based on a view of people as cooperative social beings and of society as egalitarian. Second, it was the result of major changes in 'the view we take of what education itself is'. And third, it was 'a consequence of some major questions that are being asked about the nature of values themselves and the basis for making judgements of value about anything, especially about different kinds of knowledge, and a resultant desire to avoid dogmatism in the planning of a curriculum and to endeavour to make it meaningful to the individual child in the light of his own needs and interests' (Kelly 1978:22-23).

Continuing technological and social change required the education system itself to be flexible. Streaming would not do because 'one of its major characteristics is its total inflexibility' (Kelly 1978:23), whereas 'the purposes of a school are multifarious and many different kinds of grouping are needed to meet them' (Kelly 1978:24). This was, in Kelly's view, the strongest case for mixed ability grouping - that it could and should be 'flexible enough to allow for the creation of different groupings for different purposes and to facilitate continuing development of all kinds' (Kelly 1978:24-25).

Attacks on progressive education

While the period from 1968 to 1979 may be regarded as the heyday of mixed ability teaching - and of 'progressive education' in general - it also saw a series of increasingly vitriolic attacks by traditionalists. An economic recession resulted in cutbacks in education spending and a 'general disenchantment with education as a palliative of society's ills' took hold (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:41); a series of 'Black Papers' argued for a return to traditional teaching methods; the 'William Tyndale affair' gave the traditionalists ammunition; Prime Minister Jim Callaghan gave his Ruskin College speech, initiating a 'Great Debate' about the nature and purposes of education; the Assessment of Performance Unit was established; and local authorities began the mass testing of pupils.

On top of all this, eugenicism was still alive and well in some quarters. The second of the Black Papers, The crisis in education (1969), for example, contained articles by Cyril Burt, Hans Eysenck and Richard Lynn.

In his piece The mental differences between children Burt reiterated Francis Galton's view that such differences were wholly or largely inherited and even argued that the Wilson government's 'progressive' reforms had resulted in standards being lower than they had been before the First World War (Burt 1969:23, quoted in Chitty 2007:94).

Eysenck, Professor of Psychology at London University, contributed The rise of the mediocracy, in which he argued that the abolition of eleven plus selection would deny working-class children the possibility of social advancement. It would result in the promotion in society of 'a large number of people of mediocre ability, while keeping submerged many people of superior ability' (Eysenck 1969:40, quoted in Chitty 2007:95).

The most outrageous of the three articles was that by Richard Lynn, Research Professor of Psychology at Dublin University. In Comprehensives and equality he talked of the 'lies' perpetrated by 'radical progressives' (whom he referred to as 'young red guards'). One of these lies was that it was the fault of society that slum dwellers were impoverished and their children did badly in school. 'They do not realise', he declared, 'that slum dwellers are caused principally by low innate intelligence and poor family upbringing' (Lynn 1969:30, quoted in Chitty 2007:95).

1979-1997: Conservative attempts to introduce 'differentiation'

It was against this background that Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government came to power in 1979 determined to reintroduce eleven plus selection. However, attempts to bring back grammar schools in Solihull and elsewhere failed and, to the government's dismay, it was often the very middle-class parents on whose support they had counted who protested most and who seemed happy with and committed to their local comprehensive schools.

Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI)

Keith Joseph, Education Secretary from 1981 to 1986, decided that if he couldn't have selection, he would find other ways of introducing 'differentiation' into comprehensive schools. The Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, funded by the Manpower Services Commission (MSC), was one strategy. There was some confusion about the project, with Joseph arguing that it was targeted at students of lower ability while MSC Chair David Young suggested it was aimed at those who were 'bright and able' but hadn't been 'attracted by academic subjects' (Chitty 2007:111-2). Young said he expected that by the end of the decade 15 per cent of students would go into higher education, 30 to 35 per cent would stay on to do TVEI and other vocational and academic courses, while the rest would simply go on to a two year Youth Training Scheme. Thus the wartime vision of 'three types of mind' had 'survived virtually intact into the closing decades of the century' (Chitty 2007:112).

A View of the Curriculum (1980)

As part of the 'Great Debate', HMI published A View of the Curriculum in 1980. This booklet noted that primary schools had always been comprehensive in their intake and that over the years, organisational changes had reflected different approaches to dealing with a wide ability range: 'streaming was an early attempt to provide more appropriately for children of different abilities, just as the reaction against streaming and greater emphasis on individualisation of work was a recognition that such categorisation was often too crude, and apt to be self-fulfilling' (HMI 1980:1).

Secondary education, on the other hand, had developed from a selective system to one in which the great majority of pupils were now taught in comprehensive schools. The schools had been faced with 'developing a view of common needs and ways of reflecting this in the curriculum, while continuing to recognise differences of potential and interest'. This was true also for the remaining selective schools: although their pupils represented a narrower range of academic ability, they were 'still diverse in talents and ambitions and in personal needs and circumstances' (HMI 1980:2).

Reactionary views

Some disturbing views about mass education were still being peddled. In his 1980 book The meaning of conservatism, Roger Scruton argued that 'It is simply not possible to provide universal education in any society. Nor, indeed, is it desirable. For the appetite for learning points people only in a certain direction; and it siphons them away from those places where they might have been contented' (Scruton 1980:157, quoted in Chitty 2007:21).

And, as Stewart Ranson pointed out, government officials seemed to accept the notion that educational opportunities should be limited according to the prevailing economic situation and the availability of employment. One DES official argued that 'to offer young people advanced education, but not thereafter the work opportunities to match their career aspirations, is to offer them a false prospectus'. Another said 'We have to select: to ration the educational opportunities to meet the job opportunities, so that society can cope with the output of education'. A third DES official even echoed nineteenth century views in commenting that 'people must be educated once more to know their place' (Ranson 1984:241, quoted in Chitty 2007:22-23).

The Cockcroft Report (1982)

Outside the Thatcherite circle, however, mixed ability teaching was still the favoured approach. The Cockcroft Report Mathematics counts saw advantages in mixed ability teaching in primary schools, although it warned that there could be 'problems of ensuring continuity' and that 'the quality of the mathematics teaching inevitably depends largely on the strength and interest of the class teacher' (Cockcroft 1982:102).

Vertical grouping, which was quite often used in the infant years and was a necessity in some small primary schools, reduced problems of continuity. However, the greater spread of attainment in mathematics among the children in the class increased the difficulty for the teacher of matching levels of work to children's ability. 'We do not therefore consider that this form of grouping offers any advantages for the teaching of mathematics' (Cockcroft 1982:103).

Most primary teachers organised groups based on attainment within their classes for at least some of the work in mathematics. In some larger junior and middle schools setting was employed. It was important for teachers to realise that, even when children were grouped in this way, 'considerable differences will exist within each group' (Cockcroft 1982:103).

With regard to secondary schools, the National Secondary Survey Report of 1980 had shown that half of the schools visited taught mathematics in mixed ability groups during at least part of the first year, about a quarter during the second year and an eighth during the third year. Some of these schools were selective: in comprehensive schools with pupils covering the full range of ability, the proportions using mixed ability grouping for mathematics were slightly lower (Cockcroft 1982:151).

The committee considered that mixed ability maths teaching was a 'satisfactory' form of organisation which they saw 'no reason to change', provided there were suitable teachers. However, they warned that standards were liable to suffer 'if mixed ability teaching is imposed upon mathematics departments against their will' (Cockcroft 1982:151).

The committee noted that the use of individual learning schemes for teaching mathematics had become more widespread and that such schemes had had 'considerable success' in the hands of 'skilled teachers who are committed to their use'. But there were some dangers (such as the difficulty of providing opportunities for oral work and discussion) and therefore 'it should not be supposed that the use of individual learning schemes in mathematics is suited to all teachers or to all pupils. We believe that there are many of each who are able to work more effectively if some form of group teaching is used' (Cockcroft 1982:153).

Bailey and Bridges: a social philosophy of mixed ability teaching (1983)

In their book Mixed ability grouping: a philosophical perspective Bailey and Bridges argued that the increasing scarcity of money and staff in the early 1980s had thrown a sharper focus on pupil grouping issues. 'The enthusiasm for unstreaming has faltered, the pedagogic consequences and practical difficulties associated with the innovation have been seen in clearer perspective and even the principles underlying mixed ability organisation have come under renewed critical scrutiny' (Bailey and Bridges 1983:xi).

It was one thing to organise a school on the basis of mixed ability classes, it was quite another to decide how to teach those classes. 'In our experience the teachers most deeply disillusioned with mixed ability grouping are those in schools which have taken the first of these steps without giving proper consideration to the second' (Bailey and Bridges 1983:5). The recent NFER study had reported one head teacher as saying 'We teach mixed ability groups but we do not do mixed ability teaching' (Reid et al 1981, quoted in Bailey and Bridges 1983:5). Teachers tended to use four different organisational strategies: undifferentiated class teaching, individual work in ability groups, individualised learning, and collaborative mixed ability group work.

Bailey and Bridges sought to clear up what they saw as confusion in the definitions of ability, attainment and potential. They argued that one of the arguments against streaming was that 'it creates conditions (including low expectations by pupils and teachers of likely achievement) which positively depress achievement in comparison with potential; part of the case in favour of mixed ability grouping is that it can remove at least this form of inhibition' (Bailey and Bridges 1983:8).

They provided a rationale for mixed ability grouping based on four sets of arguments. First, it enabled secondary schools to make informed decisions about their pupils' abilities rather than labelling them at the outset of their secondary career. Second, it avoided some of the worst consequences of streaming, notably the humiliation, frustration and sense of failure felt by lower stream pupils and the reinforcement of a vicious circle of social-economic/educational disadvantage. Third, it respected each child as an individual of equal worth. And fourth, it expressed and encouraged the values of fraternity, community and cooperation (Bailey and Bridges 1983:9-23).

They went on to note that there was 'a prima facie conflict ... between the concern for individuality and the concern for equality' (Bailey and Bridges 1983:24). HMI had noted that 'the notion of equality tends to be associated with a common curriculum and common provision to which all must have equal access, that of individuality is associated with variety and divergence' (DES 1978:18-19, quoted in Bailey and Bridges 1983:24).

There was also the problem of assessment. The argument that assessment was bound to be unfair, that the subsequent 'labelling' of children was dehumanising and prejudicial to the less able was difficult to reconcile with the desire to match curriculum, teaching style and resources to individual needs. 'How such matching is to be done without some form of assessment is difficult to understand' (Bailey and Bridges 1983:25).

The Swann Report (1985)

The Swann Report Education for All made no specific recommendations about pupil grouping policies, but it noted that for many years IQ scores had been used as a measure of academic potential and had played a part in determining the set, stream or band in which pupils were placed. It warned that this was liable 'to condition the expectations of individual teachers, and indeed of the educational system as a whole' (Swann 1985:70).

The committee was concerned that streaming was sometimes covert racism, since a disproportionate number of black pupils were put into lower streams. One teacher told the enquiry that 'the teachers expect very little of coloured children and that is why they are put in the lower streams' (Swann 1985:94).

Middle schools (1985)

The 1985 HMI Survey of Education 8 to 12 in Combined and Middle Schools found that, of the fifty schools surveyed, only one had adopted streaming as an overall school policy and two others used streaming for the older pupils only. In all the rest, classes were formed on the basis of mixed ability grouping, though setting was used for older pupils, mainly for the teaching of mathematics and, to a lesser extent, English. 'No association was identified between setting in English and mathematics and the quality of pupil's work in these subjects' (HMI 1985:65).

A year later, in his book Two cultures of schooling: the case of middle schools, Andy Hargreaves examined the practice of 9-13 middle schools in relation to pupil grouping. In the top two years the level of streaming, banding and setting was very similar to the same two years in a secondary school. In the lower two years there appeared to be rather more ability grouping than that found in the same years in primary schools.

Streaming and banding were 'not especially widespread in the 9-13 middle school' (Hargreaves 1986:103) with just over 8 per cent of schools using them in their first and second years (slightly more than their primary counterparts) and around 30 per cent in years 3 and 4 (a good deal less than their secondary counterparts). Thus, middle schools seemed 'to soften the differences between the two phases: an item of support, one might imagine, for their claims to being genuinely transitional institutions' (Hargreaves 1986:104-5). Setting, however, was 'exceedingly common' in both middle and secondary schools. In fact, 'almost as many middle schools set their pupils for mathematics, English and science at 12+ as do secondary schools one year later at 13+' (Hargreaves 1986:105). The figures supported the argument that secondary-style conventions and pressures influenced middle school practice greatly in the higher years and so helped perpetuate 'the long-standing division between primary and secondary education at age 11' (Hargreaves 1986:106).

It was more difficult to compare setting in the first two years of the middle schools with the same years in primary schools since the HMI survey of primary schools in 1978 had made no mention of it. That survey had shown, however, that 17 per cent of primary schools large enough to stream their pupils did so; a figure which was 'substantially smaller than the 22 per cent and 45-64 per cent of 9-13 middle schools that set their pupils at 10+ in English and maths respectively.' In this respect, 9-13 middle schools were, in their lower years, 'remarkably out of tune with current primary practice' (Hargreaves 1986:108).

Hargreaves concluded that 9-13 middle schools not only had a strongly secondary character in their upper years, but that they were also susceptible to 'the downward permeation of secondary influences and organisational patterns into what might otherwise be conventionally regarded as the primary phase of their work too' (Hargreaves 1986:108).

The Elton Report (1989)

The Elton Report on Discipline in Schools warned that 'A school in which academic achievement is the only source of positive encouragement is likely to experience more difficulties with low achieving pupils' (Elton 1989:107). These difficulties were exacerbated if academic emphasis was translated into the rigid streaming of pupils by ability.

Streaming, Elton noted, still existed in about five per cent of secondary schools. 'A pupil in the seventh stream of a seven form entry secondary school knows exactly where the system places him - at the bottom.' It was therefore not surprising that lower stream classes had a reputation for bad behaviour.

Setting was a more common system of grouping pupils. 'Careful setting and the recognition of a wide range of non-academic achievements can help to restore to low academic achievers a proper sense of self-respect, and avoid generating the feelings of rejection and hostility that often give rise to bad behaviour' (Elton 1989:107-8).

The national survey of teachers in England and Wales, conducted on behalf of the Elton committee by John Gray and Nicholas Sime, found that more than half the classes which teachers described as 'difficult' were grouped by ability in some way (by sets, streams or bands) and that three quarters of these groups were of 'below average attainment level compared with other pupils in the school' (Elton 1989:235).

The 'Three Wise Men Report' (1992)

John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in November 1990 and appointed Kenneth Clarke as Secretary of State for Education. Clarke wanted to see a return to streaming and more formal teaching methods in primary schools, so he commissioned Robin Alexander, Jim Rose and Chris Woodhead to produce a discussion paper on Curriculum Organisation and Classroom Practice in Primary Schools. Written in just one month, the paper quickly became known as the 'Three Wise Men Report'.

In fact, if Clarke was hoping for a report which would endorse streaming and whole class teaching, he was to be disappointed.

The paper argued that the fundamental problem with streaming was that it was a crude device 'which cannot do justice to the different abilities a pupil may show in different subjects and contexts'. The authors therefore recommended flexible grouping so that pupils could be placed 'in a particular ability group for a particular purpose'. They warned that the mounting evidence about teacher under-expectation and pupil under-achievement meant that teachers must not assume that pupils' ability was fixed. 'Assumptions about pupils' ability should be no more than working hypotheses to be modified as and when new evidence emerges' (DES 1992:27).

The report considered three 'organisational strategies': 'Each pupil can be taught as an individual. The class can be taught as a whole. The class can be organised into groups. These strategies are, in practice, not mutually exclusive. Many teachers use all three' (DES 1992:27).

Individual teaching was 'an understandable aspiration' (DES 1992:27) and there were times when it was, indeed, necessary. But trying to teach every pupil in a class as an individual was 'fraught with difficulties' because each pupil would receive 'a minute proportion of the teacher's attention' and because interaction between teacher and pupil was therefore likely to be 'as superficial as it is brief and infrequent' (DES 1992:28).

Whole class teaching appeared to provide 'the order, control, purpose and concentration which many critics believe are lacking in modern primary classrooms' (DES 1992:28). It was 'associated with higher-order questioning, explanations and statements, and these in turn correlate with higher levels of pupil performance'. Furthermore, teachers with a substantial commitment to whole class teaching appeared to be 'particularly effective in teaching the basic subjects' (DES 1992:28). Whole class teaching had potential weaknesses, however, notably that it tended to be 'pitched too much towards the middle of the ability range'. Observational studies had shown that pupils often reduced their rate of working to meet the teacher's norm, 'thus narrowing the challenge of what is taught to an extent which advocates of whole class teaching might well find uncomfortable' (DES 1992:28). Nonetheless whole class teaching was 'an essential teaching skill, which all primary school teachers should be able to deploy as appropriate'. Provided the teacher had a firm grasp of the subject matter to be taught and the skill to involve the class, pupils' thinking could be 'advanced very effectively' (DES 1992:28).

The practice of organising a class into groups based on ability was sometimes appropriate, but teachers needed to be sensitive to the fact that 'the self esteem of lower ability pupils could be affected adversely' (DES 1992:29). Group work had several advantages: it enabled resources to be shared; fostered the social development 'which primary schools rightly believe to be an essential part of their task'; and, above all, enabled pupils to 'interact with each other and their teacher' (DES 1992:29). However, the authors warned that pupils who were seated in groups were not necessarily working as a group. 'All too often there may be a mismatch between the collaborative setting of the group and the individual learning tasks which are given to pupils. ... Effective group work depends upon careful preparation and meticulous management' (DES 1992:29). Furthermore, group work could be counterproductive if teachers tried to manage too many groups or have pupils working on too many different activities or subjects simultaneously (DES 1992:29). Finally, it was important for teachers to monitor the time they gave to each group and to strike a balance between different areas of the curriculum. 'If time is not monitored in this way subjects deemed to be of low priority and pupils who seem capable of working with little teacher intervention may both be neglected' (DES 1992:30).

The paper concluded that teachers needed the skills and judgement to use whichever organisational strategy - class, group and individual - was appropriate to the task in hand. 'The judgement, it must be stressed, should be educational and organisational, rather than, as it so often is, doctrinal' (DES 1992:30). It acknowledged that many primary teachers already used 'just such a mix of modes' and that there was evidence to suggest that the introduction of the National Curriculum had led to an increase in the proportion of whole class teaching (DES 1992:30). But the critical notion was that of fitness for purpose. 'The teacher must be clear about the goals of learning before deciding on methods of organisation. Whole class teaching, group work and one-to-one teaching are each particularly suited to certain conditions and objectives. Equally, they can be used in singularly inappropriate ways' (DES 1992:30).

It is perhaps worth noting that the Three Wise Men Report was widely perceived as an attack on the 'Plowden culture' in primary schools. If people had bothered to read the report itself, rather than relying on newspaper headlines, they would have noticed that the message of both reports was remarkably similar. Too similar, apparently, for the new Education Secretary John Patten, who, in August 1992, appointed John Marks to the newly-formed National Curriculum Council. Marks, an Open University tutor and member of a right-wing think-tank, supported a return to selective schools, streaming by ability and traditional teaching methods.

National Commission on Education (1993)

The Report of the National Commission on Education, Learning to succeed, urged that 'increased selection by ability must be discouraged if we wish to promote a less divisive society'. Schools with a broad intake could provide 'very successfully for gifted children' and when they did so it often resulted in 'a general enhancement of the quality of teaching and learning and a raising of the expectations and standards of all pupils'. The report noted that in Scotland, where the maintained system was entirely comprehensive, more pupils qualified to enter higher education than in England and Wales (NCE 1993:183).

National Enquiry (1993-4)

Despite the efforts of the traditionalists, mixed ability teaching was still the norm in primary schools and was also remarkably widespread at secondary level. A large-scale survey of 1560 comprehensive schools in 1993-4 showed that just over half used mixed ability arrangements for all subjects and pupils in Year 7; only 16 per cent of schools used 'various forms of setting, streaming or banding with little or no scope for mixed ability arrangements'. In Year 8, almost a fifth of schools used mixed ability for all subjects with a further third using mixed ability for most subjects and setting for one or two subjects. In Year 9, all subjects and all pupils were taught in mixed ability classes by 6.5 per cent of schools; 18.3 per cent of schools used mixed ability groupings with no more than two subjects setted (Benn and Chitty 1996:254-6).

Benn and Chitty concluded that non-streaming continued to occupy 'an important place in the culture of many comprehensive schools' and that the issue of mixed ability teaching no longer aroused 'much enthusiasm or excitement': it was largely taken for granted (Benn and Chitty 1996:257-8).

A comparison of the exam results of pupils who had been taught in mixed-ability groups with those taught in ability-based groups showed that the type of grouping policy used made no difference. This was a positive finding because it meant that pupil grouping could be considered 'in terms of the social cohesion of schools': while no academic advantage had been shown to accrue from streaming, research had found on several occasions that 'mixed ability was associated with schools that were often more socially successful' (Benn and Chitty 1996:466).


Throughout the 1990s HMI and Ofsted repeatedly urged teachers to ensure 'differentiation by ability', especially when teaching mixed ability classes. Coupled with the pressure on schools to perform well in the government's new school league tables, this had the unfortunate effect not of enhancing learning opportunities for all but of focusing resources on the borderline pupils who might just get to Level 4 of the Key Stage 2 SATs in primary schools, or obtain the necessary GCSE grades in secondary schools.

1997-2008: New Labour's assault on the comprehensive ideal

Tony Blair's 'New Labour' party swept to power in the 1997 general election.

Excellence in schools (1997)

The new government's first White Paper Excellence in schools, published in July 1997, was to prove the opening salvo in a sustained campaign against the very concept of comprehensive education, which, it said, needed to be 'reformed' and 'modernised'. As a start, secondary schools would be encouraged to become 'specialist schools' which would be allowed to 'give priority to children who demonstrate the relevant aptitude' (DfEE 1997:71).

It also launched a vicious attack on mixed ability teaching, asserting, 'though without supporting evidence' (Chitty 2007:119), that it had been successful 'only in the hands of the best teachers' and should be used in future only where 'it is appropriate and can be seen to be effective' (DfEE 1997:37). The government would not 'defend the failings of across-the-board mixed ability teaching' (DfEE 1997:37) which, in too many cases had 'failed both to stretch the brightest and to respond to the needs of those who have fallen behind' (DfEE 1997:38).

Secondary schools would be expected to use setting, particularly for science, maths and languages: 'unless a school can demonstrate that it is getting better than expected results through a different approach, we do make the presumption that setting should be the norm in secondary schools' (DfEE 1997:38). Primary schools should also consider setting, and all schools should inform parents about their pupil grouping policies. A government strategy for 'the early identification and support of particularly able and talented children' would include 'accelerated learning, specialist schools and partnership with independent schools' (DfEE 1997:39).

ULIE study (Ireson and Hallam 1999)

Two years later, the government's commitment to setting was undermined by a London Institute of Education study which revealed that children aged 11-14 'made just as much progress in English and science if the most and least able were taught together. ... The cleverest were not held back, and the least able did as well or better in tests at the age of 14' (John Carvel The Guardian 1 December 1999).

The study, undertaken by Judith Ireson and Susan Hallam, was based on analysis of the progress of 6,000 pupils at 45 secondary schools which had had good Ofsted inspection reports. It showed that, while setting brought no academic advantage, mixed ability teaching encouraged pupils to feel good about themselves.

Dr Ireson commented that, in the light of the evidence, 'it would be unwise for comprehensives to move towards more extreme forms of setting and particularly unwise to adopt streaming'.

The government responded that its preference for setting was based on evidence from Ofsted inspectors. Ofsted replied that it had collected no such evidence, though its inspectors did believe that setting could help raise standards in primary schools.

Schools building on success (2001)

In 2001, New Labour launched an even more vitriolic attack on comprehensive education. The Green Paper Schools: building on success claimed that comprehensive reform had been shaped by social and economic forces and had emphasised egalitarianism at the expense of standards. It had been an overreaction to the failings of eleven plus selection and had failed to 'differentiate provision to individual aptitudes and abilities within schools' (DfEE 2001:5). According to Tony Blair, comprehensive schools had been dominated by the 'ideology of unstreamed teaching' (Blair 1996:175, quoted in Jones 2003:156) and had, extraordinarily, even been responsible for mass illiteracy and slow rates of economic growth.

Learning without limits (Cambridge 2004)

2004 saw the publication of Cambridge School of Education's Learning without limits. Writing in the TES (9 July 2004), Mary Jane Drummond explained that the five-year project had brought together nine experienced classroom teachers who were motivated by learning that was 'free from the unnecessary limits imposed by ability-focused practices, free from the indignity of being labelled top, middle or bottom, free from the wounding consciousness of being treated as someone who can only aspire to limited achievements'.

The empirical evidence the project had amassed showed that 'teaching for learning without limits is not a naive fantasy, but a real possibility, in good working order, accessible to observation and analysis', and she hoped the book would 'convince the government of the need to replace their current policies with an improvement agenda committed to freeing education from the damaging effects of the fixed-ability mindset' (Drummond 2004).

Higher standards, better schools for all (2005)

The government, of course, wasn't about to do any such thing. Indeed, the 2005 White Paper Higher Standards, Better Schools for All contained the extraordinary assertion that children could be divided into three main categories: 'the gifted and talented, the struggling and the just average' (DfES 2005:20). This was the twenty-first century reincarnation of Hadow's view of children as As, Bs and Cs (1931), and Norwood's 'three broad groups of pupils' (1943). Half a century of research had clearly made no impression on government ministers.

Unsurprisingly, the needs of 'able and talented' children continued to be prioritised: a National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY) had been established in 2002, and the Five year strategy for children and learners (July 2004) had contained a section on 'gifted and talented students'. Now, the 2005 White Paper included a proposal to set up a national register of gifted and talented pupils - an idea 'of which Francis Galton would have heartily approved' (Chitty 2007:120-121).

Equally unsurprisingly, the White Paper repeatedly endorsed setting. There would be 'more grouping and setting by subject ability' (DfES 2005:10) but, conversely, a much greater emphasis on 'personalised learning for every child' (DfES 2005:40). The best schools offered 'exciting whole-class teaching, which gets the best from every child' and 'setting or grouping children of similar ability and attainment' (DfES 2005:50). Grouping by ability, it claimed, 'can help to build motivation, social skills and independence; and most importantly can raise standards because pupils are better engaged in their own learning' (DfES 2005:58). This was, of course, exactly the opposite of what the previous fifty years' research had shown, but then politicians have never allowed the evidence to cloud their judgement.

As Chitty noted, there was no evidence here that the New Labour government could be persuaded to relinquish its 'obsession with ability labelling and ability-focused teaching'. In addition to its division of children into 'the gifted and talented, the struggling and the just average', its concern for the 'gifted and talented' was 'little more than a subtle way of legitimising the process of academic selection' (Chitty 2007:129).

Anyone who was tempted to turn to the Conservative Party for a more humane and evidence-based view of education was to be sadly disappointed. In December 2005 the newly-elected Conservative leader David Cameron promised 'more setting and streaming ... with a grammar stream in every subject'.

Writing in The Guardian (5 February 2008) Peter Mortimore asked why politicians of all parties were so committed to ability setting when all the evidence supported mixed ability teaching:

  • A 1970s study from Banbury School, for example, had shown that, contrary to popular opinion, 'mixed ability classes did not hold back the most able, and they did help the less able. They also promoted social development in all pupils'.
  • The Scottish Council for Research in Education had recently concluded that 'there is no consistent and reliable evidence of positive effects of setting and streaming in any subjects, or for pupils of particular ability levels'.
  • A study by King's College London had shown that 'even top sets can have negative impacts on students' achievement'.
  • Research at the Institute of Education (mentioned above) had found that ability grouping had 'rather little impact on overall attainment' and that 'the greater the extent of structured ability groupings, the greater was the degree of apparent stigmatisation of those in lower-ability groups'.
  • The OECD had recently surveyed equity in ten countries and recommended that they should 'limit early tracking and streaming and postpone academic selection'.
  • Finland had abolished all forms of streaming in its lower secondary schools and had outperformed all other countries both in attaining high average scores and in achieving the most equity. (Mortimore 2008)

The Cambridge Primary Review (2006-8)

The Primary Review had been established in 2006 to investigate 'the condition and future of primary education in England'. Supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and independent of government, the Review was based at the University of Cambridge and led by Professor Robin Alexander.

In May 2008 it published Research Survey 9/2 Classes, groups and transitions: structures for teaching and learning. This collated the findings of dozens of research projects 'to explore different school and class grouping arrangements, the factors influencing them, and their impact on pupil learning and adjustment in the primary phase'. It distinguished between grouping at the class and within-class levels, and argued that 'the latter is likely to be more important for pupils' educational attainments, behaviour and attitudes to schooling' (Blatchford et al 2008:1).

The authors began by noting that in the years following the 1988 Education Reform Act educational reform in primary schools was primarily concerned with curriculum and assessment arrangements. They argued that more emphasis needed to be given to the social contexts - classrooms and groups - because of the effect they had on teaching and learning.

The survey was extremely comprehensive. Among the research reports considered were those by Bealing (1972), DES (1978), Lee and Croll (1995), Hallam et al (2003), Kutnick et al (2006) and Ofsted (1998). Evidence from primary school inspections was taken into account, as were the descriptive studies of primary schools and classrooms by Galton, Simon and Croll (1980), Bennett et al (1984), Tizard et al (1988), Mortimore et al (1988), Alexander (1995, 1997 and 2001) and Galton and Hargreaves et al (1999). The survey also examined some longitudinal studies of ability grouping - Barker Lunn (1970), Goldberg et al (1966), Borg (1965), Tizard et al (1988) and Mortimore et al (1988); studies involving classroom mapping - Alexander (1995 and 2001), Mortimore, Sammons, Stoll and Ecob (1988), Alexander (1997) and Kutnick, Blatchford and Baines (2002); and research based on classroom observation - Galton, Simon and Croll (1980) and Alexander (1997).

The survey faced three methodological challenges. First, there were many school variables: the number on roll, intake, staffing, the number of classes, and grouping patterns such as streaming, setting, vertical, mixed ability and within-class, all of which might change for different curriculum areas. Second, there were a number of educational outcomes to be considered - some relating to children's personal and social development, some to academic achievement. And third, the effects of grouping practices were 'not consistent in size, over time, in different subject domains or between teachers' (Blatchford et al 2008:5-6).

The authors first considered between-class grouping policies: streaming, setting and mixed-ability teaching. They noted that the 'heated debates' on this issue over many years had sometimes been 'unhelpfully polemical' and argued that 'the reality is more complex and less clear'. They aimed to achieve a 'balanced account of what we know about grouping at this level', seeking to explain why schools adopted particular forms of grouping, and the impact of these on teaching and on pupils' learning and attainment (Blatchford et al 2008:1). They concluded that grouping classes by ability had 'no positive effects on attainment but has detrimental affects on the social and personal outcomes for some children'. The allocation of pupils to such groups was 'a somewhat arbitrary affair' often dependent on 'factors not related to attainment'. And, while movement between groups was theoretically possible, in practice it was 'frequently restricted', limiting the opportunities for some children (Blatchford et al 2008:28).

On grouping within classes, the authors began by noting that 'one of the few features of educational life that can be stated with certainty is that all pupils are grouped within classrooms'. Such grouping included the whole class working together, small groups, larger groups, pairs of children, and individuals working alone. They recommended grouping pupils in different ways for different activities. This 'offers more flexibility, facilitates movement between groups structured by ability, and avoids limiting the opportunities for some children'. Teachers needed to tailor work more specifically to pupil needs and to be aware that pupils' attainment levels 'do not follow a stable trajectory': groupings should be 'constantly reviewed to take account of this' and should vary according to the nature of the task. This would avoid children 'labelling themselves as being in one specific group'. There should be more research on how such flexibility could best be developed and how it impacted on pupils and teachers (Blatchford et al 2008:28).

In their conclusion, the authors argued that 'Over the long history of research into school structure and classroom grouping, there has been little transfer between research findings and widespread classroom application'. Concerns about underachievement, poor attitudes and exclusion had often been met with calls for more differentiation by ability or attainment. The review made clear that 'such moves are not supported in the research literature'. In fact, differentiation by ability or attainment had resulted in 'limited access to knowledge by some pupils, domination of pedagogic practices by teachers, preferred teachers for "elite" pupils and enforcement of social divisions among pupils' (Blatchford et al 2008:30). The development of 'classroom-based social pedagogy' (including the effective use of pupil groupings) must now become a priority. When teachers were committed to developing 'relational and other social pedagogic practices' within their classrooms, 'pupils respond with improved attainment, classroom behaviours and pro-learning attitudes' (Blatchford et al 2008:31).

Social mobility (2008)

November 2008 saw the publication of two reports on social mobility. Getting on, getting ahead, published by the Cabinet Office's Strategy Unit, claimed that government initiatives in the past ten years had at last begun to break down social class barriers in education but it acknowledged that bright children from poorer homes were still likely to be overtaken by less able children from middle-class families and that attainment gaps which opened up early in a child's life were much harder to close later on.

A week later, Manchester University's School of Education published Successful leadership for promoting the achievement of white working class pupils. Denis Mongon and Chris Chapman focused their research on pupils from a white British ethnic background who qualified for free school meals. They found that family income and status were 'by far the most significant correlates of success in the school system' (Crace 2008).

In other words, the relationship between underachievement and social class was virtually unchanged since the late 1800s. Mongon said it was important for teachers to understand that this was not a causal relationship. 'We have to get rid of the idea there is a defining underachieving stereotype', he said.

Which is, I think, where we began.


English society has always been divided on class lines. For centuries, such schools as existed catered almost exclusively for the middle and upper classes, and education for the masses was regarded as a dangerous idea. In the nineteenth century the needs of industry, commerce and international trade, and the extension of the right to vote, all forced the government to create a state education system. At first it tried to do so on the basis of the existing class divisions, as demonstrated by the Clarendon, Taunton and Newcastle Reports in the 1860s.

It quickly became clear that this position was untenable, so an alternative excuse for segregating children had to be found. Psychology and eugenics, with their notion of 'innate intelligence', provided the answer. This theory, promoted most notably by Cyril Burt, became widely accepted. It informed all major education reports from Hadow (1924) to Norwood (1943) and it underpinned the establishment of the 'tripartite' system of schools following the 1944 Education Act. It resulted in division at every level of the education system: selection at eleven for different types of secondary school, streaming of children into A, B and C classes in the primary school, and the grouping of pupils within classes on the basis of ability.

However, concerns about the system began to surface as early as 1945. The theories about intelligence on which it was based were questioned and eventually discredited, many children were humiliated by their perceived 'failure', selection procedures were flawed, streamed systems were inflexible, there was massive wastage of talent, early decisions about children's intelligence became self-fulfilling prophecies, and the whole system perpetuated and accentuated social class divisions. (But then that's what it had been intended to do).

By the 1960s comprehensivisation was under way and the abolition of the eleven plus prompted many primary schools to 'unstream'. They discovered that mixed ability teaching did not negatively affect the performance of the 'more able' but led to improvements in attitudes and behaviour and in the self-esteem of the 'less able'. The 1967 Plowden Report strongly backed mixed ability teaching involving a judicious mix of whole class, group and individual work. Unstreaming began to be seen in the lower years of the comprehensive school.

In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher's Conservative governments were forced to accept that eleven plus selection was all but dead, so they dreamed up 'differentiation' as a way of segregating children into different courses.

In the decade from 1997 Tony Blair's governments launched stinging attacks on the comprehensive ideal and mixed ability teaching, and pressured schools into adopting specialisation and setting. (To make the system even more fragmented and divisive, Blair added further toxic ingredients to the mixture - city academies, 'trust' schools and a large increase in the number of 'faith' schools).

In the forty years since Plowden there have been dozens of research projects which have investigated teaching strategies and pupil grouping policies. Almost without exception, they have shown that mixed ability teaching, with appropriate and flexible use of in-class groups, is the most beneficial system of organising a school. Yet politicians of both major parties still cling to specialisation and setting. They are, apparently, never happier than when promoting notions of Us and Them.

We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within (Gould 1981:28-9, quoted in Chitty 2007:125).


I was intrigued to see the headline 'Complex instruction teaching technique puts streaming to the test' in The Times (27 September 2008).

Apparently, 'complex instruction' was devised by Californian academics and is being pioneered in Britain by Professor Jo Boaler of Sussex University. She followed the progress of 700 American students for four years, at the end of which 41 per cent of the students who had been taught by the system in mixed ability groups were in advanced classes for calculus compared with 27 per cent of pupils in the schools which had used setting and traditional teaching methods. They were also better behaved and enjoyed maths more.

'Complex instruction' involves dividing pupils into groups of four with each member having a distinct role. The groups are given tasks to solve together and at the end of the lesson one member of each group has to present their findings to the class. As they do not know in advance which member of the group it will be, they have to ensure that all are capable of doing so.

I was intrigued because 'complex instruction' sounds exactly the same as 'collaborative learning', a scheme which was being developed by ILEA in the mid 1980s (before Mrs Thatcher consigned that progressive local authority to the dustbin of history). There's nothing new under the sun ...


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A shorter version of this article was published in Forum 51(1) Spring 2009 49-72.