This blog, written by Melanie Saunders Chief Education Advisor at HPL, explores the challenges of student grouping and offers suggestions on how to effectively implement it.

You can download the PDF version here

 Student Grouping – the issue

Schools arrange their students into groups – it makes teaching manageable. The challenge though, is to re-examine our rationale for how we group and that cuts to the heart of what we believe about student capability. 

Ability streaming and mixed-ability teaching have moved in and out of fashion since 1960s.  As with so much else relating to education in England, the choice of ability grouping is, at least partly, political. comprehensive education was introduced by a Labour government in 1965 and, even now, there is a view that well-meaning, liberal teachers shy away from placing kids in "faster" and "slower" classes in an effort to create social equality at the expense of rigour. Studies on mixed ability Vs ability streaming show that both work but, unsurprisingly, the efficacy of any type of grouping relies on the quality of teaching. 

In the face of a lack of any form of definitive evidence, teachers, and school leaders, fall into two camps based upon belief. 

“It’s better for the children (to be set) because otherwise your more able children get bored and frustrated, and your less able children just get left behind. So ability grouping means that you can focus your attention,” one school leader said.

The trouble with this response is threefold. 

Firstly, it places at its core the convenience of teachers rather than the benefit of students. It is undoubtedly easier to plan material for classes where children are all working at a similar level but is it better for children? Whilst the comment above suggests that pupil progress is the rationale for setting the final sentence reveals that, underlying this, is an anxiety about the capacity of the teacher.

Secondly, teachers are very much aware of the psychological impact of ability grouping, one classroom teacher from the same study said, “Ability groups can be highly limiting and lead to disruptive behaviour, especially at the lower ability end,” 

This is an issue which increases in impact as students get older and their perception of their own ability and likelihood of success is reinforced year-on-year with a related impact upon behaviour, attitude and outcomes.

Thirdly, grouping, whilst apparently based upon perceived ability, actually takes into account a range of different factors which unavoidably influence the decisions made by teachers. These include behaviour, attitude, gender balance and classroom management. Previous research has found that disadvantaged children are more likely to be in lower sets and have less experienced or qualified staff. Boys and children with special needs are also more likely to be placed in lower-ability groups.

This binary choice, to group by ability or not, becomes entirely void, once we accept that intelligence can be grown, we can teach students to be successful and there is no such thing as inherent “ability.” 

What we have, in fact been doing, is grouping students based upon their current level of performance - then embedding that level through the opportunities and level of challenge we offer.

What is the answer?

The alternative may appear to be mixed-ability grouping but this is also fraught with challenge. Most school leaders recognise that classes where children are working at different levels require high-quality planning and can present management and organisational difficulties for inexperienced teachers. 

The default of “teaching to the middle” helps no-one and is demotivating and unsatisfactory. Furthermore, parents are often hard to convince, particularly if they feel their child is more able and being “held back” or struggling in need on special support. The popular press characterise this as, at best well-meaning but misguided and, at worst, anti-accountability and dumbing down!

Between 1979 and 1993 successive Conservative governments captured all the “good” words such as “traditional,” “excellence” “quality” “standards,” “discipline,” “choice” and “autonomy” and counter-posed these with “bad” words such as “equality,” “expertise,” “bureaucrats,” “educationalists” and “progressive.” 

“They loathe what they describe as the permissive society, trendy teachers, loony left staffrooms, the false cult of egalitarianism, mixed ability teaching, collaborative learning and democratic classrooms. Terms such as “trendy,” “permissive” and “caring,” are applied as terms of abuse.”

Both approaches to pupil grouping are, however, based on the same assumption, that students arrive with different abilities. Both approaches are also intended to help students to do as well “as they are able.” 

If “A key breakthrough in our knowledge of the brain in this century is that brain structure and function is not fixed and unchangeable – but is exquisitely plastic, moldable by experience throughout life” then we must conclude that notions of ability are an irrelevant factor in grouping children. However, it is also unsustainable to pretend that students are not operating at different levels and that all teachers are able to manage this variation in their day-to-day teaching.

For most students we know two things:-

  1. Their current level of performance
  2. The level of performance they need to reach by the end of the current educational stage

If, when grouping, we can forget about ability and talk about performance, this changes everything. It isn’t just semantics. Ability carries the assumption that this is an immutable characteristic of a child that teaching can only serve to mitigate. Performance, on the other hand, is a temporary state which teaching is designed to improve.

We can compare this to the change in the way we now view student behaviour. In the past teachers talked about “naughty children,” as if their behaviour was a manifestation of something intrinsically bad. We have moved beyond that and now talk about “behaviour” which is inappropriate or unacceptable. It is the behaviour we don’t like, and the chid can change that – with the right support.

Why then, is it still acceptable to talk about “low ability?” What we are seeing is performance which is below the level we expect and below the level it needs to be. This performance isn’t a manifestation of something intrinsically wrong with the child, it is something the child can change – with the right support.

Intelligent student grouping – how to proceed. 

I would encourage schools to reflect upon their student grouping policy and practice with the following in mind:-

The assumption that ability is not known and potential must, therefore, be assumed to be limitless – and we need to stop talking about both of these as unchangeable parts of a child’s genetic make-up. 

If we chose to group by current performance, this should be done in the knowledge that this is performance in this subject at this time, it can be improved with the right opportunities and practice and has nothing to do with ability.

If students are grouped with others at a similar level of current performance, this must be done in the expectation that this level of performance can and will be improved as students acquire the right knowledge and skills.

That different “flight paths” based on current performance are limiting and irrelevant if we assume that competence, expertise and mastery are a continuum and can be grown in students with the right teaching. 

That the aim is not just to make progress but to reach, at least, the required level of competence by the end of this educational phase and we need to group, and to teach, with this expectation. 

 1 Beyond Communitarianism: Citizenship, Politics and Education edited by J. Demaine, H. Entwistle

 2 Wraga, Duncan, Jacobs, Helt & Church, 2006

At GEMS Wellington International School in Dubai, they have been using HPL to help them to develop a performance mindset culture over the last academic year. In this article, two of their teachers explain their experience of how they used the VAAs and the ACPs in order to do this. Charlotte Nwachukwu is a teacher in Lower School, and Beth Swinscoe is a teacher of English in Middle and Upper School.

The GEMS Wellington International School team will be hosting a webinar this month and share their experience of how they used High Performance Learning's VAAs and the ACPs to do this.  

  • Mindset shift. Find out how GEMs Wellington International School in Dubai changed staff and student mindset.
  • Performance Mindset. What is performance mindset and how can it help student outcomes. 
  • VAAs and ACPs. How HPL's ACPs and VAAs can support mindset shift in school.

Download a PDF version of their blog here. 


Introducing the VAAs

As a Lower School teacher, I needed to ensure that the introduction of the VAAs was both visual and practical. To facilitate active engagement with the VAAs, I created eyecatching posters that utilised simplified and accessible terminology; these then became a focal point in my classroom. My students noticed similarities between these new posters and the existing ACP posters which they were already familiar with. I conducted a whole class discussion surrounding the VAAs and tasked the children with the challenge of physically representing agility, hard work and empathy. Through this activity, the children were able to take ownership of the VAAs and thoroughly enjoyed the responsibility of role modelling their actions to their peers.

Using the Language

In hindsight, it may have been smoother to introduce VAAs to the children before the ACPs as they are a less abstract concept to understand. However, having already mastered the more challenging aspect of HPL first, it meant that that the children grasped the VAAs very quickly. To ensure consistency, I focused on the language I used in lessons, incorporated visual stimuli through displays and in exercise books and introduced a rewards system to praise students who demonstrated understanding of the HPL terminology. Through my experience of working with Year 1 and 2 students, I have found that repetition plays a key role in allowing children to fully grasp new concepts. As as a result of embedding HPL into their daily learning diet, the VAAs are now second nature to my high performance learners. To ensure consistency not only for the learners, but for the teachers as well, I have delivered PD sessions, one to one sessions, lesson observations and shared good practice in meetings to allow for the successful implementation of HPL across Year 2.  The use of verbal positive reinforcement has been an effective strategy to embed the use of VAAs in the classroom. One recent example from a maths lesson where a child wasn’t quite grasping the learning saw her peers confidently highlight that through the mistakes she was making and the perseverance she was showing, she was using her hardworking VAA. A simple teacher statement such as, ‘Wow 2E look at the resilience child X is displaying right now’ has had a huge impact on the mindset culture of the learners within my class. In our class, we have adopted a mature culture towards making mistakes, which means that the children can freely embed the VAAs without fear of embarrassment, which is common in learners this age.


The biggest impact I have witnessed in my class full of High Performance Learners is an increase in confidence; the rippling effect of this into other aspects of their school and personal life has resulted in increased student achievement and attainment. The confidence allows them to be agile, creative and hardworking learners who can articulate how the ACPs and VAAs have supported their learning journey in Year 2.


Embedding HPL

Embedding HPL into learning has been a steady learning curve and developed my own ability to be agile, hardworking and empathetic. As a reflective practitioner, I aim to instil these habits into the culture of my classroom. Along the way, I have made many errors and also had many successes with HPL in the classroom –but every one of them has been a learning opportunity for me and the students. My first effective development in introducing HPL into my lessons was my use of the GROW model (Whitmore, 1980) and how this strategy of problem-solving and mentoring could be utilised to encourage students to consider the processes and skills required in a lesson, a week of learning and a longer scheme of work. I developed an activity sheet for students to use to support their metathinking skills when approaching learning. This inevitably allowed students to explore the relationship between their prior knowledge, their learning in lessons and developed a clear outline of the ACPs which were their strengths as well as their weaknesses. This awareness allowed them to develop targets to move them towards success.

Introducing the VAAs

I decided to introduce the VAAs in a different way to encourage students to consider how they are approaching their learning and developing the skills needed to develop a performance mindset. By phrasing these questions, students had to discuss and consider alternative viewpoints about which VAAs were the focus of the lesson. Leading this as a Think-Pair-Share exercise allowed for students to debate and discuss the skills required for the learning journey and often led to students using the ACPs to explain how they were developing throughout learning sequences. I was able to utilise this to encourage students to consider what their learning objectives were for the lesson, based not only on the subject content but also the learner content required. As a result, students developed their understanding of the purpose of the learning in line with subject-specific outcomes, and also the impact it can have on their own personal development and growth.

Discussion and debate

To develop this further, I have designed a range of questions to encourage student discussion and debate. These are questions without an easy answer, meaning students have to approach them with a different mindset to traditional learning questions. When students respond to a question, I select an observer to explain how the student has applied the ACPs in their response and how this can impact upon their curriculum success criteria – in itself asking the student to be fluent thinkers, make wider links and consider the bigger picture of our lessons.


Embedding the VAAs and ACPs has had a noticeable difference in my classes. Students have become more reflective and they are able to independently identify their areas of strength and weakness. They can now begin to address this prior to verbal or written feedback from me. This has also had a direct impact on the quality of work being produced for homework and has allowed students in my classes to make excellent progress.

rachel announcement

We are delighted to announce the appointment of Rachel Tilden Walker as Director of Programmes of High Performance Learning.
Passionately committed to HPL and its mission, Rachel is a strong advocate of high performance for all pupils and of the importance of creating world-class schools. She is committed to the HPL philosophy and framework as it inspires teachers to deliver high performance for the many, through ongoing professional dialogue and transformational practice.
Rachel is an experienced school leader, educational technology expert, and school improvement consultant. An experienced headteacher, she transformed a failing infant school into a thriving and successful primary, through radical curriculum redesign, building a new team and securing external investment for new opportunities for learning. As a school improvement consultant, she supported schools through new building designs and in managing change, to achieve unique and inclusive learning environments. As an expert in education technology, her team leadership had centred on innovative software solutions, fostering creativity and collaboration.
She has also commissioned research with leading universities to build partnerships on a range of pedagogical themes: assessment, engagement, and enquiry-based learning. Rachel has a strong commitment to research-led practice and continuous improvement. Her belief that there is always a route is supported by her experience of using ed-tech solutions.
Rachel assumes the role following the retirement of Anne Howells who has given HPL outstanding service. We pay tribute to Anne for her first-class work in developing and delivering our programmes. Anne will be maintaining her work with HPL as an Associate Director and an Accreditor of World Class Schools. 

Westbourne House

This guest blog is written by Barbara Langford (Deputy Head) at Westbourne House. It originally appeared in their school magazine.

Some things never change, and although we have not been physically in school for the last 3 months it is report time again. 

Reports are always a time for reflection; What has the pupil learnt, how are they progressing and what should they work on in the future.  This year however reflection seems even more pertinent as we think about what we have all learnt on a micro-level from a global pandemic. 

The first thing that strikes me is how many of the High Performance Learning characteristics our staff have shown. Going through the Values Attitudes and Attributes (VAAs) I can tick them all off. 

Empathetic - Their concern of society and the ability to work together recognising differences and similarities between people has definitely shone.

Agile - They have all had to adapt to a completely new way of teaching. Demonstrating a willingness to innovate and invent new and multiple solutions to our new situation. They have experimented and been open-minded. 

The hardwork, perseverance and resilience has been evident to all in the quality of the lessons produced that each take hours of preparation while tackling new technology as well as the new challenges of how to impart knowledge and skills remotely.

How about the Advanced Cognitive Performance Characteristics (ACPs)? Well, here again, I can see the staff have used all these in their lessons; Self regulation while at home, alone, they are constantly evaluating the lessons and self correcting, creating new teaching styles by building on existing skills and getting to the stage by the end of term where talking on zoom and setting lessons on line has become an automatic skill.

So the staff have risen to the HPL challenge and shown how they model this behaviour for the children. 

What about the pupils? As I write my reports I am able in almost every instance to draw on the VAAs and APCs and feel proud of the pupils in my care. Some curriculum knowledge may have been lost in this term but the skills that the pupils have learnt are far more long-lasting. 

Empathy; The ability for almost all the pupils to realise that although they don’t like this situation, it has been so much worse for so many others has been heartening. They have looked out for their friends and told teachers when their peers are struggling. They have organised fundraising ventures and virtual chats and have shown that in adversity the Westbourne House pupil can rise above their own immediate worries. 

Technology; This is an easy one, all the pupils are now confidently working with a variety of programs and many are typing at speed. They whip between programs and different websites with ease and have been happy to share their skills and knowledge with other pupils and staff. 

“Mrs Langford, if you look in the top right corner and press that button with the dots on it you can mute us all”

Agility; There is a preconceived idea that the only reason pupils work is because they have exams looming. I spend many hours refuting this because one of the joys of schools is learning purely because it is interesting not necessarily useful. In our “new world” we have made all our lessons optional to all pupils and yet almost all pupils have still fully engaged in the learning. They have shown enterprise and the ability to be curious. Importantly they have shown the intellectual confidence to experiment and work in unfamiliar contexts. 

Meta-thinking and Analysing; Pupils have continued without constant support from staff to self-regulate and strategy plan. They have worked logically, reading instructions independently and have learnt to figure out ideas and concepts with less help. These independent learning skills are the foundations of a life of learning and will help immeasurably in the future. 

Finally, I have been impressed by the originality and intellectual playfulness of the pupils. Given a wide range of tasks and assignments they have produced extra-ordinary work in extra-ordinary circumstances. 

High Performance Learning
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