The question of whether students should be grouped and taught in classes according to their perceived 'ability' during their school careers is one of the most controversial issues in education. This is partly because the issues that surround setting, streaming and mixed ability teaching are relative, both to ideology and personal values. Decisions about student grouping are also of immense importance to the education of students and this importance extends beyond the development of subject understanding. In the UK moves from streaming to setting to mixed ability teaching and back again to setting can be related directly to developments in research, educational theory and the political agenda of the time. In this chapter I will present a brief overview of the theoretical and historical developments which surround student grouping. I will then aim to extend theoretical positions further by examining the way in which setting and mixed-ability teaching influenced the motivations, perceptions and eventual attainment of students in two schools.
In the 1950s almost all of the schools in the UK were streamed and students were differentiated within, as well as between, schools. Jackson (1964) conducted a survey of junior schools and found that 96 per cent were streamed and 74 per cent of the schools had placed children into ability groups by the time they were 7 years old. Jackson's study also identified some of the negative effects of streaming, including the tendency of teachers to underestimate the potential of working-class children, and the likelihood that low-stream groups would be given less experienced and less qualified teachers. This report contributed towards an increasing public awareness of the inadequacies of streamed systems. In 1967 the Plowden report recommended the abolition of all forms of ability grouping in primary schools (Bourne and Moon, 1994).
The 1970s and early 1980s witnessed a growing support for mixed-ability teaching in the UK. The extent to which this support was influenced by the results of educational research conducted at that time is salutary to reflect upon in the 1990s. Studies by Hargreaves (1967) and Lacey (1970) both explored and highlighted the ways in which setting and streaming created and maintained inequalities, particularly for working-class students. Ball (1981) also conducted a highly influential study of a school moving from