should schools set PE by ability

Mixed ability PE or set by ability in school

Setting, streaming, ability grouping. Whatever you want to call it, it’s different in most schools. Most secondary schools seem to set children from Year 7 in maths, and possibly science. Languages tends to come later, and English seems to happen less frequently.  But now it seems that setting children in PE is happening in more schools, including my son’s. But is this route working for all. Should PE be set by ability?

should schools set PE by ability

I have to say that for academic subjects I agree that some degree of streaming is a good idea. I think we only got away with not being set for English at school because our teacher varied his teaching so well, asking harder and more questions of those who were A students over those who struggled. But I also knew other teachers who couldn’t cope with the breadth of ability in the one class.

But PE I’m not sure I agree with. Or not in the way we’ve experienced it to date.

Of course I took to Twitter and I was relieved to see non setting is still more frequent for parents who answered. But I’m surprised at nearly 40% being set by ability.

My sports experience was mixed ability

I was always a sporty child (once I’d reached 7 and had more opportunity to do sport).  I took part in most sports clubs, played for several teams, and out of school went to tennis holiday clubs and the odd schools tournament experience, and played in a squash league. So I obviously loved sport and enjoyed the benefits of being reasonably good at it across several sports.

Our PE classes were all levels of ability girls, with the occasional tutor hockey tournament being mixed boys and girls.

I’m sure back then, there were lots of people who didn’t enjoy sport, hated the teachers, the PE kit, the cold, and the fact that they were chosen last when being split into teams.

Nowadays, there are more options for sports and PE – with schools including street dance, more alternative sports, and even fitness on the curriculum. So there’s something for everyone.

What does the science say about ability based PE lessons?

Even if children aren’t set by ability across groups, in a mixed ability groups teachers have said they still group children by ability within that lesson. The reasoning being it avoids lower ability children being overwhelmed by being partnered with a high ability child. This would also potentially be frustrating for the higher ability child as well, and could mean less sport being played.

In terms of time spent in play, success rates and accuracy, being in mixed ability groups benefits higher ability children with their success rate increasing. While lower ability children miss out, making more errors as they’re up against stronger players. This ends up with higher ability children playing less as they lower their level of play, and lower ability get the ball less. Science suggests ability groups are preferable

However, Koller (2004) found that mixed ability groupings developed pupils’ social skills. In the PE setting, mixed ability groupings encourage pupils to develop leadership and coaching skills, which Goodwin (2007) feels many PE teachers undervalue and overlook, with too many teachers considering the values of the physical, but not nough of the social, psychological or tactical.

Mixed ability classes benefits

The science is fairly clear, but I still don’t think children should be split by ability for general PE lessons, unless you give the children a choice. Or at least the children in the middle the choice.

By teaching all abilities together, you encourage inclusivity in sport. 

Kids can be encouraged by friends, and inspired by seeing what they could achieve compared with those who are more naturally sporty.

Everyone should have the opportunity to improve and try out for teams. It shouldn’t be restricted to who the teacher sees as the best person. And it definitely shouldn’t be based on someone’s ability in one sport.  Someone might be horrendous at throwing or hitting a ball, but may have a talent in running. Or someone might be short but being assessed against someone who’s 6 foot tall playing netball. 

I don’t rate the explanation that it enables the teachers to coach those who’re going to be in the teams. We never had issues with coaching – we had lunchtime clubs and largely people who went to those for team sports did them to try out for the teams. Our school doesn’t have time at lunchtimes, but they have after school clubs from which they’ll pick the teams from. Having said that I know one mum who’s sone tried out for the football team, but they don’t train as a team at all. He doesn’t even go to the football club. That strikes me as very strange.

Setting PE classes

If you’re going to split children into different groups, do it the way a local school does it here.  

They give the children a choice of fast track or leisure.

Fast track is based on those who want to really go for core sports on the curriculum. The sports they’ll work at with the view of being in the teams.  They’ll train at them for longer periods of time.

The leisure track is more relaxed. They still do all the sports available but on a faster rotation, and with a view that it’s based on enjoying sport and setting you up with fitness for life, rather than sport as competition.

There’s no pressure to do one or the other, and you can switch tracks – presumably when different sports crop up. But there’s no looking down on people for being rubbish at sport or failing to get in the team. It’s about giving students the choice over how they want sport in their school life.

It also means that it’s ‘self set’. You end up being able to focus on children who really want to work hard, and are more able to train for specific teams without leaving some children out.

Our experience is the opposite and it’s quite demotivating to some children.

PE assessments

I had a mix of people responding to my tweet with 40% having PE lessons that were set. Those who commented who had children who’d been set by ability, had children who weren’t keen on sport and wanted to be in the lower group. It was suitable for them, and one had even chosen to move down as it suited his attitude to sport better.

In our experience it’s not been as good as it might have been.

My son loves sport. He’s always enjoyed a range of sports in and out of school, and was lucky at primary school to have had lots of external coaches come in, and lots of variety in sporting experiences. There were also lots of schools tournaments they took part in – football, tennis, dodgeball, cross country, and he was always involved and in the team, with our school winning in most of the tournaments they entered despite being a small school.

He’s been in the county tennis training squad, has played in tournaments and his club team. He’s played a lot of hockey at school, done multisports club, enjoyed learning aussie rules football and tag rugby. Joined cross country club. Was a strong swimming. And has done ok at sports day, and certainly tried hard against a lot of very strong runners

Now he’s determined to improve his football after discovering it a year ago, and joining the local football team. He’s in the school football club.

school kids getting coaching for basketball

Inconsistent assessment

Despite all this and his love and focus on sport, he’s been put into the second/bottom PE set. Despite knowing he’s stronger than some of the children in the top group. It’s not an even split either, 40 kids in top, only 20 in bottom. Kick in the teeth for a child who loves sport, works hard at it to improve and would love to try out for teams.

The setting has been done by assessments in PE classes. However each class has been doing different sports compared with academic lessons where they’ve all done the same baseline tests. How can they compare children playing different sports?

Some of his friends just played football in every lesson. Most of them play for a football team. That’s ‘their’ sport. 

Another friend got to play rugby…which he plays outside of school.

N’s group did 1 cross country run. They were told it wasn’t a race, it was about stamina. So N and his friend paced themselves, ran without stopping, and were ready to keep going by the end. The others raced off, sprinting, had to stop for drinks and by the end were on the floor exhausted.

There was 1 lesson of rounders – N did well, he’s good with at sports which involved hitting balls. He scored 3 rounders from 3 balls, and on 4th base got people stumped out.

They were also assessed playing several lessons of lineball. Yep, that well known sport that none of them have played, but it seems to be like netball, so all the tall people didn’t have to try very hard. N thought he’d played quite well – he’s quite tactical, can see and find space. But it doesn’t help when you’re playing against really tall people.

Does being in a bottom set penalise children?

Being put into the bottom group, they were told ‘it doesn’t mean you’re a bad player, there’ll be less challenging level in this group’. But really that’s what the teacher is indicating. 

You’re not good enough to try out for teams.

You’ll not be challenged as much.

That you’ll not progress as fast or be pushed because they’ll assume you’re a weaker group.

Immediately this will demotivate children who are keen at sport. They’ll assume they don’t need to work hard because there’s no point. And if they’re in a group where most don’t care about sports how will they be challenged? If they want to try for teams, they might think there’s no cance to try because they won’t be playing sports with the kids who are at the top, and those children will have been practising together.

It also sends the message to those in the top group to be less gracious in winning. It doesn’t encourage them the support and encourage the children who aren’t as good at sport. They miss out on learning to coach and aid lesser players.

I queried how it was assessed given the disparity in assessment sports, and what the opportunity was to move.

Children are given up til half term to prove themselves – which isn’t easy several lessons are missed due to off curriculum days or PHSE classes replacing them. He goes to football club, although has decided not to do hockey as it’s ‘for girls’ (it’s not). 

We’re hoping that he’s done enough in football club to warrant moving up, otherwise it’ll be disappointing, and much harder to move up later on. But there’s been one switch already with a child moving down to be with his friends, and a different child from my son’s class moving up – but again a seemingly random switch not based on proven ability in class. So we’re not optimistic he’ll get to move up.

Hopefully when they rotate around sports they’ll shuffle them around. Certainly for racket sports I’d be querying again to get him moved. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s any children at his school who he’s previously played in team tennis as his school’s in the stronger tennis county compared with where his county training was.

Fingers crossed he can still stay positive with his friend who’s in the same position in their PE class. He’s had one positive PE lesson playing football where he finally got to play his normal position. 2 assists including one from a throw in. He’s also put his name down to play in the inter tutor group football tournament although he doesn’t know if they’ll have enough wanting to play in his class.

So we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

And hope that the school does still open up the opportunities for trying out for teams whichever set they’ve ended up in.

Setting might work for children at the top and the bottom of ability. But again it’s the children in the middle who’ll miss out.

How do your secondary school children’s PE lessons work? How do you feel about setting them by ability?

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  1. I know it’s primary for us still so different. But my sons’ y6 and y3 classes both pair the capable kids with those whole find certain things more challenging. I think their philosophy is that it builds confidence in the capable children and that they are often more supportive and can relate better to their peers who find something tricky. I know my son is paired with someone who finds maths hard and he’s often effectively a second teacher in computing. I think his class mates are more comfortable getting him to show them than the teacher. The flipside though is that he isn’t being challenged with harder work and I feel like his computing know how is being exploited instead of developed – which isn’t fair on him.

    1. Yes, thats the worry I think for those who are more able at anything. Boredom sets in and you feel youre taken for granted and that you’re not approving your ability although may be failing other skills. I had the same at primary school with reading etc, having to always help others. Not really fair when all I wanted to do was read myself. Our primary PE was just everyone mucking in together because they were small classes. Definitely mixed ability/random groups.

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