I don't understand why the school my children attend has different ways of grouping or setting students for different subjects? In some they are banded according to ability, in others they are mixed together. Shouldn't they be streamed according to their performance? Teacher Jake Burnett replies: You've raised an interesting debate here. There are many different ideals and practices schools follow which are focused on ensuring that students are allocated to groups appropriate for their levels of learning - practicable, manageable or pragmatic. When students are grouped 'randomly' it is most likely that this will be based around practicality. For example, students who are put into form groups or have home rooms will almost certainly find themselves within a group of their peers. This is often where basic levels of administration will occur, where registers will be taken, etc. They may stay in this group for activities such as physical education, or other areas where the school's timetable overrides the ability to make specifically chosen groups. In some schools these form groups may be chosen vertically across the school rather than by just selecting students with the same age. So there may be a small number of students from every age group being treated as one group. Research has shown this can be very successful for integrating ideas and common beliefs. Some international schools in Hong Kong are working with much smaller tutor groups in line with research indicating that direct intervention and discussion from teachers within smaller groups can have some powerful and direct impact on student progress. However, it's also important to remember that for any student to learn most effectively, they must be presented with content which is appropriate for their ability level and which is neither too easy nor too challenging for them. For teachers to be able to differentiate the curriculum areas in which they are teaching so that content is best matched to student ability, it may be necessary to stream groups according to ability. This is often the case in subjects like mathematics or the sciences, especially when final examinations themselves might be tiered or where one level is pitched at a higher level than another. Students often favour this approach to grouping and it is a widely accepted strategy. However, that is not to say that it is the only approach. Some groups, for example, might be specifically chosen as 'mixed ability'. This may appear to be the same as random grouping, but is actually very different as it tries to ensure all groups of students within a given subject are as close as possible according to a range of parameters. This can vary from gender, ability or aptitude, levels of confidence, spoken expression, attitude or other factors. This sort of grouping is often very finely tuned to ensure groups are as equal as they can be. The reason for grouping students in this way is to cover a curriculum in a holistic manner, while allowing students to work at a range of different levels. In such groups teachers may cover a similar topic area but differentiate tasks within it so that students are all accessing content which is similar but may be developing their ideas in different ways. This sort of grouping relies on the teacher's knowledge of the students so they can ensure the work is differentiated appropriately. I have seen this sort of approach work especially effectively in subjects where there may be some debate or discussion of the topics covered, such as in history, religious studies or English, or where the topic being covered is especially complex.