A national survey of ability grouping practices in secondary school physical education in England

Shaun D. Wilkinson*, Dawn Penney

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A range of ability grouping practices are used in primary and secondary schools in England, including streaming, setting, and mixed-ability grouping. While these practices have been extensively researched in mathematics and English, particularly at the secondary level, relatively little is known about the grouping practices used in other subjects of the curriculum, including physical education (PE). This research sought to generate large-scale yet sophisticated data relating specifically to ability grouping practices in PE in secondary schools in England, with the intent of extending knowledge of the various ability grouping practices being adopted within and across schools. The prevalence of particular ability grouping practices, processes associated with their application, and factors influencing their use and non-use were explored. Data were collected via a web-based survey of all (3197 at the time of study) mainstream state-funded secondary schools in England. A total of 903 responses were received, giving a response rate of 28.2%. The findings reveal that overall, mixed-ability grouping is the most common ability grouping practice in PE, although the extent and nature of this practice (and other ability grouping practices) varied by year group, Key Stage level, gender of students, and/or curriculum activities. Setting was the predominant approach in PE in Year 8 (aged 12-13) and Year 9 (aged 13-14). The use of variants on these practices (including mixed-ability grouping with a separate top and/or bottom set) and descriptions of how and why different grouping practices are enacted in specific contexts, illustrate the significance of discourses of ability, gender, and pragmatism in grouping practices in PE. Discussion highlights the need for professional debates and research to interrogate normalised assumptions and practices associated with grouping practices in PE and extend understandings of the nuances and subtleties of ability grouping practices in schools.
Original languageEnglish
JournalResearch Papers in Education
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 18 May 2023

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