Ability that provides a description of the lessons, courses


Ability grouping in schools is seen to have an impact on students and their academic success. It can be seen as a glass ceiling for students, which can generate self-fulfilling prophecy about what a student is able and unable to achieve. The Education Endowment Foundation emphasises, a great amount of ‘research suggests that grouping students by ‘ability’ has no significant effect overall, but there is a negative impact for pupils in the lowest groups’ (TES, 2015), which are generally those from lower social democratic backgrounds.

This paper will primarily focus on how the hidden curriculum affects students through setting by ability in schools. In particularly it will address one factor of the hidden curriculum which is social class. I will start with defining the term ‘hidden curriculum’, then focus primarily on setting by ability and how it links in relation to a student’s social class, followed by the negatives and positives of categorising students into ability classes.

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The concept of hidden curriculum

Schools consist of two types of curricula which include the formal curriculum and the hidden curriculum. The curriculum is a ‘formal’ government document that provides a description of the lessons, courses and educational activities pupils partake in, and the knowledge teachers intentionally teach students. However, the hidden curriculum is unintended lessons and values that students acquire and gain in school. It is an implicit curriculum which is expressed indirectly through actions and words and conveys behaviours, attitudes, and knowledge that are communicated without out aware intent (Jerald, 2006).


The term ‘hidden curriculum’ was initiated by Philip Jackson in 1968. He stated children in school must learn to live with the three things “crowds, praise and power” (Jackson,1968, p.10). According to Jackson schools teach students to learn to live amongst a crowd as he believes that learning to live in a classroom includes learning to live with crowds, as many of the activities students participate in school engage mainly in group work. Plus, he sees schools as being an ‘evaluative setting’, indicating that students in school adjust to the fact that everything they do or say is constantly being assessed by others (Jackson, 1968). Also, in schools, there is a clear separation between teachers and students. The power of the teacher is shown evidently as it is their duty to teach students. Teachers have many responsibilities such as planning daily sessions and making sure every student understands the content being taught.


Furthermore, David Gordon has identified that the term ‘hidden curriculum’ is mostly categorised and defined in three key ways. These include the outcomes definition, environmental definition and the Modes of influence definition. The outcome definition splits school learning outcomes into two sections which include the academic learnings that are linked to the manifest curriculum and the non-academic learnings that are linked to the hidden curriculum such as certain values, social skills, and attitudes that schools endorse. Bowles and Gintis (1976) indicate that


“the structure of social relations in education not only inures the student to the discipline of the workplace but develops the types of personal demeanour, modes of self-presentation, self-image and social-class identifications which are crucial ingredients of job adequacy” (p.131).


They indicate that the hidden curriculum is used as a tool to train children in school for the workplace so they can get ready and adapt well to it. Secondly, the environmental definition indicates schools transmit implicit messages to students through its physical and social environments. School classrooms, playgrounds, and corridors teach children different things. Annette Hemmings (1999-2000) stated there is a “hidden corridor curriculum”. She studied two urban schools looking closely at lunchrooms, restrooms, corridors and even none classroom spaces and found out that it was ruled by typically middle-class social norms and values (Board, n.d.). Thirdly, the Modes of influence definition in the case of the hidden curriculum the ‘influence is felt to be unconscious and unplanned’ (Jordan, 1982, p.188).  It is manifest if the teacher does mean to teach it but hidden if the teacher unintendedly does it. Jordan states ‘latent influence reminds us of the effects of subliminal advertising’ (1982, p.191). This is when the students do not notice the hidden messages being given and transmitted to them and nor the teacher realising they are delivering these messages. An example of this is provided by Jane Martain (1976) as she indicates “In sum a hidden curriculum consists of the outcomes or by-products of learning (…) particular those states which are learned by not openly intended” (p.137).


Setting by ability

There are many examples of the hidden curriculum, however, I will be looking at setting by ability and its link in relation to social class. Setting by ability is a practice that was established upon the idea that students have relatively set levels of ability and need to be taught correspondingly. It groups students based on their achievement in specific school subjects. For instance, a child might be in low set for English but a higher set for maths.

Michael Gove states that “each pupil should be given the opportunity to learn in accordance with their particular aptitude and ability…we believe that setting by ability is the only solution to achieving this ambition” (Husbands, 2014).


Generally, students in the lower sets in schools are those that come from lower class families. Marxists argue that there’s a link between an individual’s social-class and the set they are put into in school. They believe that the higher your social-class the greater the chance you will be placed into a higher set (Thompson, 2008). Setting by ability also inclines to separate students by social class, race, and ethnicity due to the ‘inequality in the wider society, test scores tend to be stratified along these dimensions, so classes restricted to high-achieving students tend to have a higher number of majority-race and privileged social class students’ (Gamoran, 2002). Family background is common factor in poor attainment and in a study conducted by the universities of Sussex and Manchester, on behalf of the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) a senior manager in one of the schools they studied stated “school is compensating for working-class families … cementing the cracks and the school provides what middle-class families provide at