No more ‘top class’? The pros and cons of a heterogeneous classroom


The recent news that several primary schools in Singapore are abandoning the practice of banding students from the ‘top class’ to the ‘bottom class’ caused quite a stir. These schools will now have more heterogeneous classrooms with students of varying ability levels, and, in the words of the Principal of Pei Hwa Presbyterian Primary School, “reduce unhealthy competition and promote interaction among pupils of different strengths and interests”.

This announcement sparked a lively debate on Facebook about the value and feasibility of such a measure. Some people expressed their support for the decision. They noted the courage of the school management in introducing such a measure, and spoke of the value of having a system that will reduce stress, promote social interaction, foster holistic development, and reduce elitism.


Others however, were concerned about the potential drawbacks of this new approach. Some noted that this might stretch teaching resources thin due to teachers having to cope with classes of varying ability levels, while others noted that students of different ability levels might slow each other down.


The concerns on both sides are valid but require further elaboration and investigation. This is not a new issue; the discussion over these different types of classrooms and their effects on individual students are well-documented elsewhere. Hence, it would be advantageous for us to consult the experiences of countries such as the United Kingdom to understand the pros and cons of a heterogeneous classroom.

In the UK, the transition from selective schools (where academic grades determined one’s school, as in the Singaporean case) to comprehensive or non-selective schools (where schools accepted everyone based on geography, regardless of grades), occurred over a 20 year period from 1965 to 1985. During this period, the number of comprehensive school places went up from 15% in 1965 to about 80% in 1985.[1] This gradual and partial transition provides the ideal setting for us to compare the different systems and their effects on British students.


The British Experience 

After almost 50 years since the introduction of the non-selective school system, there is now some consensus within research circles.

First, non-selective schools often produced smaller gaps in attainment between students from the top and bottom socio-economic classes. This is because the non-selective nature of such schools meant that wealth becomes less relevant in giving one’s child a leg up in the school system. This continues to be a large motivator behind the support for non-selective schools in the UK. [2]

Second, there is very mixed evidence to suggest that academic attainment in non-selective schools were better than selective ones. The current body of research falls into two broad camps. One group suggests that external factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds, and ethnic groups were larger determinants of attainment levels than the specific schooling system. [3]

However, another group suggests that selective schools produced a higher upper quadrant compared to non-selective schools, such as the 2004 study by Gorard and Smith where they analysed the PISA test results of the year. [4]

Third, educators in the UK over the past 50 years conceded that some form of differentiated instruction in the classroom is necessary for effective education, especially at the secondary-level. When the non-selective schools were launched in the 1960s, they did not practice intra-school ability differentiation (i.e. banding students within the school). However, by 2010, 75% of non-selective schools practiced subject-based banding for English classes, similar to what is happening in Singapore. Therefore, there were heterogeneous schools, but rarely heterogeneous classrooms. [5]

These are the potential trade-offs we are facing when looking at the direction that schools such as Pei Hwa Presbyterian Primary School are heading towards. Of course, the UK experience is not necessarily going to be the Singapore experience, and there are major differences between the respective countries’ attitudes towards their education systems. To start with, the UK spent approximately £12,000 per student in the year 2015, as compared to Singapore’s $21,900 per student. When understood in terms of purchasing power parity, the difference stood at UK’s US$8,582 to Singapore’s US$18,693 – which means that Singapore consumed more than twice in educational goods and services per student compared to the UK. [6][7]


It is difficult to say with certainty the full extent of the effect an education system would have on a student. After all, education is a human endeavour (老师是灵魂的工程师 right?), and specific outcomes would depend a lot on the particular student and his or her teacher, and the context within which they interact with one another. Therefore, while it is good to learn from the experience of other countries, we need to do so carefully – unfortunately, this demands a level of detail that I am not able to capture within these thousand words.

Broadly, what can be seen from the state of research into selective and non-selective schools is that heterogeneous classrooms come with trade-offs. We therefore need to ask ourselves as a society: what trade-offs are we willing to make? Are we willing to reduce maximum attainment within our system in exchange for a higher average attainment – in other words, should we move faster, or slow down a bit but move more cohesively, and less unequally as a society? One of our writers recently explained why we must help society’s worst off even at the expense of overall growth. Should we approach education in the same way?

In any case, given our willingness to spend on education (which forms the largest proportion of our annual government budget), and our extremely healthy teacher-student ratio, (currently 1:13 as opposed to the British 1:18), we may, through a careful and measured process of fine-tuning and improvement, have our cake and eat it. I hope we do so; or else, tough choices will have to be made.

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See also:



[1] Crook, David., Whitty, Geoff, and Power, Sally. The Grammar School Question : A Review of Research on Comprehensive and Selective Education. Perspectives on Education Policy. 1999.

[2] Dupriez, V., and X. Dumay. Inequalities in school systems: Effect of school structure or of society structure? Comparative Education 42, no. 2. 2006.

[3] Vikki, Boliver, and Swift, Adam. Do comprehensive schools reduce social mobility? The British Journal of Sociology. 2011

[4] Gorard, S., and E. Smith. An international comparison of equity in education systems. Comparative Education Issue 40, no. 1. 2004.

[5] Glaesser, Judith, and Cooper, Barry. Educational achievement in selective and comprehensive local education authorities: a configurational analysis. 2012.

[6] Department for Education, United Kingdom. Schools, Pupils, and their Characteristics. 2016

[7] Ministry of Education, Singapore. Education Statistics Digest. 2016.

3 thoughts

  1. Is it a different in kids’ abilities or aptitudes or rather a lack of family support? What is the socioeconomic demographics from those in good classes and those from weak classes?

    If we have these data this can lead to more meaningful discussions


    1. Hey! I do wish we have more access to such data, however, I do not believe that they are in the public domain. However, a few studies carried out by NIE and the Institute of Policy Studies have indicated that students in better schools have a higher tendency to be from a more privileges socio-economic background.


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