Exploring Class Grouping in Physical Education

There can be no doubt that how students are placed into their groups or classes can have a huge impact on their experiences within physical education (PE) and grouping has often been a contentious issue. The two most common forms of grouping adopted by PE departments have been either based on their perceived ability or their gender. This blog seeks to explore the research related to these two common forms of grouping in PE and offer a third, alternative, approach.

Grouped by Ability

Shaun Wilkinson and Dawn Penney’s article ‘A national survey of ability grouping practices in secondary school physical education in England’ (2023) confirmed that grouping students in sets based on ability was the most preferred method by those involved in their research. However, the most common form of grouping in secondary PE was mixed-ability classes. The article highlights that English and Maths more often opt for setting by ability, whilst mixed-ability classes were favoured in other subjects including PE. When sets were used in PE, they were often determined from baseline testing (around components of fitness) or observational assessments (focused mainly on practical ability in team games).

The article explores the history of grouping students by ability and the links to educational priorities at that time. From a drive to push the most able students to a shift in focus to ensure all children had equal opportunities to curriculum, teaching and resources. The use of setting has a long and controversial history within education in England. Primary education has more often gone for a mixed-gendered and mixed-ability approach to PE delivery. Whereas, in secondary the forms of grouping will often depend on the year group being taught, timetabling pressures and setting in other perceived ‘higher value’ subjects. The research found that as students moved up Key Stage 3 the use of setting increased and the use of mixed-ability classes decreased. It was also considered that girls made more progress in mixed-ability classes from some respondents. Others argued that setting made the teaching easier when the differences in ability were smaller and those classes with only the ‘highest’ and ‘lowest’ ability students in could be better catered for. The article recognises the complexity of grouping students in secondary education and the need for student voice in future research to acknowledge student preferences.

Penney and Wilkinson’s 2022 article ‘The participation group means that I’m low ability’: Students’ perspectives on the enactment of ‘mixed-ability’ grouping in secondary school physical education’, provided an insight into the messaging students receive through setting by ability. Firstly, they address the fact ‘there is no unequivocal evidence that setting improves academic attainment and/or that it should be considered preferable to mixed-ability grouping’. They go on to draw upon research that indicates mixed-ability grouping can foster greater self-confidence and attitudes towards learning, particularly among lower attaining students. They do recognise that mixed-ability groupings alone do not lead to positive outcomes and might actually lead to teachers delivering learning to the middle level ability students, meaning the lower level were not supported effectively and the higher level students were not suitably challenged which negatively impacted motivation.

When exploring student perceptions on grouping by ability, Wilkinson and Penney found that those in the top sets were more likely to be in favour of grouping by ability, whilst those in the bottom sets preferred mixed-ability groupings. In this study, often girls indicated their desire to stay in mixed-ability classes so that they could be with their friends and indicated social reasons for this choice.

Beyond PE, The Education Endowment Foundation reviewed the effectiveness of setting and streaming. They found that students in top sets made no more progress than in mixed ability classes, but had a small negative effect on those in low attaining classes. The research suggests that grouping students by ability may have ‘longer term negative effects on the attitudes and engagement of low attaining pupils, for example, by discouraging the belief that their attainment can be improved through effort’.

This can also be applied to Wilkinson and Penney’s 2022 aforementioned research, as they suggested that students were also very aware of the names given to classes within PE and their relationship to setting by ability. It created an unwanted hierarchy. In my own experience, I have seen classes named stretch (higher ability) and nurture (lower ability) or performance (higher) and practice/participation (lower) and most recently I encountered a school using the labels of professional (higher) and amateur (lower). These names can potentially give out the messaging of ‘good’ or ‘not good’ in PE, physical activity or sport and potentially impact self-identity or long-term motivation.

Grouped by Gender

The Department for Education in England published their ‘Gender Separation in Mixed-Schools, Non-Statutory Guidance’ in 2018. The guidance clearly states that ‘In a mixed school, any separation of pupils of either sex that denies them the choice or opportunity to interact socially, or to interact in an educational setting, with pupils of the other sex is likely to involve subjecting the pupils to a detriment because of their sex’ (page 4). If schools did segregate based on sex for any reason, they would need to be able to fully justify these decisions. However, single-sex sport has its own section within the guidance, in which it states that single-sex sport is permitted when participating in a ‘gendered-specific activity’. It explains that a ‘gendered-specific activity is a sport, game or other activity of a competitive nature in circumstances where the 6 physical strength, stamina or physique of the average girl (or boy) would put her (or him) at a disadvantage in competition with the average boy (or girl)’, (page 6). The guidance does continue to explain that both boys and girls should receive equal access to resources and that schools should consider the stage of development as to whether to apply the term ‘gendered-specific activity’.

The Women’s Sport Foundation strongly opposes single-sex PE in their position statement (2018). The statement claims that ‘Physical education is not the same as elite level sports. Its primary purpose is not competition. Rather, physical education is instructional, and there is no justification for sex segregation in programs in which the purpose is instructional. Segregating sexes based on such criteria would invite discrimination’ (page 2). The statement continues to justify the need for mixed-gendered PE by saying that there are more significant physiological and developmental differences within each sex than between the sexes and that any research indicating the use of single-sex PE classes is inconclusive.

In June 2021, Vargos & Williams et.al. published their article exploring the differing activity levels in single-sex versus co-educational 7th grade (ages 12-13) PE. The study found that when grouped by gender, female students were far more active than when grouped with members of the opposite sex. The heart rates of female students when engaging in a single-sex game of basketball, matched that of their male counterparts. However, when playing in a mixed-gendered game, the female students heart rates were far lower than their male peers. Female students also reported to being far less involved in the lesson when engaging with/against male students. Conversely, male student physical activity levels were the same whether in single or mixed gendered groups.

When grouping by gender, it is vital to consider the needs of our transgender students. A recent article indicated the desire of the Government in England to bar transgender students from participating against students of opposite biological sex. This is an elite level issue with a number of professional sporting bodies banning transgender females from competing against biological females in major sports and competitions such as athletics and the Olympic Games. There is a serious risk that our transgender students will feel alienated within PE lessons when forced to compete in single-sex classes to which they do not identify. The Women’s Sport Foundation argument regarding the little physiological differences between genders at school age might indicate this is a non-issue for schools.

It can be argued that PE has often mirrored elite sport and some sports have been deemed more appropriate for boys or girls. Therefore curriculums have been created to meet this archaic view. On International Women’s Day (Wednesday 8 March) the Government set out new standards for equal access to sports, making it clear that girls and boys should be offered the same sports during PE and extracurricular time in schools.

Girls may prefer single-sex classes more due to existing culture than activity preferences. Toxic masculinity, misogyny or homophobia may impact motivation, relationships with our subject and self-identity towards PE, physical activity and sport. Mix-gendered groups exist elsewhere around the school and seem to have no negative impact on engagement or learning progress, however this seems not to be the case within PE.

Grouped by Attitude

In 2015, Sport England published their ‘Under the skin’ survey results. The research reported the complex relationships that young people have with sport and physical activity is due to their “own emotional, rational and behavioural relationship with sport and physical activity” (Sport England, 2015, p. 10). Sport England subsequently identified six personality types that would support leaders in their appreciation of youth engagement and I believe could form the foundation for future grouping considerations.

PersonalityAttract Their AttentionKeep Them Coming Back
Sport Enthusiasts– Show them they can compete and achieve their potential
– Tap into their desire to be fit and their willingness to work hard
– Promote the fun, challenge and energy on offer
–      Support them to continuously improve
–      Help them achieve emotional highs
Make it competitive
Confident Intellectuals– Highlight opportunities where focus, dedica­tion and creativity win out over talent.
– Reassure them they don’t need experience or skills to take part.
– Don’t bring ‘sport’ into it.
– Recognise and reward improvement and per­severance.
– Highlight how they can enhance their CV. 
Ambitious Self-starters– Offer them a chal­lenge.
– Present them with op­portunities to develop new sport or life skills.
– Continue to challenge them.
– Help them stay com­mitted when life changes.
Cautious Introverts– Connect keeping fit to feeling good about themselves having made the effort to take part.
– Don’t bring ‘sport’ into it.
– Keep it small, familiar, and supportive.
– Recognise and reward taking part.
– Open up new oppor­tunities to develop themselves if their confidence improves long-term.
Thoughtful Improvers– Highlight opportunities to achieve personal goals.
– Offer support to set and reach these goals.
– Tap into their fitness and weight-loss aspira­tions.
– Give them something to be proud of
– recog­nise and reward their achievements.
– Make them feel part of something. 
Everyday Youths– Put the spotlight on fun with friends.
– Encourage them to give it a go by address­ing practical barriers up front.
– Throw in ‘keeping in shape’ as an added bonus.
– Encourage friendship.
– Offer incentives and opportunities to en­hance their CV.

The principle of identifying the student’s attitudes and motivations towards PE, physical activity and sport, effectively shifts the focus away from the emphasis on performative ability to what actually motivates a student and influences their attitudes towards physical activity. Thus, enabling the teacher to plan and pitch lessons based more on the ‘how’ learning can be delivered, and ‘why’ this learning is relevant and less on the ‘what’ it is they need to be able to know/do.

The Personality Pathway

In ‘Is PE in Crisis?’ I introduced the Personality Pathway. At the start of the year, students are asked to complete a survey every year to ascertain their motivations to engage and current attitudes towards PE, physical activity and sport to group students with others like-minded individuals. For example, students who want to be competitive with like-minded individuals are grouped together. Similarly, students who prefer to engage with physical activity for the social benefits are grouped together. For those students that actively disengage when competition is the focus, then they will be placed with students with the same attitude towards competition as they do.

Below is an example of the survey that we issue to all students in years…… each school year. They work with a simple Likert Scale, that ranges from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

‘Is PE in Crisis?’ goes into the logistics of how we run this part of our delivery, but we have found a positive impact in student engagement when grouping students in this way. Whilst this statistic does not focus purely on the grouping element of the PE experience, 93% of students surveyed at Upton Court Grammar School claimed that the Personality Pathway had improved their experiences within PE.

Final Thoughts

The purpose of this blog was to explore key research into the two most common forms of grouping in secondary core PE and to offer an alternative option for grouping. Whilst the alternative offered has not been fully researched, it does offer an opportunity to explore a new, and hopefully more inclusive, method of grouping.

I can see the advantages and disadvantages for both grouping by ability (or not) and grouping by gender (or not). Using groups based on ability is easier on teachers but provides a negative message around ability that might lead to a poor self-perception in PE, sport and physical activity and impact future engagement. Though mixed-ability groupings will provide opportunities for being social and peer-learning, the needs of the higher and lower ability students might get neglected. Grouping by gender can alienate some students and limit engagement. However, it can also increase activity levels amongst girls and ensure a more comfortable space for participation for female students.

In short, some students benefit from these common forms of grouping and some students do not.

Therefore, I think it is time for a fresh look at how we group our students. One that focuses more on the ‘why’ of engagement, that includes autonomy and aims to build a more realistic and relevant relationship with PE, sport and physical activity suited to the attitudes of those that receiving it. Grouping students by their PE personalities enables teachers to appropriately pitch learning and activities that better meet the student’s reasons for participation. The student personality survey should be repeated/reviewed annually as student’s attitudes and motivations may evolve.

If our aim in PE is to nurture physical literacy and build and develop the tools required to be and stay active for life, I believe we should tailor our delivery based on how our students would most like to engage in physical activity. Grouping by attitude and motivation towards PE, physical activity and sport is, I believe, an effective foundation for which a meaningful curriculum can build upon.


Vargos, c., Williams, S. M., Henninger, M. L., Coleman, M. M. & Burns, R. D. (2021) The effects of single-sex versus coeducational physical education on american junior high PE students’ physical activity levels and self-competence. Biomedical Human Kinetics. DOI: 10.2478/bhk-2021-0021

Department for Education (2018) Gender Separation in Mixed Schools – Non-statutory guidance. Access Here

Sullivan, L. (2021) Is PE in Crisis? Leading Meaningful Change in Physical Education. Scholary.

Jones, O. (2023) Transgender pupils will be barred from competing against children of opposite biological sex in PE lessons under new government plans. Daily Mail Article. Access Here.

Wilkinson, S. D. & Penney, D. (2022) ‘The participation group means that I’m low ability’: Students’ perspectives on the enactment of ‘mixed-ability’ grouping in secondary school physical education. British Educational Research Journal, DOI:org/10.1002/berj.3802

Wilkinson, S. D. & Penney, D. (2023) A national survey of ability grouping practices in secondary school physical education in England, Research Papers in Education, DOI: 10.1080/02671522.2023.2217819

Women’s Sport Foundation, (2018) Position Statement. Access Here

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