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Best Practice in Grouping Students


A research project funded by the Education Endowment Foundation.


New paper: Teacher ‘quality’ and attainment grouping: The role of within-school teacher deployment in social and educational inequality

By Becky Taylor, on 11 October 2018

We have published a new paper!

Prior research suggests that students in lower attaining sets are more likely to be taught by teachers who are less well-qualified and less experienced. Furthermore, research suggests that students in lower sets are likely to experience lower quality pedagogy and curriculum. Our new paper uses data from our surveys and student focus groups to explore whether these findings persist to the present day. We also consider the findings in relation to social justice and consider whether more equitable deployment of teachers is possible.

We found that there is some evidence of inequitable deployment of teachers to different sets. In particular, students in the lowest sets were less likely to be taught by someone with a degree in the subject. Lowest sets also had the largest proportion of teachers with just a GCSE qualification in the subject taught. The good news is that this pattern appeared slightly mitigated by our Best Practice in Setting intervention, which was designed to improve equity in deployment.

Pupils perceived teaching standards and teacher expectations to differ according to set, identifying teachers of high sets to be more likely to be strict, while teachers of lower sets were more likely to be laid-back. Middle set student Mandy captured the view expressed by many when she characterised top sets as “pushed to the limit” while lower sets “get it a little bit easy”.

You can read the full article here for free until 30 November 2018 (paywall after).

Francis, B., Hodgen, J., Craig, N., Taylor, B., Archer, L., Mazenod, A., Tereshchenko, A., & Connolly, P. (2019) Teacher ‘quality’ and attainment grouping: The role of within-schoolteacher deployment in social and educational inequality. Teaching and Teacher Education, 77, 183-192. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2018.10.001

Dos and don’ts of attainment grouping

By Becky Taylor, on 7 September 2018

This week we are launching ‘Dos and don’ts of attainment grouping’, our guide on evidence-informed grouping for teachers.

There are well-documented challenges with all forms of attainment grouping. Nevertheless, development of support for good practice in student grouping, and effective pedagogy therein, is under-developed. Our new guide is intended to help teachers improve existing practices in attainment grouping, and mixed attainment grouping. We hope that it will support teachers to facilitate equality of access to high quality pedagogy and curriculum, and to opportunities to progress and achieve, for all students regardless of background and prior attainment level.

You can download a copy of ‘Dos and don’ts of attainment grouping’ from our website. (Follow the link and scroll to the bottom of the page).

Also this week, the Education Endowment Foundation has updated the Teaching and Learning Toolkit entries for attainment grouping and published the evaluation of our Best Practice in Setting and Best Practice in Mixed Attainment randomised controlled trials. You can read more here.

This week’s TES includes an article  about our research (the link is to a shortened online version: there is a longer version in the magazine and for subscribers) and you can read a reflection on the research by project director, Professor Becky Francis on the TES website.

Becky Francis and Jeremy Hodgen will be presenting findings from our research at the ResearchED National Conference on Saturday 8 September – come and find out about our research at 10am in the school hall and get a copy of ‘Dos and dont’s of attainment grouping.’

Becky Francis, Jeremy Hodgen and Becky Taylor will also be at BERA next week. Come to our symposium on Thursday at 2.30pm.

Attainment grouping: what is it like for higher-attaining students?

By Becky Taylor, on 25 June 2018

Much attention has been given to the negative effects of attainment grouping on students with middle and low prior attainment. However, some research finds a positive effect of attainment grouping for students with high prior attainment. In this blog post we explore the experiences and attitudes of students with high prior attainment and those in top sets.

Becky Francis explored how students’ self-confidence was related to their attainment, and found that students in top sets for both English and maths had higher subject and general self-confidence than their peers in lower groups.

Antonina Tereshchenko has written about the attitudes of students towards mixed attainment grouping. In her paper, she finds that over half (51%) of students with high prior attainment express positive views about mixed attainment, compared with 23% expressing negative views and 26% expressing mixed views. Students who expressed positive views drew on equity discourses, such as the advantages of academic and social inclusivity, and the benefits of helping others. Those who expressed negative views were concerned about work being repetitive and not being ‘pushed’ enough.

Antonina is now exploring students’ positive views of setting (she presented an early version of this work at AERA, earlier this year). Some preliminary analysis suggests that Year 7 students in top set for English have significantly more positive views of setting overall than do their peers in middle sets, similarly Year 7 students in top set for maths have significantly more positive views than students in middle or bottom sets. Students at all levels feel that setting is meritocratic: if they work hard, then they will be rewarded by getting into a higher set (yet research suggests that movement is rare). They like having work that is on their ‘level’ – not too hard and not too difficult.

Louise Archer wrote about students’ negative views of setting, finding that students in top sets were the least negative about the practice. Students in top sets frequently expressed enjoyment of their set position and felt superior to those in lower sets. Many said that they felt deserving of their place in the top set (and that the same was true of their peers in lower sets).

For my part, I am beginning to look at students’ perceptions of teachers and teaching in different sets and in mixed attainment groups. Overall, students in top sets have the most positive attitudes towards teachers and teaching – higher than students in middle or lower sets, and higher than students in mixed attainment groups (bear in mind that for students in mixed groups, this isn’t broken down by prior attainment). The same is true for both maths and English.

We would appreciate readers’ thoughts on this analysis: it would be good to have additional hypotheses to test, and we still have more to explore from our research. Please email or tweet us if you have suggestions.

Mixed attainment grouping as experienced by learners at low, middle and high attainment levels

By Antonina Tereshchenko, on 11 May 2018

The research on grouping by attainment is sparse in student voices, especially in relation to how learners perceive mixed attainment grouping.

Some prior research has indicated that students at different prior attainment levels could have different experiences in mixed attainment classes. For example, a study conducted in Israel found that low and middle attainers consistently preferred learning mathematics in mixed groups.

Results are however more variable for high attainers. In ‘setted’ schools less confident learners dislike the competitive and stressful environment of top sets, while studies with ‘gifted and talented’ students have found a stronger preference for homogeneously grouped classes.

In light of these concerns, our recently published research asked 89 Year 7 students in eight schools about their reasons for preferring or disliking mixed attainment.

We found not only differences between attainment groups but also variations within the groups.

Issues of equity, competition and status in mixed attainment classes

Students at the low prior attainment level strongly appreciated mixed attainment grouping due to its inclusive and collaborative environment. They were also aware of a range of opportunities available to them due to the learning conditions in mixed attainment classrooms. Only 5 out of 21 low-attaining students wanted to return to setting because they perceived it to be ‘easier’:

I’d prefer it if we were all the same level classes because then there’s some people that have the same levels as me, not just all higher and it will be easier, I think. (Lauren)

While in schools that group by attainment top set students tend to prefer setting, our interviews found that half of high-attaining students were positive about mixed attainment. They felt that mixed attainment practice supports fairness and equality of opportunity:

[L]ess able at maths, they get taught the same thing as people who are more able and so they’re not like left behind. (Lara)

The dissatisfied high attainers tended to describe their lessons as being ‘easy’, ‘boring’, ‘a bit dull’, ‘slow’ and ‘not challenging enough’. They however still recognised that mixed attainment is good for low-attaining students:

I think it benefits the lower-ish people because they feel encouraged to do better but the higher people, they might not feel pushed enough to get better grades. (Alice)

Students at the middle attainment level held the most ambivalent views. Those who spoke positively about mixed classes felt the practice indicated that their school was committed to equity. But a substantial number of middle-attaining students compared themselves with high-attaining peers within mixed attainment classes and, as a result, felt threatened and exposed as ‘weaker’ learners.

I feel a bit more discouraged if everyone else gets it and I don’t and I also feel quite frustrated if that happens. (Edie)

The importance of getting differentiation right

The negative views of students suggest that it is important to distinguish between mixed attainment grouping and mixed attainment teaching. It appears that some of the students’ complaints relate to the teaching approaches where mixed attainment lessons are designed for the ‘average’ student. Thus, some lower-attaining students feel ‘left behind’, while higher-attaining students feel ‘a bit held back’. Our ‘Best Practice in Mixed Attainment’ project suggests that it is crucial for teachers to ensure differentiation by outcome with rich tasks and quality feedback to enable all students to succeed in spite of social and educational inequalities.

Best Practice in Grouping Students goes to the American Educational Research Association conference

By Becky Taylor, on 23 April 2018

Members of the Best Practice in Grouping Students team have just got back from the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association in New York.

While there, we enjoyed the opportunity to get to know colleagues studying grouping in other education systems and hear about the work they are doing in this area. We also shared our own research, our symposium having been chosen back in 2016 to represent BERA at the conference

In the USA and other countries, attainment grouping is referred to as ‘tracking’ and mixed-attainment groups are referred to as ‘detracked classrooms’. Tracking can refer to a range of practices, including strategies similar to each of streaming, setting and within-class grouping. In US high schools, one important distinction is between courses that prepare students for college and those that do not. In some schools, students are assigned to tracks, whereas in others they can choose which track to follow. However, detracking through the mechanism of choice often does not work in racially diverse schools due to interconnected racial and social inequalities. The issues with ‘racialised’ and ‘intergenerational’ tracking of African American students within schools were discussed by Richard Lofton in the symposium ‘(Re)Segregation and Tracking: Problems in the Pursuit of Racial Equity’.

One fascinating symposium followed ‘Tracking Through the Life Course’. In the first paper, Marshall Jean described his research into within-class grouping for reading in elementary school. He has found more mobility between reading groups than previous research, but with five times as much upward as downward mobility. Group placement has an impact on both achievement and learning behaviours. Alecia Smith presented case studies of Black students, contrasting those who had been part of ‘Academically and Intellectually Gifted’ (AIG) programmes and those on standard courses. Black students on AIG courses expressed regret about the learning engagement of their same-ethnicity peers and reported that they had few friends of the same race as themselves. Megan Holland traced the influence of tracking on students’ access to information about college, finding that students in higher tracks were able to access good quality information, while those in lower tracks (again, mainly students of colour) tended to share limited and unhelpful information with each other, restricting the range of college options that students applied for. Lynn Meissner explored how students in different tracks engaged with vocational courses, finding that course choices were strongly associated with socioeconomic background, gender and ethnicity, as well as being associated with future academic outcomes. Finally, Amy Stich followed tracking through to the college level. Amy has found that de facto tracking takes place in US colleges through their ‘Honors programs’, with class and ethnicity based inequalities perpetuated even at this level. The respondent for the symposium was Jeannie Oakes, who has been researching this area for over 30 years. She remarked that while the surface structures of tracking have changed since the 1970s and 1980s, the deep structures and inequalities in the USA appear to have remained the same, noting the deep entanglement with race and social class.

We had invited Brianna Chang, Chair of the AERA Tracking and Detracking SIG (Special Interest Group) to respond to our symposium. She reflected on the similarities and contrasts between grouping practices and research in the USA and the UK. We were very grateful to the SIG for their welcome and the opportunity to get to meet researchers from the US and elsewhere with an interest in the area of attainment grouping.