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Best Practice in Grouping Students


A research project funded by the Education Endowment Foundation.


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.

Nurturing learning or encouraging teacher dependency? A new project paper

By Becky Taylor, on 11 April 2018

Post by Dr Anna Mazenod

A new project paper ‘Nurturing Learning or Encouraging Dependency? Teacher Constructions of Students in Lower Attainment Groups in English Secondary Schools’ has just been published in Cambridge Journal of Education. We have here summarised key points from the paper – the full article is available here.

The paper examines teachers’ expectations of students in the so-called ‘bottom’ sets. Prior research has identified that there can be considerable differences in the content and pedagogy of lessons between different attainment sets, and that teachers tend to have lower expectations of students in the lower sets. Earlier studies have also drawn attention to the way in which students in these lower sets may be unintentionally directed towards a ‘learned helplessness’ rather than enhancing independence in their learning.

Drawing on survey and interview data with English and maths teachers in schools participating in our study we wanted to find out how teachers perceive students placed in the lower attainment sets in comparison with other students, and whether there were differences in their approach to lessons depending on which set they were teaching.

In line with earlier studies, findings from our survey of 597 teachers show that the majority adopt different pedagogical approaches depending on the set they are teaching.  We then interviewed a sample of teachers and from the 34 completed interviews and found similar patterns. One of the English teachers for example described a lesson delivered to a lower set as being ‘unrecognisable’ from a similar lesson delivered to a top set. Whilst there were exceptions, teachers typically did not expect students in the lower sets to be able to follow a similar pace and format to the lesson as delivered to students in higher sets. Most teachers felt that students in the lower sets were not able to access learning independently from their teachers.

A strong narrative emerged from the teacher interviews about the perceived need for students in the lower sets to be nurtured and protected in their learning to a greater degree than other students. There are clearly positive aspects in the extra support and nurture provided in many schools to students in the lower sets for example through more one-to-one interaction with teachers and/or teaching assistants facilitated through smaller group size. However, intertwined in many of the teacher narratives of nurture and support, there were also discourses of dependency: of students in the lower sets being ‘more dependent on people’ and students in the higher sets being ‘independent learners.’

As independent learning is a key skill for students to make the most of their continuing education, we argue in the paper that it is important to support all students in enhancing independence in their learning, regardless of their set level. There is thus a delicate balance to be struck between nurturing and supporting students, yet also enabling them to gradually become less dependent on their teachers in accessing learning opportunities.

Best Practice in Grouping Students: Mixed methods in action

By John Barlow, on 19 March 2018

– Dr Becky Taylor

At the heart of BPGS are two interventions: Best Practice in Setting (BPS) and Best Practice in Mixed Attainment (BPMA). Our interventions draw on decades of prior research into attainment grouping. Both are intended to combat some of the unintended, but frequently-observed negative consequences of setting. BPS does this by describing an approach to attainment grouping that does away with these poor practices, while BPMA is designed to provide a framework for teaching students in mixed-attainment groups as an alternative to setting.

As Project Director Professor Becky Francis makes clear here, the project team do not subscribe to easy ‘rights and wrongs’ on grouping practice. The point of the ‘Best Practice in Setting’ trial was to explore whether setting could be done with better fidelity and equity (and consequent better impact on outcomes) than has been found by prior studies.

Our project has investigated the two interventions using ‘mixed methods’ – a pragmatic approach to research that draws on some of the strengths of both traditional quantitative and qualitative methods and allows us to investigate not just ‘what works?’ but as they say ‘why?’, ‘how?’ and ‘in what context?’. We offer a summary of our methods here:

Randomised Controlled Trial

Our two interventions are being independently evaluated by NFER using randomised controlled trial (RCT). The RCT of the BPS intervention, which involves 126 schools, will be able to detect whether the intervention has had any effect on the attainment and self-confidence of the students who participated. The BPMA trial is a ‘feasibility trial’, which means that its main purpose is to establish whether it might be possible to carry out an RCT in this area in the future. As only 13 schools participated, it is underpowered, meaning that the effect of the intervention cannot be detected. We completed data collection in July 2017. The RCT results are expected to be published in May 2018, following a process of peer review. The protocols can be found here.

Questionnaire surveys

Teachers and students in all 139 of the schools participating in our study were asked to complete online questionnaire surveys at the beginning and end of the study period. One important purpose of the student questionnaire was to collect student data, including a measure of self-confidence, for use in the RCT analyses.

It is also important for us to understand how faithfully intervention schools followed our interventions, so the teacher questionnaire asks questions to help us establish this. We also asked teachers and students about other key areas that have been highlighted in previous research into attainment grouping.

Interviews and observations

Alongside the quantitative methods above, we visited a smaller number of schools to conduct interviews with teachers and students, and in BPMA schools to carry out a small number of lesson observations as well. These qualitative approaches help us to check findings from the quantitative data and to understand in richer detail the attitudes of students and teachers toward different grouping practices. They also help us to understand the ways in which grouping practices are enacted in different schools and how they are experienced by teachers and students.

Our analysis so far

While we wait for the results of the RCTs to be published, we have been analysing findings on particular aspects of the data, especially from the baseline survey results. These do not address the success or otherwise of the RCT: they measure aspects from pupils’ opinions and experiences early in the study. The resulting journal articles draw primarily on the quantitative analysis to explore trends, and use qualitative data for explanatory power. We have also published on our findings about various reasons schools found it hard to implement some of the stipulations of our interventions. You can find a list of our publications here.

We will continue to publish our findings as they emerge, and intend a large-scale dissemination event following release of the trial results so that those interested can engage with and interrogate our findings and conclusions.

New findings on secondary students’ negative views about setting

By John Barlow, on 23 January 2018

– Dr Antonina Tereshchenko

Setting is a widespread practice of grouping students in UK secondary schools. This is despite little evidence of its efficacy and substantial evidence of its detrimental impact on those allocated to the low sets.

In her recent paper [accessible online here] Professor Louise Archer, along with the ‘Best Practice in Grouping Students’ research team, has proposed that setting represents a process through which the social and cultural reproduction of inequality and dominant power relations are enacted within schools.

The arguments are based on the statistical modeling of the set allocation data from 94 project schools, a survey with 12,178 Year 7 students, and interviews with 33 students from four schools.

What are the characteristics of students in higher and lower sets?

The analysis of the school-reported set levels confirms social justice concerns that underpin our project.  Notably, lower sets are overpopulated by disadvantaged students. The allocation of students by subject also highlights gender and racial inequalities.

  • Working-class children and those eligible for free school meals were statistically more likely to be in middle and bottom sets.
  • A statistically significantly greater proportion of boys were in the bottom set for English (60% boys vs. 40% girls), but significantly more boys were in the top set for mathematics (56% boys vs. 44% girls).
  • White students were significantly more likely to be in top sets for English (81%) and mathematics (77%), whereas Black and mixed-ethnicity children (and Asian students in the case of English) were more likely to be in lower sets for both subjects.
  • Variation by whether students spoke English as an additional language (EAL) was only significant in English (not mathematics), where higher proportions of students with EAL in lower sets.

Feelings of students in top sets: ‘proud’, ‘confident’ and ‘superior’

Students in top sets (who were also White and/or middle-class) spoke about how being in their sets made them feel ‘proud’, ‘confident’ and ‘superior’. It is also clear that while those at the top may like their location, they are aware that those lower in the hierarchy may dislike their allocation. The following quote exemplifies their beliefs:

You feel good about yourself when you know that you’re thriving in the top set, not that you’re being dragged along the bottom [ … ] It makes you feel good [ .. . ] I think you must feel superior to the group below you, until you’re at the bottom. I think, yes, I do enjoy it but you also have to be quite careful with what you say and how you act. Like, you don’t want to be going round to people saying, ‘Oh, well, I’m in the top set and you’re in the second set’, because that makes people feel really hard [bad], and so I do enjoy it but you do have to be careful with what you say. (Monica, White British)

The top set students viewed being in top sets as ‘natural’ and ‘deserved’. They defended the legitimacy of setting and set allocations drawing on discourses of talent, ability and meritocracy. In the view of top set students, setting is not an unfair practice that produces unequal outcomes. Rather, it is a ‘common sense’ approach.

Who expresses the most negative views of setting?

The following groups of students have statistically more negative attitudes to setting:

  • Students who perceive themselves to be in the bottom sets.
  • Students with lower levels of attainment at Key Stage 2 tests (both for English and maths).
  • Boys express more negative attitudes than girls do.
  • Black students and those (ever) eligible for FSM express significantly more negative views of setting.

Students in low sets on their set position: ‘I almost died’

Students in bottom sets were painfully aware of their inferior position. The interviews highlighted feelings of embarrassment – thus one boys described his feelings on learning that he had been allocated to the bottom mathematics set as ‘I almost died’.

Students in bottom sets were striving to move up. Those who had managed to move out of the most-disparaged bottom sets expressed their relief:

Well, I used to be in Set 5, then I moved up to Set 4, so I’m happy now, because I’ve moved up. (Levon, White and Black Caribbean)

Yeah, I don’t mind. It’s better than being in Set 5. (Emily, White Other)

While students in bottom sets were the most likely to raise questions about the legitimacy of set allocation, the above quotes suggest that those who ‘escape’ the fate of bottom sets are more likely to accept the legitimacy of setting.

This research foregrounds the views of those who are most disadvantaged by the setting practice as a tool for questioning the ideology and popularity of setting.