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Best Practice in Grouping Students


A research project funded by the Education Endowment Foundation.


New Paper: The misallocation of students to academic sets in maths

By Becky Taylor, on 21 June 2019

Among our most eye-catching findings so far is what we have discovered about what happens when schools allocate pupils to sets – and whether pupils end up in the ‘right’ group.

For this analysis, we used data from schools in the control group for the Best Practice in Setting trial. These 46 schools had signed up to take part in the trial and been randomly allocated to the ‘business as usual’ control group. In other words, they just got on with their usual grouping and teaching practices, without making any changes.

We started by carrying out our own allocation of pupils to sets. Using KS2 maths data and what we already knew about the group sizes in each school, we made our own decisions about which set each pupil would be in if they were allocated just by KS2 attainment. We then compared our allocations with pupils’ actual set placements.

Strikingly we found that 31% of pupils were placed in a different set to the one that their prior attainment would predict. Some pupils were placed in higher sets and some in lower sets – precipitating the question, were there any patterns in this misallocation?

In further analysis we explored whether any such patterns could be found. We were surprised, given the findings of previous research (e.g. Muijs & Dunne, 2010), that we did not find evidence of any relationship between socioeconomic status and misallocation. However we did find some very concerning relationships between ethnicity and gender and set allocation:

  • Black students were 2.43 times more likely than White students to be allocated to a lower maths set.
  • Asian students were 1.65 times more likely than White students to be allocated to a lower maths set.
  • Female students were 1.53 times more likely than males to be allocated to a lower maths set.


  • White students were 2.09 times more likely than Black students to be allocated to a higher maths set.
  • White students were 1.72 times more likely than Asian students to be allocated to a higher maths set.
  • Male students were 1.32 times more likely than females to be allocated to a higher maths set.


We argue that for the first time there is evidence that setting in Year 7 exacerbates existing educational inequalities in relation to gender and ethnicity.

Our findings support the view that students should be allocated to sets solely on the basis of prior attainment to avoid misallocation and the ‘creeping prejudice’ implied by our misallocated cases. We believe that schools should reflect carefully on their practices and take action where necessary.

Our new paper is now available to read online here.

Pledge to reflect on attainment grouping in your school here.


Connolly, P., Taylor, B., Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Mazenod, A., & Tereshschenko, A. (2019). The misallocation of students to academicsets in maths: A study of secondary schoolsin England. British Educational Research Journal. DOI: 10.1002/berj.3530

‘The reality is complex’: teachers’ and school leaders’ accounts and justifications of grouping practices in the English key stage 2 classroom

By Becky Taylor, on 26 March 2019

Guest post by Dr Emma Towers

Our recent paper on primary school pupil grouping in key stage 2 investigates how prevalent attainment grouping is in English primary schools and what rationale teachers give for the grouping practices in their schools.

The findings from our mixed methods research project show that attainment grouping practices in primary schools are seldom straightforward. These findings come from over 200 responses to a survey sent to primary schools across England and from interview data with teachers and senior leaders in three case study schools. The survey results show that the dominant form of grouping in key stage 2 was by attainment, whether this be ‘within-class ability groups’, ‘ability sets’ or ‘streams’. ‘Within-class ability groups’ was the form of attainment grouping used most of all in the schools. When examining these different forms of attainment grouping the survey shows that these grouping practices occurred in the majority of cases in reading and mathematics. A lower percentage of schools adopted some form of attainment grouping in writing. The data from our survey show that practices vary across the four key stage 2 year groups and children are more often grouped by attainment as they get older.

The language used by participants to account for and justify their classroom grouping practices suggested a varied and sometimes complex picture. Many of the teachers and senior leaders emphasised the fact that they adopt ‘flexible’ and’ fluid practices’, although there appeared to be different understandings of what constitutes ‘fluid’ or ‘flexible’ grouping. Some of the data showed schools either committed to the idea of mixed attainment grouping or moving towards it, with those in favour articulating the benefits to the children in terms of their wellbeing and self-esteem as well as being mindful of avoiding a ‘fixed mindset’ approach to teaching and learning.

Crucially, we found that accountability concerns play a role in how learning is organised in the primary classroom. Grouping practices should be seen in a context of an ever-present focus on improving pupil performance, not just to provide the best educational experience for each child, but as a measurement against which judgments are made about how a school is competing. Responses indicate that primary schools are required to make regular changes to practice in response to recent policy initiatives such as the new curriculum, to assessment and changes to pedagogical practices.

The findings suggest that teachers and headteachers in primary schools are working hard to strike the right balance between their concern for the children in their care and the need to respond to the performative and accountability demands placed on them.

The full article can be read here (£):


Towers, E., Taylor, B., Tereshchenko, A., & Mazenod, A. (2019). ‘The reality is complex’: teachers’ and school leaders’ accounts and justifications of grouping practices in the English key stage 2 classroom. Education 3-13, 1-15.

The evidence on grouping by attainment: supporting more equitable practice in schools

By Becky Taylor, on 18 March 2019

On Tuesday 5 March we held an event to share the findings of the Best Practice in Grouping Students project and launch our Grouping Pledge.

Former HMCI Christine Gilbert CBE chaired the event and opened by reminding the audience of the history of attainment grouping in English schools.

Professor Becky Francis presented the background, key findings and implications of the Best Practice in Grouping Students project, which was funded by the Education Endowment Foundation and ran from 2014-2017. Starting from the recognition that while research finds that attainment grouping provides no overall benefit in terms of student attainment, it serves to exacerbate existing social inequalities, the study set out to investigate whether the negative consequences of setting could be militated against by either a ‘best practice’ model of setting or by introducing mixed attainment grouping.

Focusing on English and maths in 139 schools, the project followed pupils for two years from the beginning of Year 7 to the end of Year 8. Over 13,000 pupils and nearly 600 teachers responded to our surveys. Additionally we interviewed 246 pupils and 54 teachers.

Key findings presented included the ‘misallocation’ of Year 7 pupils to maths sets in our control group schools. Around one third of pupils were found to be in a different group to what we would predict if they were allocated by Key Stage 2 attainment alone. Furthermore, Black pupils were more than 2.5 times more likely than White pupils to be allocated to a lower group than predicted. Similar patterns were found for Asian pupils (1.8 times more likely than White to be allocated to a lower group) and girls (1.6 times more likely than boys to be allocated to a lower group). Conversely, White pupils were more likely than Black or Asian pupils to be allocated to higher sets than predicted and boys were more likely than girls to be allocated to higher sets. We have found similar patterns for English, but with girls more likely than boys to be allocated to higher sets than predicted. This evidence suggests that there is an effect of stereotypes in the allocation of pupils to sets.

Another key finding relates to the quality of teachers and teaching in different sets. We found some evidence of allocation bias: teachers highly qualified in their taught subject were less likely to be allocated to low sets. Additionally, pupils perceived teachers of high sets to have rigorous expectations of discipline, ‘push’ pupils to do their best, and have respect for their pupils, conveyed by the provision of independent learning opportunities. By contrast, pedagogy for low sets was widely perceived to be more tolerant and relaxed, involve ‘spoon-feeding’, with fewer opportunities for independent study and skill development and characterised as slow-paced and less demanding.

One of the outcome measures for our study was the self-confidence of pupils. We found that early in Year 7 there was already a close association between set allocation (top, middle or bottom) and both subject and general self-confidence. Recently we have analysed the change in self-confidence for pupils from Year 7 to Year 8. We have found that pupils in top sets experience a significant increase in both subject and general self-confidence for both English and maths over this time, when compared with pupils in middle sets, while pupils in bottom set for maths experience a significant decrease in subject and general self-confidence compared with middle sets (pupils in bottom set for English experience a non-significant downward trend in subject and general self-confidence).

The words of a number of young people were shared, but a particularly striking quote is from Kevin, a White working class boy in set 4 for English and maths, who seems resigned to the inevitability of being stuck in a low set.

I’ve heard people, they like freak out about being moved down a set and then they even get jealous if people get moved up a set. It’s like, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just get used to it.’

Summarising our findings, Becky observed that schools appear to find it difficult to set in an equitable way and the evidence around mixed attainment grouping is still limited. This results in the present situation where attainment grouping is perpetuating social injustice, and doubly disadvantaging students most in need of support. We suggest that while ‘high-integrity setting’ is preferable to other forms of between-class grouping (e.g. streaming) it is difficult, so between-class grouping should be minimised and there is a need to support good practice in mixed attainment teaching through the development of resources. To support schools in improving their attainment grouping practices we have already developed our Dos and Don’ts of Attainment Grouping [PDF], a research-informed guide designed to help schools identify and make changes to grouping in order to increase equity.

Becky also launched our new Grouping Pledge: an invitation to teachers to commit to using research evidence to reflect on the grouping practices in their school, and starting conversations about grouping practices with colleagues.

Matt Smith, Deputy Headteacher at Huntington School in York, was our second speaker. Matt took us through the decision he made as Head of Maths to move to mixed attainment grouping. In 2015 he was finding that low-attaining pupils in bottom sets and accessing a support curriculum were achieving poor results, while the gap between high and low attainers widened. Setting only appeared to serve the school’s ‘high starters’ well, so in 2015 Matt introduced mixed attainment grouping with some of the Year 7 maths groups. This was supported with 20 hours training time for teachers, revision of the curriculum and assessments, and strong communication.

The maths department developed their own philosophy of mixed attainment teaching, including high expectations of all students, not teaching to the middle, differentiation by outcome, the use of rich tasks that students can access at different levels and receive feedback, and encouraging and nurturing a classroom environment that will help to support all students. Huntington School has found that the approach has paid off in pupil outcomes, and the maths department are now all committed to mixed attainment grouping.

Professor Jeremy Hodgen gave the final presentation of the evening, outlining how a new research project, The Student Grouping Study, will explore the differences in attainment and self-confidence outcomes between pupils in 40 schools teaching maths to mixed attainment groups in Years 7 and 8, and pupils in 80 similar schools teaching maths to sets. The new research, also funded by the Education Endowment Foundation, will make use of large scale surveys and intensive case studies and seek to understand how factors such as teacher quality and the opportunity to learn maths are associated with outcomes. We are also interested in the specific grouping practices that schools use and why they use them, including pedagogy, curriculum, allocation of teachers and school context, and the experiences of, and support for, low attaining students.

We are currently recruiting schools that teach maths to mixed attainment groups in Year 7 and Year 8, so please contact us if you would like to get involved!

Set placement and students’ university aspirations

By Becky Taylor, on 6 February 2019

Post by Dr Anna Mazenod

Could secondary school set placement have an impact on students’ aspirations for university? This is the central question in our latest project paper. Prior international research suggests that the labelling associated with being assigned to specific sets or tracks, and differences in the curriculum accessed by students in the different groups could impact on students’ aspirations.

As part of our Best Practice in Setting study we asked students about their aspirations for university at the start of their first year in secondary school and followed up with the same question a year later (6680 students). Combining this data on university aspirations with information on students’ initial and second year set placement (top, middle or bottom) in English and/or mathematics has enabled us to examine this potential relationship for the first time.

We found a slight association between set placement and university aspirations when modelling based on students’ second year set placement. After two years of setting, a place in a top set for example does seem to promote university aspirations even when controlling for students’ prior attainment and initially reported aspirations.

Interestingly we also found that students’ general self-confidence in learning was a considerably stronger predictor of students’ university aspirations that their prior attainment. Altogether our findings indicate that to improve understanding students’ university aspirations and their development over time we need to pay attention to factors other than just prior attainment. These findings further suggest that schools and universities have an important role to play in addressing the socially unjust university participation patterns, particularly by supporting disadvantaged young people in developing and realising their aspirations for university.

The full article is available here (behind paywall)

Mazenod, A., Hodgen, J., Francis, B., Taylor, B. and Tereshchenko, A. (2019) Students’ university aspirations and attainment grouping in secondary schools. Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-018-0355-x

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