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Best Practice in Grouping Students


A research project funded by the Education Endowment Foundation.


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

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