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Best Practice in Grouping Students


A research project funded by the Education Endowment Foundation.


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!

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