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PISA: England’s schools segregate by ability more than almost every other country in the world

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 24 September 2019

John Jerrim.

In education systems across the world, children are separated into different groups based upon their academic achievement. This is done in different ways.

Countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Northern Ireland ‘track’ pupils of high and low achievement into different schools (as do parts of England – Kent, for instance – that have retained grammar schools).

Others rely more heavily upon within-school ability grouping of pupils, whether this be setting/streaming, or sitting higher/lower achieving children together within the same class.

A whole host of research has compared countries in how much they segregate higher and lower achieving pupils into different schools. But there has been little work on the extent that different countries group high and low achievers together when they go to the same school.

What can PISA and TIMSS tell us about this?

Fortunately, interesting information has been collected on this matter within PISA and another international study, TIMSS, which covers maths and science for pupils in Year 5 and Year 9.

In the 2015 rounds of these studies, teachers and headteachers were asked:

  1. Whether their school has a policy of grouping pupils of similar ability together in the same class for their lessons (i.e. whether they ‘set’ children)
  2. Within classes, the frequency that teachers make pupils work together in same-ability groups (e.g. higher-achievers sit together on one table and the lower-achievers sit together on another)

Bringing this information together, we can compare England to other countries in the extent that pupils of different ability are grouped together within lessons at Key Stage 2, Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4. For KS2 and KS3, this analysis covers mathematics lessons only; for KS4 it covers ‘some’ or ‘all’ subjects (the first two from TIMSS, the latter from PISA).

The results are summarised in the graphs below. The vertical axis illustrates how commonly setting/streaming is used, while the horizontal axis shows how commonly pupils are separated into different achievement groups within lessons. 

Within-school ability grouping of Key Stage 2 pupils in mathematics

Within-school ability grouping of Key Stage 3 pupils in mathematics

Within-school ability grouping of Key Stage 4 pupils


The results are stark. In each graph, England is towards the top right-hand corner.

England particularly stands out in terms of setting/streaming, which is now used for maths in almost half of Year 5 classes and in almost every secondary school. Importantly, these are much higher rates of within-school ability segregation than in other developed countries. 

The upshot

Why does this matter?

As the Education Endowment Foundation has noted, existing evidence suggests that some forms of ability grouping (most notably setting/streaming) is not beneficial for pupil achievement.

Those who are least likely to benefit, and most likely to suffer negative effects, are low-achieving disadvantaged pupils who get placed together in the bottom group/set. This, in-turn, is likely to undermine government attempts to reduce educational inequality and enhance social mobility. 

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