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Student Grouping Study



Introducing the Student Grouping Study: An investigation of how different grouping practices affect student outcomes

By Jeremy Hodgen, on 23 January 2019

Despite many years of research, the question of how best to group students of different attainment is still poorly understood. The research literature indicates that, overall, the performance of students taught in ability groups, or sets, is roughly the same as those taught in mixed attainment groups, but that ability grouping is associated with a widening of the attainment gap. But most of these studies were carried out decades ago in the United States. We do not know whether these effects still apply to schools in England nor whether these effects are practically significant. We also do not know whether any detrimental effects on low attaining students are as a direct result of ability grouping or whether it is actually caused by other factors associated with setting, such as differences in teacher quality or restricted access to the curriculum.

Our new research project, the Student Grouping Study, has been funded by the Education Endowment Foundation to address these questions by providing up to date evidence from a sample of 120 English secondary schools.  We will compare the outcomes of students in schools already teaching Year 7 and Year 8 maths in mixed attainment groups with students in schools using setting by ability. The schools will be matched on important characteristics so that the two groups are as equivalent as possible – apart from the way in which students are grouped for maths lessons.

Our aim is to find out as much as possible about the effects of the different grouping practices. So, in addition to examining differences in maths attainment, we will investigate the effects, if any, on students’ self-confidence. We will use measures of teacher knowledge and ‘opportunity to learn’ in order to examine the extent to which any differences in attainment or attitudes are actually the result of differences in the quality of teaching or curriculum offered to different groups of students. We will also carry out in-depth case studies of twelve schools, randomly chosen from both sets of schools, to investigate how schools make decisions about grouping students.

Unlike our previous study, Best Practice in Grouping Students, this new research study does not require schools to change their practices. We are interested in comparing students from schools that already teach maths in mixed attainment groups with schools that already group students by attainment in maths. The study will take place over two years starting in September 2019 and the results will be available in 2022. Schools will receive a financial incentive to cover the costs of taking part in the study.

We will be actively recruiting to the project very soon, but if your school might be interested in taking part in the study or of you just want to find point more about this research, please register your interest by emailing us at ioe.groupingstudents@ucl.ac.uk

You can find out about our previous study, Best Practice in Grouping Students, including our research-based guidance, Dos and don’ts of attainment grouping, here: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/departments-and-centres/centres/best-practice-grouping-students