Research Impact


Creating fairer teaching practices that benefit millions of learners

Research led by academics at IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society, has been a catalyst for a major shift in the government’s approach to attainment grouping in schools.

Secondary school classroom

12 April 2022

It is well established that setting or streaming students are not an effective way of raising attainment for most pupils, and low attainment groups are disadvantaged compared to mixed attainment classes. And yet, UK government policy and Ofsted recommendations continue to support ‘sets’ and ‘streams’.

Research from IOE, led by Professor Jeremy Hodgen, confirms that attainment groupings promote educational inequality – even when schools attempt to implement it ‘fairly’. 
IOE’s Best Practice in Grouping Students project, a randomised control trial to investigate attainment grouping in English schools, focused particularly on the outcomes for disadvantaged students.

Findings indicated that pupils in lower sets received poorer teaching and expectations of them were lower; almost a third of pupils were misallocated to sets; pupils in low sets demonstrated less self-confidence than their higher-set counterparts and this got worse over time; and that the gap in attainment widened over time.

A second research strand, ‘Best Practice in Mixed Attainment’, identified best practice in mixed attainment teaching. The research formed the basis of ‘Dos and Don’ts of Attainment Grouping’, a guide to support schools in making manageable changes to grouping practices. 
The team, Professors Becky Francis and Jeremy Hodgen and Dr Becky Taylor, used the research to raise awareness of the damaging impact of attainment grouping, working directly with senior officials from the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted, and encouraging debate on educational streaming among teachers through conference papers and mainstream media.

Policy documents published by the DfE in 2019, including the Early Career Framework, demonstrate a profound shift in the government’s approach to attainment grouping as a result of the research. Teachers are now encouraged to reflect on their teaching practice with a wide range of educational professionals being directed towards the team’s research on streaming.  
The active encouragement of grouping from successive governments and Ofsted promoted for over 25 years has now stopped, minimising further harm.

The team’s work with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in 2018 led to revisions to the ‘setting and streaming’ section of EEF’s Toolkit. The Toolkit informs Pupil Premium spending decisions in up to two-thirds of English schools and receives more than 28,000 page views a month.

Together, these changes have raised awareness of the dangers of streaming and inspired policy action to change practice. 

Research synopsis

Best practice in grouping students 

Research led by academics at IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society,  highlighted that teaching students in groups with similar attainment levels disadvantages those at lower attainment levels and promotes educational inequality. The research has been a catalyst for a major shift in the government’s approach to attainment grouping. The promotion of attainment grouping has been halted with policy now encouraging teachers to reflect on and think critically about grouping practices to the benefit of millions of learners.