IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Best practice in grouping students

Improving the educational attainment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Best Practice in Grouping Students was a research project funded by the Education Endowment Foundation and conducted by researchers at UCL and Queen's University Belfast, which ran from 2014-2018.

It investigated which methods of grouping secondary school students are most effective in improving their educational engagement and attainment with particular attention to improving the performance of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The project was independently evaluated by the National Foundation for Educational Research

    For information on our follow-on study, see The Student Grouping Study

    Dos and don'ts of attainment grouping

    Dos and don'ts of attainment grouping

    We have produced a guide to research-informed attainment grouping. 

    Download the guide

    Project team
    About the project


    Previous research has shown that students from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to be over-represented in lower 'ability' sets and streams. They also make less progress than their counterparts in higher attainment groups.

    These lower sets and streams can additionally be subject to elements of poor practice such as being taught a different curriculum at a different pace, poorer quality teaching and low expectations for their attainment.


    'Best Practice in Grouping Students' is specifically designed to improve the educational attainment of these students by ensuring their progress is not detrimentally affected by poor practice and to assess the relative effectiveness of different methods of grouping students.


    The project seeks to achieve this through the implementation of two core interventions that ensure all students are equally able to access high quality teaching and a rich curriculum. One is a trial, 'Best Practice in Setting', and the other is a pilot study, 'Best Practice in Mixed Attainment':

    • Best Practice in Setting: it aims to remedy the poor practice identified by research as being associated with lower sets.
    • Best Practice in Mixed Attainment: it aims to ensure good practice in mixed attainment teaching contexts. This latter intervention is of significance as studies have shown that students with low attainment make better progress in these mixed groupings than do comparable students in low 'ability' sets and streams.

    Participating schools

    Both the trial and pilot study involve schools undertaking evidence-based interventions which are evaluated for impact on attainment. The study group includes Key Stage 3 students (Years 7 and 8) in Mathematics and English.

    Our research

    The project addresses the needs of students in low 'ability' sets and streams, wherein research has identified socially disadvantaged students are strongly over-represented.


    The project draws on substantial existing research evidence (concerning the educational outcomes for young people in low sets and streams, and the related poor practice often associated with such groupings), as illustrated in the Education Endowment Foundation / Sutton Trust Toolkit and elsewhere.

    The evidence from the literature concerning existing bad practice and detrimental outcomes associated with low 'ability' groups establishes areas for potential improvement, which will be applied via the interventions.


    The intervention on Best Practice in Setting largely relates to organisational principles, and is therefore relatively simple for schools to implement. The RCT will measure effect size of resultant good practice in setting by attainment.

    The feasibility pilot of the intervention on Best Practice in Mixed Attainment Grouping (mixed 'ability') will also provide evidence on effect, facilitating future scaling and RCT. The developmental phase of this work will also allow us to research why schools and policy-makers appear so wedded to 'ability' grouping, and what might persuade the adoption of an evidence-based approach.

    Disciplined innovation

    The project therefore comprises an example of 'disciplined innovation', building both on existing research evidence and compelling logic. It directly addresses the educational attainment of disadvantaged students, and promises tangible new evidence on effective practice in students grouping.


    The project is a mixed methods study, including RCT, surveys, interviews and observations.

    Pilot Study School Partners

    The project began with a pilot year (2014/15) to develop, test and refine the practices and professional development now being implemented in the interventions for the main stage of the project (2015/16 - 2016/17).

    We are grateful for the expert consultancy provided by teachers from our inspirational partner schools in the pilot project:

    Best Practice in Mixed Attainment pilot:

    Best Practice in Setting pilot:

    Advisory Group

    The Best Practice in Grouping Students project received the support and guidance of the following individuals:

    • Dale Bassett, Director of Public Policy, AQA
    • Ian Baukham, Headteacher, Bennett Memorial Diocesan School
    • Tom Bennett, Director, researchED
    • Mary Bousted, General Secretary, ATL
    • Sir Robin Bosher, former Regional Director, South East, Ofsted
    • Jonathan Clifton, Head of Strategic Policy at DfE
    • Sir John Dunford, Chair, Whole Education, and former UK Government National Pupil Premium Champion
    • Professor Mairead Dunne, Sussex University
    • Sam Freedman, Executive Director, Participant Impact and Delivery, Teach First
    • Christine Gilbert CBE
    • Professor Sue Hallam, UCL Institute of Education
    • Dominic Herrington, Regional Schools Commissioner for South-East England and South London
    • Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor, Sheffield Hallam University
    • Rachel McGowan, Headteacher, Plashet School
    • Fiona Millar, Journalist
    • Professor Martin Mills, Inaugural Director of the Centre for Research on Teachers and Teaching, UCL Institute of Education
    • Gary Phillips, Headteacher, Lilian Baylis Technology School
    • Jonathan Simons, Director of Policy and Advocacy, Varkey Foundation
    • Emma Simpson, Secondary English Consultant, Islington Borough Council 


    Pledge to reflect on attainment grouping practices


    YouTube Widget Placeholderhttps://youtu.be/vD6HgJ832qU


    Please pledge to:

    • use research evidence to reflect on the grouping practices in your school
    • start a conversation about grouping practices with colleagues.

    Sign up to the pledge

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