IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Schools "teaching in 'ability' sets despite evidence this may cause harm"

8 September 2017

Teacher helping student in class. Image: Kirsten Holst for UCL


Schools are rejecting the chance to teach children in 'mixed-ability' classes, despite evidence that the alternative (pupils being put in ability sets or streams) will have a negative effect on some of their results, according to new research from the UCL Institute of Education (IOE).

The paper, written by Dr Becky Taylor from the IOE and academics from Queen's University, Belfast, was presented this week at the British Educational Research Association's (BERA) annual conference.

The study finds that fear of reactions from parents, who often expect children to be grouped in sets or streams, as well as a more general caution in schools, may be playing a part in these decisions.

It cites previous evidence that setting, where pupils are grouped in classes based on prior results in tests or other judgements the school may make about their 'ability', is overwhelmingly used for maths in English secondary schools.

It is also widely used in English in secondary schools and has extended into primary schools. This is despite established research showing that, while 'high-attaining' pupils may make some gains from the practice, the reverse is true for those in lower sets, including many students from poorer backgrounds.

The paper sets out the difficulties the researchers experienced in finding schools to participate in their major investigation into 'best practice' in how pupils should be grouped in the early years of secondary school.

The researchers sought to set up a randomised control trial in which they would compare the test results of children who were grouped in ability sets, and those taught in "mixed attainment" classes.

But while they recruited all of the 120 schools they had sought which taught pupils in sets, the team only managed to recruit 17 schools from across England that taught in mixed classes.

The paper presents a picture of a widespread reluctance among schools to adopt the practice.

Survey and interview data suggested that a lack of exposure to mixed-attainment teaching in the past, especially among maths teachers, probably contributed to the current low levels of mixed-attainment teaching. Teachers also worried they would not have the time to do the work needed to change their practice.

Some schools that ended up withdrawing from the mixed-attainment element of the trial said that they worried that it would be viewed as "unconventional" by parents, who might avoid choosing the school for their children as a result.

Speaking of the paper, Dr Taylor said:

"The recruitment records and outcomes of our large-scale project, and qualitative data gathered in our pilot study, show that schools are generally reluctant to engage with mixed attainment teaching, particularly in mathematics and even in an educational context that strong advocates evidence-based practices.

" "Mixed attainment grouping is widely seen as difficult, and unconventional, and therefore risky."

"It is student attainment outcomes which suffer as a result of this fear, while research suggests outcomes might be improved (at least for low attainers) by mixed attainment grouping."

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