Too many years ago, when I was completing my PGCE at the Institute of Education in London, I chose to focus on mixed ability teaching for one of the two dissertations I had to complete. It was fascinating to research, especially as all my teaching experience up to that point had been with mixed ability groups. This was more than a quarter of a century ago and the conclusion I drew then was that mixed ability grouping and teaching was by far the best option for the children in my classes. As a teacher, nothing I have ever experienced since has convinced me otherwise. Teach to the top and employ a range of strategies to ensure I bring all students along with me. I got an A for the dissertation and the research I did, and conclusions I drew seem to have served me well since. So was I right? Should schools really be setting and streaming all the way?
Looking at what has emerged in the research since I completed my dissertation, it seems little has changed. It is a pretty consistent message. For example, the nfer report, Streaming, Setting and Grouping by Ability: a review of the literature (Laura Sukhnandan with Barbara Lee) and the Millennium Cohort Study both make interesting reads but not if you are seeking to anchor your reason for setting or streaming in an evidence base.
The Education Endowment Foundation has a Setting or Streaming page in its Teaching and Learning Toolkit (March 2018), which is a summary of international evidence on teaching 5-16 year-olds. It concludes that: “Overall, setting or streaming appears to benefit higher attaining pupils and be detrimental to the learning of mid-range and lower attaining learners. On average it does not appear to be an effective strategy for raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, who are more likely to be assigned to lower groups.” Clear and persuasive?
At the British Educational Research Association conference in 2017, this issue was discussed through a paper by academics including Becky Taylor of the UCL Institute of Education. In her view, “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.” Yet the small, positive benefits for the very highest attaining pupils should not be overlooked. The key question remains, are those benefits worth the consequences that the remaining pupils, both middle-attaining and low-attaining, must absorb for the sake of the highest attaining, or should we target interventions for the highest attaining in mixed ability groups so that all may benefit? In other words, can we afford to sacrifice the attainment of the many in order to boost, slightly, the attainment of the few?
It is hard to find evidence in support of segregating children on the grounds of prior attainment, and easy to find evidence not to. And yet setting and streaming remains a popular idea with policy makers and a few educators. According to the National Education Union, “the UK already employs setting to a far greater degree than many other countries – only six per cent of pupils were not “grouped by ability within their math classes” according to the international PISA study on educational outcomes in OECD countries.” Is that concerning given the evidence? Countries such as South Korea and Japan resort to setting to a far lesser degree and yet they both outperform the UK in maths. Staggeringly, though, setting and streaming even goes on in Early Years, despite what we know about how young children learn best.
There is no doubt, our relationship with setting and streaming is a curious one in the UK. Perhaps support for it is ideological rather than rational? Or perhaps we need to ask slightly different questions in future research? For example, are we deploying staff to best effect in classes that are set or streamed? At the moment, the message still appears to be loud and clear; mixed ability groups are best for the vast majority of children. If we are tempted to
Find out more…
The Education Endowment Foundation report, Setting or Streaming can be found here
The EEF Toolkit can be found here
See here for more from the NEU on setting and streaming
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for eTeach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.