Education Endowment Foundation:EEF blog: Flexible grouping: what is it and why use it?

EEF blog: Flexible grouping: what is it and why use it?

Gary Aubin
Gary Aubin
Content Specialist for SEND

Gary Aubin is the EEF’s Associate for SEND and SEND Lead for Future Academies. In this blog, he explores flexible grouping and its role within our Five-a-day’ approach to supporting pupils with SEND.

Blog •4 minutes •

It can be dangerous to reinforce the idea that some pupils always, and others never need help.

Whether we’re scaffolding, grouping or deploying a teaching assistant, we should be doing so with a secure understanding of who needs what and when. The historic over-representation of summer-born pupils on SEND registers should serve as an important reminder of the dangers of taking a fixed’ view of pupils’ abilities or needs.


What can flexible grouping look like in practice?

Within the classroom, this could mean

  • Allocating groups flexibly, based on the individual needs that pupils currently share with other pupils.
  • Grouping pupils together where they all need additional instruction to carry out a skill, remember a fact or understand a concept.
  • Setting up opportunities for collaborative learning across a heterogenous group, for example pupils with a range of attainment levels.
  • Using formative assessment around particular tasks and topics to determine what groupings will best support pupils with specific pieces of learning.

This approach emphasises the importance of group work in supporting the learning of pupils with SEND, though it is clear that this should be done with a strong eye on which pupils need additional support at particular times or with particular tasks.

Flexible grouping can be used as one of five teaching strategies – a Five-a-day’ – that the EEF’s Evidence Review recommends as effective teaching practices for pupils with SEND.

What does the evidence say?

The evidence reviewed by the EEF found several examples of effective grouping that had led to positive outcomes for pupils:

Teachers assign students to homogenous and heteregenous groups based on explicit learning goals, monitor peer interactions, and provide positive and corrective feedback to support productive learning.”

McLeskey et al, 2017

Providing opportunities through Team-Based Learning’ and peer-mediated instruction are useful for supporting disciplinary reading tasks”.

Wissinger, 2018

Intervention delivered in a form of small-group instruction was a more effective and efficient instructional delivery mode for this group of students”

Dennis, 2016

What should it not look like in practice?

Research has suggested that streaming can be detrimental to some pupils’ learning and may have longer term negative effects on attitudes and engagement with education.

EEF: SEN in Mainstream guidance report, 2020

The evidence suggests that groupings should not be fixed in the long-term. The way we allocate groups should not reinforce the idea that intelligence is pre-determined or that support is for some pupils all the time, rather than all pupils some of the time.

Teachers can use formative assessment, in-keeping with an adaptive teaching approach, in order to always understand what pupils need. Bringing together pupils in groups will be most successful when we have an accurate and up-to-date understanding of who needs something extra.

How strong is the evidence base?

The EEF found six systematic reviews (Wissinger, 2018; Reichrath, 2010; Chard, 2002; Dennis, 2016; Mulcahy, 2014; Therrien, 2014), which themselves review 75 separate studies in total, which found positive results for pupils with SEND when flexible grouping approaches were implemented in classrooms.


Campbell, T. 2021. Special Educational Needs and Disabilities within the English primary school system: What can disproportionalities by season of birth contribute to understanding process behind attributions and (lack of) provisions? London School of Economics and Political Science. Accessed at, 16.03.23

Chard, D. J., Vaughn, S., & Tyler, B.-J. (2002). A synthesis of research on effective interventions for building reading fluency with elementary students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 35(5), 386 – 406. doi:

Council for Exceptional Children & CEEDAR Center. 2017. High-Leverage Practices in Special Education. Accessed at, 16.03.23

Dennis, M. S., Sharp, E., Chovanes, J., Thomas, A., Burns, R. M., Custer, B., & Park, J. (2016). A meta-analysis of empirical research on teaching students with mathematics learning difficulties. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 31(3), 156 – 168. doi:

Education Endowment Foundation. 2020. SEN in Mainstream Guidance Report. Accessed at, 16.03.23

Education Endowment Foundation. 2020. Special Educational Needs in Mainstream Schools: Evidence Review. Accessed at, 16.03.23

Mulcahy, C. A., Maccini, P., Wright, K., & Miller, J. (2014). An Examination of Intervention Research with Secondary Students with EBD in Light of Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. Behavioral Disorders, 39(3), 146 – 164. doi:10.1177/019874291303900304

Reichrath, E., de Witte, L. P., & Winkens, I. (2010). Interventions in General Education for Students with Disabilities: A Systematic Review. In (Vol. 14, pp. 563 – 580): International Journal of Inclusive Education.

Therrien, W. J., Taylor, J. C., Watt, S., & Kaldenberg, E. R. (2014). Science Instruction for Students With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. Remedial & Special Education, 35(1), 15 – 27. doi:10.1177/0741932513503557

Wissinger, D. R., & Ciullo, S. (2018). Historical Literacy Research for Students with and at Risk for Learning Disabilities: A Systematic Review. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice (Wiley-Blackwell), 33(4), 237 – 249. doi:10.1111/ldrp.12182