Education Endowment Foundation:New EEF publications: Setting pupils by attainment unlikely to boost attainment, but grouping them or specific activities in class might

New EEF publications: Setting pupils by attainment unlikely to boost attainment, but grouping them or specific activities in class might

Update to the Teaching and Learning Toolkit and new evaluation reports
Press Release •5 minutes •

Grouping pupils by attainment for specific activities in their usual classes is more likely to boost attainment than setting or streaming, according to an update to the Teaching and Learning Toolkit published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) today.

The EEF Toolkit – used by up to two-thirds of all schools in England – summarises international evidence on 35 different teaching and learning strategies to give teachers and school leaders the best available estimate of which strategies are likely to boost attainment for their pupils. Today’s update includes a new strand on within-class attainment grouping’ and revises the existing setting or streaming’ strand

It finds that, on average, setting or streaming’ – where pupils with similar levels of current attainment are grouped together for lessons – is unlikely to boost learning for all pupils

However, within-class attainment grouping’ – where pupils with similar current attainment are grouped together for specific activities within their usual class and with their usual teacher – can lead to average gains of around three additional months’ progress per year. But lower attaining pupils appear to benefit less from this approach than their classmates.

How to group pupils for lessons – whether by mixed or similar attainment – is something that schools and parents are particularly interested in. Practice varies across English schools, with some schools grouping pupils by current attainment for all lessons, or for maths and English; others grouping pupils by attainment within mixed classes; and some not grouping according to attainment at all

To find out how schools can group pupils in ways that benefit all pupils, the EEF funded two trials programmes developed by a team of academics at UCL Institute of Education.

The main trial, Best Practice in Setting’, tested an intervention that aimed to get schools to improve their setting practice, which research suggests can harm progress for pupils in the lower sets. The programme was designed to help schools address poor practices, including misallocating pupils to the wrong’ groups and low expectations of those in lower sets

127 schools took part in the trial, which ran over the course of two academic years. The intervention involved teachers who took part being randomly allocated to sets to prevent lower’ sets from being disproportionately assigned less experienced teachers, while Years 7 and 8 students were assigned to sets based on independent measures of attainment, rather than more subjective judgements such as behaviour and peer interactions. There were opportunities throughout the year to re-assign students to different sets based on their current level of attainment.

The independent evaluators from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) found that schools and teachers struggled to engage with this approach. Most teachers thought that what they were being asked to do was no different to what they were already doing; while others said changing their grouping practices was onerous and hard to do

Data from the evaluation shows that some elements of the programme – like randomly allocating teachers to sets – were not implemented by most of the schools. The project found no evidence that the intervention improves maths or English attainment.

A smaller pilot study, Best Practice in Mixed Attainment Grouping’, explored ways to introduce mixed attainment teaching to secondary schools and to overcome the common barriers to this approach. Schools were expected to create classes of Year 7 and Year 8 pupils with a wide range of attainment at Key Stage 2. Teachers were trained to communicate high expectations to all their pupils and use flexible grouping techniques with their classes.

However, it was difficult to persuade schools to adopt mixed attainment teaching so recruiting schools to take part was hard. The evaluators from NFER found that staff in schools that did take part had mixed views on the intervention, with some enjoying it, and others struggling to tailor their teaching to pupils with different levels of attainment in mixed attainment sets

Despite these mixed views and the low take-up, most interviewees felt that the intervention had a positive effect on student outcomes; with most believing that the lowest-attaining students had particularly benefited.

These two trials highlight the challenges of testing the impact of changes to grouping practices when schools may not have the capacity to adopt new ways of working. However, how to group pupils for lessons – whether by mixed or similar attainment – is something that schools and parents are particularly interested in, so the EEF will investigate whether other interventions could be more effective in assessing the impact of grouping practices

Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

Professor Steve Higgins, author of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, said:

Notes to editors

  1. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is a grant-making charity set up in 2011 by the Sutton Trust as lead foundation in partnership with Impetus Trust (now part of Impetus – The Private Equity Foundation), with a £125m founding grant from the Department for Education. The EEF is dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement. Since its launch the EEF has awarded £92million to test the impact of 152 projects reaching over 9,900 schools, nurseries and colleges across England. The EEF and Sutton Trust are, together, the government-designated What Works Centre for Education.