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

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:

How to group pupils for lessons – whether in sets, or in classes with mixed attainment – is something that’s of huge interest for parents and schools alike. Traditionally, setting has tended to benefit those pupils in the top sets, with little known about out how to group pupils in ways that aren’t detrimental to those in the lower sets.

What these new publications tell us is that grouping pupils by attainment for specific activities in their usual classes is more likely to boost attainment than setting or streaming. The findings from the two trials also tell us how hard it is to get schools to adopt new approaches to grouping by attainment, when many don’t have the capacity to adopt new ways of working.

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

The updated Toolkit analysis shows us that the impact of attainment grouping is dependent on the type of grouping used. Based on the evidence we have, setting or streaming pupils in different classes by prior attainment appears, on average, to have had a small negative effect. In contrast, grouping pupils by attainment within classes had a positive overall impact in the studies we reviewed.
However, both types of grouping appear to be more beneficial for higher attaining pupils than for lower attaining pupils, and lower attaining pupils tend to be disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds. The effects are small and we do not yet fully understand the reasons for these effects. Overall the quality of teaching is going to be more important than the type of grouping.

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.