Best Practice in Grouping Students

This programme will investigate best practice in grouping students by attainment. The project will have two components. The main trial will test an intervention which trains schools in a best practice approach to setting. The intervention will help schools address poor practices, which include mis-allocation, low expectations, less demanding curricula, and fixed positioning in low groups. The trial will focus on teaching within English and Maths in Years 7 and 8.

A pilot study of an intervention to introduce mixed ability teaching to secondary schools will also be conducted. Teaching pupils in mixed ability groups has historically been uncommon in secondary schools. The feasibility study will examine whether it is possible to overcome the common barriers to mixed ability teaching.

Why are we funding it?

This project could have a particular impact on children eligible for free school meals; negative effects of setting have been measured for children in low sets, where children from disadvantaged backgrounds being over-represented. A large majority of English secondary schools currently employ setting and the results from this project will be widely relevant for these schools.

There is some evidence that mixed ability teaching could be even more powerful, with studies showing that pupils in low sets make less progress than comparable pupils in mixed ability groups. However, the evidence about how to embed effective mixed ability teaching successfully is not extensive, making a feasibility study an appropriate first step.

How are we evaluating it?

The project is being independently evaluated by the National Foundation for Educational Research.

The evaluation of the ‘best practice in setting’ intervention will run as a randomised controlled trial, starting in September 2015 and following children through Years 7 and 8. The sample for the evaluation will be 120 secondary schools, all of whom currently set, randomised to either receive the intervention or to be part of a control group. The evaluation is set up as an efficacy trial. Efficacy trials aim to test whether an intervention can work under ideal conditions (e.g. when being delivered by the intervention’s original developer) in greater than 10 schools.

The ‘mixed ability’ intervention will be run as a pilot study, with the project team initially working with three secondary schools to develop an intervention and also examine the barriers to using mixed ability grouping in secondary schools. Following developmental work the approach will be piloted with 10 additional schools.

When will the evaluation report be due?

The results of the pilot study will be available in Spring 2017 and the results of the ‘best practice in setting’ intervention will be available in Spring 2018.