Within-class grouping in maths

All teachers must decide how to organise their classrooms. One key decision is whether to group pupils by prior attainment within classrooms (e.g., sitting high-achieving pupils together on the same table) or to mix pupils up. Schools may have a policy on this issue, or it might be left to individual teachers. Within-class grouping is a way of organising mixed attainment classes and may be done only for certain subjects, for example different table groups during maths teaching.

There is evidence from the TIMMS international survey that within-class grouping is particularly common in England at both primary and secondary levels: around 40% of teachers in England said that they grouped pupils by prior attainment in almost every mathematics lesson.

The project will use TIMSS data linked to the National Pupil Database to provide new evidence about how within-class grouping by prior attainment in Key Stages 2 and 3 is linked to mathematics achievement and attitudes in England, and whether this varies by pupil prior achievement and other contextual factors. Additional analysis will also be conducted on Year 2 pupils using data from the Millennium Cohort Study to provide further evidence on grouping in Key Stage 1.

Why are we funding it?

Within-class grouping is a particularly important issue for low-achieving and disadvantaged pupils, who will tend to be placed in lower groups within their class. Understanding whether this is related to their educational achievement and attitudes towards mathematics therefore has potentially important implications for educational inequality. The EEF Toolkit suggests that within-class grouping by prior attainment may have positive effects overall, while at the same time widening the disadvantage gap. However, the current evidence base is limited. There is therefore a strong case for further research based on a recent and representative sample of schools in England.

How are we evaluating it?

The main study will be a retrospective analysis of the Year 5 and Year 9 samples from the 2015 TIMSS data linked to the NPD (no schools need to be recruited). The primary outcome measure will be TIMSS mathematics scores and secondary outcomes will be pupils’ self-confidence, enjoyment, motivation and interest in mathematics. Additional research using the Millennium Cohort Study will provide analysis on a third, younger age group (Year 2), which is not possible with TIMMS data.

When will the evaluation report be due?

The evaluation report will be published in spring 2021