Although the value of setting and streaming has been strongly questioned by research, such practices have continued to attract high-level political support. Yet there is a growing volume of evidence that setting and streaming contribute to educational and social inequality.
Researchers Becky Taylor and Seaneen Sloan (2016) point out that segregation by perceived ability within schools exacerbates social inequalities. Disadvantaged students are disproportionately concentrated in lower sets and streams, with significant effects on their motivation, and their access to qualifications.
This view was strongly supported by research for the government-funded Commission on Social Mobility in 2017, which found that “pupils from low-income families are less likely to make progress when they are grouped by ability from an early age”.
The Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF’s) Toolkit resource, which summarises the research on the impact of ability setting, states that it, “appears likely that routine setting or streaming arrangements undermine low attainers’ confidence and discourage the belief that attainment can be improved through effort. Research also suggests that ability grouping can have a longer term negative effect on the attitudes and engagement of low attaining pupils.”
The Toolkit also says that setting by ability, “does not appear to be an effective strategy for raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, who are more likely to be assigned to lower groups. Summer born pupils and students from ethnic minority backgrounds are also likely to be adversely affected by ability grouping.”
This means that more setting is likely to hold back disadvantaged groups of pupils rather than benefit them. Overall the Toolkit assessed setting or streaming as: “Negative impact for very low or no cost, based on moderate evidence.”
It should be emphasised that setting is an issue not only for secondary schools but also for primary schools and early years settings. A research report for the NEU by Alice Bradbury and Guy Roberts-Holmes of UCL Institute of Education makes clear that grouping begins in some nurseries at the age of three. In a survey conducted for the report, the researchers found that 81% of Reception teachers used grouping for Phonics; 58% of Nursery teachers used grouping for Phonics and 35% for Maths; and that by Year 2, 72% were grouping for Phonics, 60% for Literacy and 66% for Maths. In view of robust findings, confirmed by many researchers, of the link between setting and widening inequalities of attainment, this is a concerning picture.
On top of the absence of academic evidence or research supporting the case for more setting and streaming, international comparisons suggest that it will not help boost overall attainment. PISA’s 2015 document Policies and Practices for Successful Schools Volume II – which focuses on Science – concludes that the later students are selected into different academic programmes, the greater the equity in science performance. Policies on selecting and grouping students, including grouping students between classes by ability were “not associated with equity in science performance”.
This finding confirmed OECD’s previous judgments. In relation to Maths, for instance, the UK employed setting to a far greater degree (94 per cent) than many other countries, Yet in 2012, South Korea and Japan, where setting was only half as prevalent, achieved much higher PISA scores. It is notable also that in Finland, a country which consistently performs at a high level in international tests, there is a consensus that setting would encourage low expectations for some children. The Finnish education system is also extremely equitable, with very little difference in outcomes for students from different backgrounds.
In the face of such strong evidence, the question arises of why setting and streaming are so prevalent in England’s schools. Taylor et al – researchers who struggled to identify more than a handful of secondary schools where teaching in mixed attainment groups was the norm – suggest that teachers lack access to good, practical resources that would support them in making a move away from setting. At the same time, the risk-averse climate created by high-stakes testing constitutes a strong barrier to change, even when that change is predicted to improve outcomes.
Bradbury, A. and Roberts-Holmes, G. (2017) Grouping in Early Years and Key Stage 1: a necessary evil? NEU/UCL https://neu.org.uk/sites/neu.org.uk/files/NEU279-Grouping-in-early-years-KS1.PDF
Commission on Social Mobility (2017) Drop in Poor Children’s Progress at Secondary School https://www.gov.uk/government/news/drop-in-poor-childrens-progress-at-secondary-school
Crehan, L. (2016) Cleverlands: the secrets behind the success of the world’s education superpowers. London: Unbound.
Daily Telegraph (2013) ‘OECD education report: subject results in full’, Daily Telegraph [online]. Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/leaguetables/10488555/OECD-education-report-subject-results-in-full.html.
Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Setting or Streaming?
OECD/PISA (2016) PISA Results 2015: policies and practices for successful schools Vol II. https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/9789264267510-en.pdf?expires=1532525845&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=31A903214EACA6D085F2C435FAD298CF
Taylor, B. et al (2017) ‘Factors deterring schools from mixed attainment teaching practice’ Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 25 (3) 327–345
Taylor, B. and Sloan S. (2016) Best Practice in Grouping Students? Characteristics of students in English and mathematics 'ability' set groups in English secondary schools Dr Becky Taylor and Dr Seaneen Sloan. https://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/cmpo/documents/taylor2016.pdf