Grouping pupils into classes by ability is bad for the lowest attainers, who often are the most disadvantaged children in school, research suggests.
However, academics at University College London’s Institute of Education (IoE) are investigating whether setting can work if it is done well. They want to see if all pupils can prosper if a school strips out bad practice like giving the bottom classes the worst teachers, and tackles problems like having low expectations of these classes and less demanding courses.
IoE director Becky Francis said: “What we don’t know is which of these different factors make the biggest difference and we don’t know what would happen if we tried to remediate these bad practices, and that’s what this current study is looking at.”
The other aspect of the study, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation, is examining whether it is possible to overcome the common barriers to mixed-ability teaching.
However, grouping by ability in maths has become so entrenched that the research team struggled to find schools willing to have mixed-ability groups for the first two years of secondary. The researchers wanted to find 20 but in the end they had to settle for 13.
The researchers have also found that there are practical reasons why bad practices exist in setting. For instance, the lack of fluidity between classes was sometimes down to the higher sets moving at a faster pace, making it difficult for their peers from lower sets to join them seamlessly, academics found.
Meanwhile, movement downwards for pupils struggling in higher sets was stymied because of concerns about pupil morale and also because of pressure from parents. Professor Francis added: “Both these scenarios beg questions about our level of dedication to this notion of attainment grouping.”