Low teacher expectations 'hindering' bottom-set pupils, research finds

Students in lower sets are typically given more structural, repetitive tasks, making them more 'dependent' on teachers, academics say

Charlotte Santry

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Teachers’ expectations of pupils in lower sets could be instilling a damaging "culture of dependency", instead of helping them to become independent learners, research has found.

These expectations tend to be based on pupils' prior academic record and a belief that their behavior will be more challenging than those in higher sets, according to the findings published today in the Cambridge Journal of Education.

Researchers from the UCL's Institute of Education surveyed almost 600 Maths and English teachers based in 82 UK secondary schools – and interviewed 34 teachers – to understand how grouping students into sets influenced the independence of lower attaining students.

They found that 70 per cent of teachers changed their teaching methods depending on the set they were working with.

Findings on bottom-set pupils

Students in lower sets were typically given more structural, repetitive tasks, and more one-to-one time with teachers. Teachers of these pupils were often reluctant to risk overstretching them by teaching overly complex content. 

Lead author Dr Anna Mazenod said: “Our findings suggest that secondary school students in the so-called bottom sets may be unintentionally encouraged to remain more dependent on their teachers in comparison with their peers in higher sets.

“Teachers tend to perceive bottom-set students as more 'dependent learners' – and may not build in scope to allow for students to develop their independent learning skills. This can hinder students in making the most of learning opportunities in their ongoing education, as independence is a key component of successful learning.

“From a social justice perspective, our findings raise the concern that such approaches could impede an independent learner identity being a goal for all students.”

Harmful label

Labelling certain students as lower attaining and placing them in numbered sets could harm their self-confidence and restrict their learning opportunities, the research found. 

Dr Mazenod said: “Teachers have to strike a careful balance between directing students in their learning and enabling students to become independent learners.

“We suggest that schools that adopt attainment grouping carefully consider whether equality of opportunity and high expectations are being adequately targeted at their lower set pupils – and whether their grouping could be improved to better support attainment and engagement for all.”

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Charlotte Santry

Charlotte Santry

Charlotte Santry is Deputy news editor at Tes

Find me on Twitter @CharlotteSantry

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