In most schools, pupils are still grouped by ability within their classes or taught in mixed-ability groups, rather than being taken from different classes to make up sets based on ability.
This is despite government guidance, which was first issued in 1993 and reinforced in Labour's 1997 White Paper, which said that primary schools should introduce setting as a way of raising standards.
The 1997 White Paper, Excellence in Schools, said: "Setting should be the norm in secondary schools. In some cases, it is worth considering in primary schools." A 1999 report by the Office for Standards in Education said putting children as young as five in sets could help to raise standards.
Schools have been reluctant to reorganise their teaching without clear evidence that it would produce better results or more resources to make it possible, suggest researchers from London University's Institute of Education and the University of Sunderland. Their findings, reported in the latest issue of Educational Studies, are based on a 1999 survey of 800 schools across the country.
In the core subjects of mathematics and English, schools most often grouped children by ability within the class. In all other subjects, the most common arrangement was mixed-ability groups within mixed-ability classes.
The incidence of setting was relatively low. Even in maths, in which setting was most prevalent, it was used in only 24 per cent of same-age classes and 39 per cent of mixed-age classes in Year 6. Streaming, once the norm in larger primaries preparing pupils for the 11-plus, was almost negligible.
"If governments wish to change practices in schools, it seems that exhortation alone will not suffice," say the researchers, led by Susan Hallam. Schools' caution seems to be justified, they say. Recent evidence suggests that ability grouping does not raise standards and can damage pupils' personal and social development.
Education Studies vol 29, no 1, March 2003 www.tandf.co.uk