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Setting by ability to be focus of major academic study

A major research project is to look at the effect of grouping by ability on disadvantaged and low-attaining pupils.

Previous studies have found that setting has benefits for high-achieving students but not for those in lower sets, while summer-born and ethnic-minority children have also found to be adversely affected.

Setting was at the centre of a political storm this week when education secretary Nicky Morgan was forced to deny claims that she was about to endorse compulsory grouping by ability in secondary schools, after the suggestion had been roundly condemned by the Liberal Democrats, as well as Labour and the teaching unions.

Researchers at King’s College London have been commissioned to carry out the new study, which will involve Year 7 and 8 students at 120 secondary schools.

Professor Becky Francis, who is leading the project, said that although previous research had looked at the impact of ability grouping, and even identified potential explanations for the lack of progress made by lower-attainment groups, it was unclear whether setting itself was the problem.

“Nobody has taken the next step to say if we stripped out the bad practice, would that raise the attainment of kids in lower sets, or is being placed in a low-attaining group enough to lower kids’ and teachers’ expectations so they do badly anyway,” she said.

“There is a lot of research showing what the problems are, but very little concrete evidence to suggest what teachers might do about it.”

Half of the schools will adopt a "best practice" approach to grouping, which aims to address some of the perceived weaknesses in setting, including students being allocated to the wrong sets, low expectations and a less demanding curricula for lower sets, and inability to move between groups.

Results in these schools will then be compared with a control group of 60 schools where setting takes place but with none of the targeted interventions used in the trial schools.

A parallel study involving 10 schools will look at the effect of mixed-ability teaching on pupils with low attainment.

The research is getting underway this term at pilot level, before the full-scale project starts next year. Results are not expected until spring 2018.

Professor Francis said she hoped the study would provide some practical solutions for teachers over the effects of grouping by ability.

“This is a project for schools and I’m hoping to clear up some of the questions that have really troubled teachers over the years,” she said.

“I think we will be able to provide evidence about the impact of ability grouping and whether the problems affecting disadvantaged kids are insurmountable, or whether they might benefit from good pedagogy that could turn being in a low-attainment group into an actual advantage.”

Although research shows low-attaining children do better in mixed ability groups, she said surprisingly little work had been done in this field. The parallel study aims to develop a good practice model for mixed-ability teaching, with a view to running a large-scale project in the future.

The Education Endowment Foundation, which commissioned the study, said the research aimed to address poor practices in both low and high sets.

“It is because we want to learn more about how setting impacts on disadvantaged pupils that we have commissioned further research in this area,” a spokesperson said.

Earlier this week, Michael Gove’s former special adviser Dominic Cummings said he had been told that David Cameron wanted to back compulsory setting in primary schools. But Nicky Morgan, Mr Gove’s successor as education secretary, said there was “absolutely no truth” in the rumours that it was to be a Conservative manifesto commitment.

Schools interested in taking part in the study can contact Professor Francis on becky.francis@kcl.ac.uk.

Related stories: 

Streaming is out - now you can go with the flow - April 2013

Do setting and streaming work? - April 2013

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