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Why the problem with ability grouping might be how it's done

Becky Francis, professor of education and social justice at King's College London, is leading a research project asking whether ability grouping, or the practices associated with it, are to blame for the poorer progress of students in low groups. Here she explains how you can get involved.

Ability grouping – or setting – is always a controversial topic to raise among teachers, with passionate arguments both for and against. Yet the research is seemingly clear: as the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit highlights, a large body of research suggests that grouping students by "ability" has no significant effect overall, but there is a negative impact for pupils in the lowest groups.

This is significant for the "closing the gap" and social justice agendas, given that disadvantaged students are over-represented in "low ability" groups, and pupils in these groups tend to make less progress than those in higher ones.

However, can this research really be relied upon? As Tim Dracup points out in his blog on the issue, there are some limitations with the (large) body of research in this area. Although the findings are conclusive, often there is a lack of specification about different methods of ability grouping studied. More importantly, no one seems to have investigated what happens if the poor practices commonly associated with low attainment groups are addressed – ie, is it the act of grouping by ability itself, or the practices associated with it, that explain the poorer progress of students in low groups?

We are hoping to address this question with our project Best Practice in Grouping Students, which is being funded by the Education Endowment Foundation. It seeks to test the impact of different approaches to  grouping on progress and educational outcomes for low-attaining young people (often disadvantaged pupils), in order to draw conclusions concerning what works in raising attainment.

The project includes two interventions constructed on the basis of research evidence: one on best practice in setting; and one on best practice in mixed-attainment grouping. These are being applied to Year 7 cohorts in maths and English.

We are seeking to recruit a large number of secondary schools to participate in the project in 2015-16. If you are a secondary headteacher or teacher, we are hoping to include your school. Schools participating in the interventions will benefit from free, high-quality CPD, as well as the opportunity to be supported to ensure good practice in grouping students (and thus to support pupil attainment). The emphasis on disadvantaged students also makes this an ideal way for schools to show commitment to their pupil premium agendas.

Please contact us at or visit our website for further information, letting us know which intervention you would like to participate in, and hopefully by the time the next great debate erupts over social media, we'll have something to add to the discussion.

Follow the study on Twitter @GroupingStudy

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