What’s the score? And is it really any business of politicians


Politicians regularly refer to setting and streaming pupils and are not shy about telling schools what they should be doing, though concurrently telling us how important schools autonomy is and that we must respect the judgment of teachers, giving more power to professionals on the front line.

Lord Hill, the Minister steering the Academies Bill through the Lords, said “We will have to debate further the tension between the desire for politicians to prescribe and the competing instinct, which I have strongly, to let teachers and head teachers run their schools.” Nick Gibb appears to share this view. He said recently “We need to give teachers the freedom to decide how to teach, and to some extent what they teach, their pupils.” But the message has not always been consistent.

It is not always clear either that all our politicians understand the difference between setting and streaming. Nor is research on the merits and demerits of streaming or setting pupils as   clear cut as many politicians would have us believe.

It is a fact that evidence is mixed, as it is on so many other education issues.

For the record streaming is separating children into groups by global ability and teaching them in the same class for all subjects. Setting on the other hand is separating children into different groups by ability for individual subjects. Banding means pupils are allocated to broad ability bands, typically the ‘top’ 25 per cent, the ‘bottom’ 25 per cent and the 50 per cent in the middle. There may be several class groups in each band. Obviously this can only work in relatively large schools. Banding has sometimes also been used by local education authorities (LEAs) to allocate children to secondary schools in order to ensure a roughly equal distribution of ability in each school.

Within class grouping where the teacher makes ability groups within the class is the most common type of grouping, although streaming, setting or both are used in majority of state schools. Certainly there is much confusion among pupils. According to  the recent Sutton Trust Ipsos MORI Young People Omnibus 2010,  a third (32%) of young people say they are taught in streams, while a quarter (23%) are not.

However, two in five pupils (42%) are not at all clear about whether they are streamed or not. The Sutton Trust thought that this may be because schools use a different term to describe the same arrangement for grouping pupils or that schools do not discuss/explain their pupil grouping arrangements in most cases, although the questionnaire did provide an explanation of the term.  Being taught in sets appears to be far more common than streaming, with 94% of pupils claiming to be taught in sets for at least one of their core subjects – English, maths or science. Maths is most commonly reported as taught in sets (89%), followed by English (80%) and science (72%). Around two thirds of pupils (64%) say they are taught in set for all three of these core subjects.  The only non-core subject taught in sets with any frequency appears to be Modern Foreign Languages (50%). The teaching of other subjects in sets is far less common, with other individual subjects mentioned by fewer than one in ten pupils.  Findings on teaching in sets are broadly in line with those from 2006, but notably there has  been a significant increase in the teaching of English in sets – now 80%, up from 62%.

There have been historically a number of concerns expressed about streaming. Critics cite doubts over the accuracy of the selective process. Can you really identify, for instance, a childs ability at seven or eleven for that matter. Children develop at different paces with some obviously late developers. And once in an ability group that’s where they stay for the duration. Lower ability pupils also tend to be taught by the least effective teachers.  Secondly the contrast in the quality of provision made for children of differing ability can differ very significantly between schools and indeed within schools. Finally there are concerns that segregating children by ability can have a negative social effect on those in the lower ability range.

Back in 1967 the Plowden Report reviewed all the available evidence of the effect of streaming on children’s achievement and attitudes, including the 1959 research by Yates and Pidgeon, the Manchester Survey of 1964, and its own National Survey, which included  a NFER cross-sectional study of attainment in matched streamed and unstreamed schools. It noted that both the Manchester Survey and the NFER study showed that ‘by ten the lead of children in streamed schools had been reduced in all tests and there was no significant difference in reading’.

There was though some evidence that achievement ‘in the limited field of measurable attainment’ was higher in streamed schools, but it was ‘not so marked as to be decisive’, and Plowden’s view more generally  was that ‘forms of organisation are less critical than the underlying differences in teachers’ attitudes and practice which are sometimes associated with them’ (Plowden 1967:818)

Research by Rosenthal and Jacobsen, published in 1968 seemed to back the Plowden views on streaming by revealing the extent to which performance depended on environment. ‘Teachers were told that one group had scored high on IQ tests, and another low, when in fact both groups were randomly assigned. But the bright group got brighter, and the slow group slower’ (Holt 1978:165).

In a 1970s study in Banbury school, it was showed that, contrary to popular opinion, mixed-ability classes did not hold back the most able, and they did help the less able. They also appeared to promote social development in all pupils.

In 1982 the Cockcroft Report ‘ Mathematics counts’  saw advantages in mixed ability teaching in primary schools, although it warned that there could be ‘problems of ensuring continuity’ and that ‘the quality of the mathematics teaching inevitably depends largely on the strength and interest of the class teacher’ (Cockcroft 1982:348).

When Ken Clarke became Secretary of State for Education in 1990, he wanted to see a return to streaming and more formal teaching methods in primary schools, so he commissioned Robin Alexander, Jim Rose and Chris Woodhead to produce a report on Curriculum organisation and classroom practice in primary schools. In fact, if Clarke was hoping for a report which would unequivocally endorse streaming and whole class teaching, he would be disappointed.

The paper was much more nuanced and argued that the fundamental problem with streaming was that it was a crude device ‘which cannot do justice to the different abilities a pupil may show in different subjects and contexts’. The authors recommended flexible grouping so that pupils could be placed ‘in a particular ability group for a particular purpose’. They warned that the mounting evidence about teacher under-expectation and pupil under-achievement meant that teachers must not assume that pupils’ ability was fixed. ‘Assumptions about pupils’ ability should be no more than working hypotheses to be modified as and when new evidence emerges’ (DES 1992:85).

In 1996 a comparison of the exam results of pupils who had been taught in mixed-ability groups with those taught in ability-based groups by Benn and Chitty showed that the type of grouping policy used actually made no difference. They thought that pupil grouping should be considered ‘in terms of the social cohesion of schools’: but they found no academic advantage had been shown to accrue from streaming. Research had found on several occasions that ‘mixed ability was associated with schools that were often more socially successful’ (Benn and Chitty 1996:466).

Recent governments have tended to support streaming and setting. A 2005 White Paper Higher standards, better schools for all contained the assertion that children could be divided into three main categories: ‘the gifted and talented, the struggling and the just average’ (DfES 2005:20). The needs of ‘able and talented’ children were prioritised: a National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY) had been established in 2002, and the Five year strategy for children and learners (July 2004) had contained a section on ‘gifted and talented students’. Now, this 2005 White Paper included the  proposal to set up a national register of gifted and significantly  the White Paper repeatedly endorsed setting. There would be ‘more grouping and setting by subject ability’ (DfES 2005:10) but, conversely, a much greater emphasis on ‘personalised learning for every child’ (DfES 2005:40). The best schools offered ‘exciting whole-class teaching, which gets the best from every child’ and ‘setting or grouping children of similar ability and attainment’ (DfES 2005:51). Grouping by ability, it claimed, ‘can help to build motivation, social skills and independence; and most importantly can raise standards because pupils are better engaged in their own learning’ (DfES 2005:58).


However a  review for the Scottish Council for Research in Education  while finding  some evidence in favour of setting young children for maths,  (backed by other research too)  its overall conclusion was that “there is no consistent and reliable evidence of positive effects of setting and streaming in any subjects, or for pupils of particular ability levels”.

This finding was similar to that of a study from King’s College London. Here the authors argued that “even top sets can have negative impacts on students’ achievement”. Research from the Institute of Education – found that ability grouping had “rather little impact on overall attainment” and that “the greater the extent of structured ability groupings, the greater was the degree of apparent stigmatisation of those in lower-ability groups”.

A study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) of equity in 10 countries recommended that countries should “limit early tracking and streaming and postpone academic selection.

Professor Jo Boaler of Sussex University followed the progress of 700 American students for four years, at the end of which 41 per cent of the students who had been taught by the system in mixed ability groups were in advanced classes for calculus compared with 27 per cent of pupils in the schools which had used setting and traditional teaching methods. They were also better behaved and actually enjoyed maths more. In her paper ‘The ‘Psychological Prisons’ from which they never escaped: The role of ability grouping in reproducing social class inequalities’ Boaler  asserted that the ability grouping policies that the  former  Labour  government encouraged in schools would not be entertained in most other countries in the world and goes some way to explaining the inequities in the UK system.  She wrote ‘England strides forward, encouraging extensive ability grouping practices at the youngest possible age. It is only the rarest and bravest of teachers who have managed to resist the pressures to group by ‘ability’ from the current Labour government, thereby maintaining a vision of schooling that promotes equity and high attainment for all ‘.  She continued  ‘In Sweden ability grouping is illegal because it is known to produce inequities. In the US parents have brought law-suits against school districts that have denied high level curricula to students at high school age; the idea that such selectivity in ‘opportunity to learn’ (Porter, 1994) could happen at elementary school is inconceivable for most Americans.   In Japan (Yiu, 2001) students are believed to have equal potential and the aim of schools is to encourage students to attain at equally high levels. Japanese educators are bemused by the Western goal of sorting students into high and low ‘abilities’.

Peter Mortimore in the Guardian in 2008  pointed out that ‘ Finland had abolished all forms of streaming in its lower secondary schools and had outperformed all other countries both in attaining high average scores and in achieving the most equity’

You will find that Headteachers and governors are also pretty divided over streaming and setting, like the research.  They are seen by some teachers as problematic practices mainly because they are associated with social segregation. So whatever their effects on achievement, this issue must be taken into account in deciding whether and how to implement setting and streaming systems.  But politicians treat the issue as if it were a self-evident truth that streaming, specialisation and setting should be central to any schools organisation and is good for pupils and schools performance. It may be in certain contexts and in certain subjects, but by no means all. Indeed most schools as we have seen use some form of grouping by ability.

But it is also true that a fair number of teachers believe that mixed ability teaching, with appropriate and flexible use of in-class groups, is the most beneficial system of organising a school.  It is also true that mixed-ability grouping has its own problems, particularly given that the academic curriculum may be diluted in an effort to teach a wide range of pupils.

One thing is for sure, this is precisely the kind of decision that should be left to schools, not politicians- that is if schools autonomy has any meaning.

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