The impact of ‘ability’ grouping on student self-confidence over time: demonstrating the accumulative impact of self-fulfilling prophecy

Year: 2019

Author: Francis, Becky, Hodgen, Jeremy, Taylor, Becky, Tereshchenko, Antonina

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

We report new empirical findings and reflections from the ‘Best Practice in Setting’ project – a longitudinal, mixed methods study, involving 126 secondary schools in England in a Randomised Control Trial (RCT), starting in September 2015 and following students from age 11-13.

The project sought to address gaps in the literature on grouping students by attainment, by exploring whether setting arrangements that remediate some of the problematic practices identified as affecting those in low sets might improve students’ progress.

Schools participated in a two-year intervention evaluated by a fully-powered RCT examining impact or otherwise of practice in grouping students in English and mathematics in Year 7 (11-12 years old) and Year 8 (12-13 years old) based on research evidence. Baseline surveys were conducted with 13,462 students and 597 teachers across 86 schools; outcome surveys were completed by 10,726 students and 548 teachers across 80 schools. In addition, qualitative work comprised 56 focus groups with 219 students, and individual interviews with 27 students and 54 teachers.

In this paper we present new findings addressing the impact of self-fulfilling prophecy in education, and that of attainment grouping (tracking) on student self-perception. These remain topics of longstanding debate, with important consequences for social in/justice. Focusing on student self-confidence, we draw on survey data from 9,059 12-13 year olds who had experienced two years of tracking by subject (‘setting’), and had provided survey responses shortly after having been placed in ‘ability’ sets at the start of their secondary schooling in Year 7, and again at the end of Year 8; enabling analysis of impact over time.

Students in the top set showed significantly higher levels of self-confidence after two years, and students in the bottom set showed significantly lower self-confidence over time. Effects remained significant for most measures after controlling for prior attainment. These findings show that self-fulfilling prophecy from attainment grouping accumulates over time, comprising a ‘snowball prophecy’, with grave implications for social justice.