‘Ability’ grouping in English secondary schools: a portrait of current practices and the possibility of change

Year: 2019

Author: Taylor, Becky, Hodgen, Jeremy, Tereshchenko, Antonina, Gutierrez, Cofre, Gabriel

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In England, no data is systematically recorded regarding ‘ability’ grouping practices although there are reports of increasing use of setting and streaming. In this paper we present findings from a national survey that updates our understanding of grouping practices in English state-funded schools, alongside early findings from ‘The Student Grouping Study’, a large scale investigation of the effects of setting and mixed attainment grouping on outcomes in mathematics, started in 2019.

Heads of English and Heads of Mathematics in all non-selective, state-funded secondary schools in England were contacted by email in Summer 2018 and invited to complete a short online survey. The survey asked about previous, current, and future grouping practices in English, mathematics and other subjects. Respondents were asked to indicate the grouping type used in each of school years 7-11 and to provide additional information if desired. Respondents were also asked if they were planning changes to grouping in the future, and if so, what these changes might be.

Survey responses were linked to publically available data regarding school characteristics (school general information database, school census information, Ofsted rating, student performance information and urban/rural context) using the school name and postcode. In total 197 valid responses were received for mathematics and 186 for English (a response rate of 11.1%).

Grouping practices were categorised as completely mixed, partially mixed, sets, streams and other. In Mathematics, the majority of schools group students in sets, with the prevalence of this approach increasing as students progress through the school. In English, there was more variation: although grouping in sets is again the most popular practice, it is less dominant than in mathematics. In Year 7 (age 11), one third of schools use sets, with the proportion increasing with student age. In Years 7 and 8 (age 11-13), the second most popular practice is completely mixed groups, while in the subsequent years partially mixed groups become more frequently used. It appears that as student age increases, schools reject completely mixed groups in favour of sets. 59 respondents stated that they were considering changing their practices in future.

The survey findings suggest a more nuanced picture of grouping in secondary schools than has previously been implied. We will discuss the implications of this and draw on initial findings from our new, large-scale study of attainment grouping to illustrate in more detail the diversity of grouping practices in English schools.