Palak Roy, Ben Styles, Matt Walker, Jo Morrison, Julie Nelson and Kelly Kettlewell
07 September 2018
The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) commissioned UCL Institute of Education to investigate best practice in grouping students by attainment. A team from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) independently evaluated the project, which consisted of two randomised controlled trials (RCTs).
These two reports address the widespread, yet controversial, practice of grouping students into classes by ability at secondary school in England.
The first, a pilot RCT, explored the possibility of randomising schools to ‘Best Practice in Mixed Attainment’ teaching. It demonstrated that, despite existing evidence that grouping by ability may harm outcomes for disadvantaged pupils; schools are largely reluctant to participate in an evaluation of mixed attainment teaching.
The second study was a large efficacy trial and took a more realistic approach. Instead of asking schools to change their grouping practices in a radical fashion, it attempted to tweak existing practice in ways that might improve learning, particularly for lower attaining pupils. Due to problems with implementation by schools and high attrition rates for follow-up testing, it was difficult to conclude anything certain about the impact of the ‘Best Practice in Setting’ intervention from the results of this trial. There was no evidence that it improves attainment or self-confidence. Any future research in this area should focus on interventions that have been developed in close collaboration with teachers so we can be more certain they will be embraced to the extent necessary for a large scale RCT.