February 2015


  • Essential support
    Member support is a cornerstone of ASCL’s work. Richard Tanton explains the different services and functions provided. More
  • Staying the course
    It’s not just students who need to be able to withstand challenges and learn to persist. Senior leaders and staff, too, would benefit from gaining a better understanding of how to build the personal resilience that will help them succeed, say Les Duggan and Mark Solomons. More
  • Over to us
    Government has handed schools control of the Pupil Premium with the overarching goal of helping to boost social mobility. John Dunford sets out a ten-point plan to help heads identify where to spend the money to gain maximum impact. More
  • Better together?
    Raising attainment for all? Becky Francis introduces a project to identify best practice in grouping students and invites schools to take part. More
  • Bridging the gap
    A fresh approach to transition, including an introduction to university for Year 6s, is helping one secondary to prepare primary pupils for life at ‘big school’. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
  • Mapping the future
    ASCL is expanding its presence in the English regions to help meet the changing needs of leaders. Brian Lightman explains the thinking behind the move. More
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Raising attainment for all? Becky Francis introduces a project to identify best practice in grouping students and invites schools to take part.

Better together?

Raising the attainment of disadvantaged students remains high on government policy agendas, as well as being dear to the hearts of educationalists, and was a key driver in the creation of the Pupil Premium (PP). Meanwhile, the new Progress 8 measures will refocus school performance indicators on the achievement of all pupils, including the low-attaining.

However, it is interesting that the government’s encouragement of ‘ability grouping’ is not supported by the research evidence on what works best to ensure optimal progress for all.

The recent ‘non’-announcement from No. 10 about mandatory setting in secondary schools reignited the long-standing debate about the most effective forms of pupil grouping, and many commentators pointed to the lack of evidence for assumptions that ‘setting is best’.

As the Sutton Trust–Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Toolkit on raising the attainment of disadvantaged young people highlights, research has shown that grouping by ability has no significant impact overall. In fact, the research evidence shows that setting and streaming has a negative impact on the progress and outcomes of pupils in low-attaining groups – those groups in which disadvantaged pupils are over-represented. Indeed, this negative impact on those pupils who need the most help could offer a key explanation for why the socio-economic gap for attainment in our school system persists. 

However, as Gifted & Talented expert Tim Dracup points out in his blog (http://tinyurl.com/o56ydj2), there are some limitations with the (large) body of research on ‘ability grouping’, too. Although the findings on negative impact on low-attainment groups are conclusive, often there is a lack of nuance in the research about the different methods of grouping studied. More importantly, no one seems to have investigated what happens if the poor practices commonly associated with low-attainment groups are addressed – that is, 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?

A new project seeks to answer this question, among others. Funded by the EEF, the Best Practice in Grouping Students project seeks to support schools to ensure good practice; to test the impact of different approaches to pupil grouping on progress and educational attainment outcomes for low-attaining young people (often disadvantaged pupils) and other pupils; and to draw conclusions about what works in raising attainment.

Our project includes two different intervention options. Our intervention on Best Practice in Setting supports schools to remedy bad practices identified by research as associated with low sets (such as low expectations, and mis-allocation), to ensure that setting is being practised with efficacy. This should help us to determine whether the negative effects of setting on low-attaining groups may be mitigated – or even reversed – by implementing good practice.

That is the first intervention. The second is focused on Best Practice in Mixed Attainment Grouping. Although the research evidence suggests that low-attaining pupils do better in ‘mixed ability’ groups, relatively little research has been conducted as to what constitutes good practice in mixed attainment pedagogy. Our intervention addresses this.

We expect good results from both projects for all pupils (not just low attainers), and the impact for all will be carefully tracked. But, we need schools to sign up. Specifically – we need your school!

We are seeking to recruit 140 secondary schools to the project for the 2015-16 academic year. We hope that this will be an appealing opportunity to participate in a project that supports schools to ensure good professional practice and to achieve the best for disadvantaged students. It is also an opportunity to address the progress and achievement of those pupils with low prior attainment as well as higher attainers, so makes good preparation for Progress 8.

What is involved

The project is designed as a double randomised control trial (RCT), including two interventions based on existing research evidence: one on Best Practice in Setting and the other on Best Practice in Mixed Attainment Grouping. These are to be applied to Year 7 cohorts in maths and English. The intervention runs for two years and will be applied to the same cohort of pupils until the end of their Year 8. The aim is to test the size of the effect for both interventions, to see a) what difference best practice makes, and eventually b) which intervention has the most significant effect.

You can choose which intervention you would like to take part in. Schools participating in the interventions will benefit from free, high-quality continuing professional development (CPD), and the opportunity to be supported to ensure good practice in grouping students (and thus to support pupil attainment). The special attention to disadvantaged students can also support schools’ Pupil Premium strategies.

All schools recruited will be designated Education Endowment Foundation Research Partner Schools and, as such, will have permission to use the EEF logo on their website. This also applies to schools designated to the control group. Following RCT methods, half of schools signing up to the project will be randomly designated as control group schools (continuing with their existing practice): this still counts as full participation in the project, and in recognition that they are not receiving the intervention, these schools will also receive a reward payment of £1,500 for participation in the project.

Schools involved in the Best Practice in Setting intervention will, with support, allocate pupils and teachers to set groups that address problems identified in the research. Members of Key Stage 3 English and maths teams will receive CPD that can be shared across their departments. Schools are eligible if they are already practising setting or streaming in some subjects.

Schools involved in the Best Practice in Mixed Attainment intervention will also benefit from CPD with designated KS3 maths and English teachers receiving CPD on challenging aspects of mixed-attainment teaching that can be shared across departmental teams, assisted by materials provided to support pupil differentiation and so on. All secondary schools are eligible for this intervention.

All participant schools – including control schools – w will also be required to distribute a survey to staff and pupils supplied by the project team, and to provide details on their grouping approaches. Finally, the project independent evaluators the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) will test pupils in maths and English at the end of Year 8. Benefits to participation may include:

  • Free, high-quality CPD for your staff.
  • Implementation of good practice aimed at raising pupil attainment.
  • Implementation of practice designed to support the progress of all pupils, including low achievers, thus supporting preparation for Progress 8.
  • Participation in an Education Endowment Foundation-funded project, demonstrating your commitment to raising the attainment of disadvantaged/ Pupil Premium pupils, and to the development of evidence-based practice.
  • Free external tests at the end of Year 8 to assess your pupils’ progress.

I very much hope you will be keen to participate. Together, we can shed light on the debate over ‘ability’ grouping, and support the attainment of disadvantaged young people.

Find out more: Further details on the project can be found at http://tinyurl.com/oyj6bvu or by contacting John.Barlow@kcl.ac.uk

Becky Francis is Professor of Education and Social Justice at King’s College London.