Sets fail pupils, study finds


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The Independent Online

Moves to reintroduce more setting and streaming in UK  state schools are fuelling a “vicious cycle” of underperformance,  particularly amongst disadvantaged youngsters, a top-level international study warned yesterday.

Successive governments – starting with Tony Blair’s first term in 1997 – have encouraged schools to go back to teaching pupils in different ability groups.

They have advocated setting – teaching them in different groups for different subjects – but streaming  placing them in one group for every subject – has also flourished.

One in six primary school pupils are now streamed by the age of seven, according to researchers from London University's Institute of Education.

However, a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, makes it clear that the trend is exacerbating the gap in performance between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off counterparts,. It says 99 per cent of pupils at the lower end of secondary schooling in the UK are taught in

“Student selection  – and in particular early tracking (setting and streaming) – exacerbates differences in learning between students,” says the report.

“Firstly, the teaching environment can vary....  Less demanding tracks (the bottom sets) tend to prove less stimulating learning environments.

“Secondly, students’ outcomes can also be affected by the students alongside them.”

It continues: “Proponents of grouping students according to their performance suggest that students learn better when grouped with others like themselves and when teaching can be adapted to their needs.

“However, research shows that it has a significant negative effect on those placed in lower levels.”

The result is a “vicious cycle” in the expectations of teachers and pupils.

“Teachers can have lower expectations for some students, especially disadvantaged and/or low performing ones, and assign them slower-paced and fragmented instruction,” it adds.

Students adjust their expectations and efforts  resulting in even lower performance.

Meanwhile, the more experienced and capable teachers are often assigned to the top set.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “It is for schools to decide how and when to group and set pupils by ability as they are best placed to know and meet the learning needs of their pupils.

“Research shows that when setting is done well it can be an effective way to personalise teaching and learning to the different needs of groups of pupils.”