EEF Blog: Setting and streaming in schools - what does the evidence say?

Setting and streaming in schools – teaching students with similar levels of current attainment in groups, either for specific lessons (setting) or as a whole class (streaming) – is a controversial issue.

It is one where there is a real tension between the existing research evidence (which suggests setting/streaming is negative for low-attaining pupils), current practice in schools (the vast majority of secondary schools do set and/or stream), and teachers’ own professional values (the rights and wrongs of setting/streaming are contested).

Setting and streaming in the EEF Toolkit

At the EEF, we always start with the evidence. Here’s the entry in our Teaching and Learning Toolkit for setting and streaming:

As you can see, the headline figure shows "negative impact for very low cost based on moderate evidence". As with all impact estimates in the Toolkit, the overall figure masks different impacts from different studies, as our Toolkit entry highlights:

Overall, setting or streaming appears to benefit higher attaining pupils and be detrimental to the learning of ... lower attaining learners. On average, it does not appear to be an effective strategy for raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, who are more likely to be assigned to lower groups.

However, setting and streaming is a unique Toolkit topic in having meta-analytical evidence showing a split positive/negative impact depending on pupils’ level of attainment. Presenting an overall average, which is the usual Toolkit approach when there is evidence of varying effects, would mask the fact that the impact was actually negative for lower attaining pupils, who are disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Indeed, in the first version developed by Durham University for the Sutton Trust as the Pupil Premium Toolkit (2011), the impact estimate was presented as “+1 / -1”, in order to communicate this variability of impact according to pupil attainment. This approach had merits, but risked being confusing for teachers and senior leaders.

We therefore present the headline estimate for low-attainers, and then use the Toolkit text to explain the variation (and clearly state the source of the estimate). This is something we continue to review as we develop the Toolkit.

In the interests of transparency, by the way, we do want to highlight that we have corrected a ‘typo’ in the online version of the Toolkit – one of the meta-analyses referenced in the technical appendix has been incorrectly shown as -0.34 when it should have read +0.34. Our thanks to Andrew Old, whose blog highlighted the mistake. We’re happy to reassure users of our Toolkit that this was a transposition error only and so does not in any way affect the impact figures we report on setting and streaming.

Building the evidence

The EEF Toolkit reports what the current evidence on setting and streaming says. However, we know that this evidence base is not as strong as we would like it to be. Our grant-making aims to help generate new evidence, particularly where we know the practice is widespread in schools.

The findings from EEF trials are, in turn, fed into the Toolkit, ensuring this live resource is as up-to-date and useful a resource for teachers and senior leaders as we can make it.

In June, we will be publishing the evaluation of our first EEF trial of setting and streaming, Best Practice in Grouping Students, delivered by a team from the UCL Institute of Education. Crucially, and in common with all EEF-funded projects, it is being independently evaluated, in this case by a team from the National Foundation for Educational Research. This will provide many useful insights for schools (and researchers) to reflect on.

Conclusion

So what does all this mean for teachers and senior leaders? Our view is that the decisions you make should be based on robust evidence alongside your own professional judgement and your school’s context. Supplementing expertise and experience with the best available evidence can only be a good thing.

And while the evidence on setting and streaming is not conclusive, it shows a clear pattern: it tends to be good for high-attaining pupils but bad for low-attaining pupils. And if teachers and school leaders know this, they are in a better position to choose a system that works for all their pupils, not just those at the top.