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A Broken System

The negative effects of sets and streaming

Sets and streaming have a serious impact on children

Sets and streaming are used at younger and younger ages, with half of nursery schools streaming children aged between two and four. 80% of reception teachers streamed their four and five-year-old students for phonics.

UK policy would entrench disadvantage


Research consistently shows that while putting children into sets and streaming provided a slight boost for children in the top sets it is damaging for children in the lower sets. Particularly harmful is ‘streaming’, where children are assessed in maths and English and this used to set their level across all subjects.

A major OECD study found that countries that stream pupils into ability groups at an early age tend to have lower levels of achievement overall. It said that UK policy would entrench disadvantage.

Streaming and setting has the greatest impact on poor children, children born in the summer and ethnic minorities, all of whom are more likely to be placed in lower sets. There is extensive evidence that children are fully aware of their place in the hierarchy and that they worry about it.

Study after study show negative impact

Negative impact of grouping on children’s confidence, self-esteem and aspirations, potentially leading to mental health problemsNegative impact of grouping on children’s confidence, self-esteem and aspirations, potentially leading to mental health problems

A 2013 study by Boaler & Wiliam into the effects of putting students into ability groups summarised, “streaming [appears to have] no academic benefits whatsoever, while setting confers small academic benefits on some high-attaining students, at the expense of large disadvantages for lower attainers”.

Some studies have also suggested that mixed ability groups provided some benefits for all students. A study by Teach First found that: “mixed-ability classes have a positive effect on the attitudes and self-esteem of all pupils regardless of their ability level, whereas pupil allocation has been shown to reinforce divisions along lines of class, gender, and race, and in any case appears to affect high-ability students less than their low-ability peers.”

National Education Union and UCL’s Institute of Education reported that although teachers found it easier to teach children divided in this way, only 52% of teachers thought it was effective. “Teachers feel conflicted about the use of grouping,” one of the study’s authors said. “Though in their hearts they disagree with it, sometimes because they themselves had been grouped as a child and remember how it had affected their self-esteem and confidence, here they are as a teacher doing the same thing to children.”

Psychologically damaging

“Teachers have concerns about the negative impact of grouping on children’s confidence, self-esteem and aspirations, potentially leading to mental health problems,” concluded the research team based at University College London’s Institute of Education, who were commissioned by the National Education Union (NEU).

The experience of being placed in the lower sets has been shown to be psychologically damaging, with reported feelings of inadequacy continuing into adulthood.

An extensive study by academic Jo Boaler followed two groups of young teenagers, one separated into rigid ability groups, the other taught in mixed-ability groupings. Those who had been streamed talked of their experiences in harrowing terms, describing it as “psychological prisons” from which they never escaped. Boaler found that the mixed-ability students did better in exams than those who had been streamed and in later life achieved more social mobility, in relation to their parents, than their streamed peers.

Boaler described one statistic as being the ‘most chilling’ she had ever read – that 88% of children placed into sets or streams at age four remain in the same groupings until they leave school. “The fact that our children’s future is decided for them by the time they are 4 years old derides the work of schools and contravenes basic knowledge about child development and learning.”

Read more

Ofsted report fuels debate over mixed-ability teaching. Thousands of children risk being consigned to educational failure because of Ofsted demands to set pupils by ability in secondary school, teachers’ leaders have warned. (The Telegraph, 13 Jun 2013)

All pupils ‘should be in mixed-ability classes’ (The Telegraph, 23 Nov 2009)

Streaming at five set me up to fail, says deputy head (BBC, 2 June 2018)

Streaming primary school pupils labels them for life (The Guardian, 8 Aug 2011)

Children as young as two grouped by ability in English nurseries (The Guardian, 1 Dec 2017)

The ‘Psychological Prisons’ from which they never escaped: The role of ability grouping in reproducing social class inequalities. Jo Boaler, Stanford University.

Do setting and streaming work? Politicians may favour dividing children according to ability, but academic studies cast doubt on its efficacy. (TES, 5 April 2013)

Students’ experiences of ability grouping —disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure. (Boaler, Wiliam, and Brown)

Dividing younger pupils by ability can entrench disadvantage, study finds (The Guardian, 9 Feb 2012)

Streaming pupils by ability in primary school widens the attainment gap (IOE, 25 Sept 2014)

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