Setting by attainment – an emotive issue

14 September 2018

Roger Higgins gives a personal view on the update to the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

Setting is firmly entrenched as the default in most UK secondary schools, including my own. Every year most if not all secondary teachers will field concerns from parents and students about the set they are in or the set they are being moved into. Many have reacted strongly to the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit ‘setting and streaming’ update; in this blog I’ll dig a little into the details.

Although the toolkit has been revised, its quoted effect size for setting remains the same as before at -1 month (‘within-class attainment grouping’, the new entry, has an effect size of +3 months). The newly-published pilot evaluations by the EEF have not altered this headline effect size. They serve as a first step by the EEF to address the limited evidence base around setting, as reflected by the current EEF reliability rating of two padlocks: the effect size for setting is based on only six meta-analyses, the most recent being a report Rui published in 2009.

At my school we seek to be research-informed and not research-led, ensuring that research informs all key decisions whilst never forgetting that context is key. Many of our Heads of Subject employ setting, and we won’t be asking them to stop this practice based on the current evidence. Generating more evidence on setting will take some time: the EEF pilot studies found that recruiting schools to participate was challenging. Even when more evidence becomes available (and assuming it were to indicate a negative effect size for setting) we’ll be extremely careful still. However, while we won’t be pushing change, Notre Dame will be using the EEF stimulus to check our biases about setting.

I’m particularly interested in biases. You can have all the research evidence in the world but fail to objectively consider and utilise it to your school’s advantage if you are unaware of your own biases. There are several beliefs that we as teachers may hold about setting, some of which I summarise below. I’d love to add to this list which I recognise is incomplete. I’ve tried to be objective here but would welcome comments:

In favour of setting:

  • Setting by attainment helps with teacher workload when lesson planning, as there will be less of a range of ability to cater for
  • Setting can help cater for SEND. Some schools operate ‘nurture groups’ with small size but high need concentrated
  • Setting by attainment supports further education uptake. Top sets can be filled with students ‘with the potential’ to pursue a subject to A level or beyond, creating a learning environment conducive to students opting for that subject
  • Setting by attainment helps us tackle reformed qualifications and increased content to be taught, as choice of what to emphasise and pace of delivery can be optimised.

Against setting:

  • Setting by attainment lowers teacher expectations. Those who teach lower sets may be pre-programmed to expect less from the moment they get their timetable
  • Setting by attainment leads to cherry picking. Those in charge of allocating teachers to sets may consciously or subconsciously end up allocating stronger practitioners (including themselves) to top sets, and less effective teachers to lower sets
  • Setting by attainment assumes that teacher-designed assessments are accurate and reliable. Very few teachers have been trained in assessment design
  • Setting by attainment labels students and has a negative impact on the motivation/self-belief of those placed in lower sets.

Finally, I leave with a few ideas for schools to consider:

1.   Have you considered alternative approaches to tailoring teaching and learning? One to one and small group tuition are targeted interventions which have positive impacts on attainment.

2.   How will you ensure that your setting or streaming approach enables more effective teaching for all pupils, including lower attaining pupils? Which groups will your most experienced teachers be allocated to?

3.   How will you ensure that all pupils follow a challenging curriculum, including lower attaining pupils?

4.   How will you minimise the risk of allocating pupils to the wrong group? Have you assessed whether your grouping criteria could disadvantage certain pupils? For younger children, have you taken their relative age within the year group into account?

This is an abridged article; for the full blog, see here.

Posted on 14 September 2018
Posted in: Blog, Evidence, News
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