Overview from Project Director Professor Becky Francis

Professor Becky FrancisThe lower progress and educational attainment of students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds in comparison with their more affluent peers is a longstanding problem. Research has shown that students from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to be over-represented in lower ‘ability’ sets and streams – and that young people in lower sets and streams make less progress than do their counterparts in higher attainment groups. Hence these socially-disadvantaged students may experience a ‘double disadvantage’, which impedes narrowing the gap. Research has also suggested some possible explanations for the lesser progress of those placed in low ‘ability groups’: including being taught a different curriculum at a different pace, poorer quality teaching and low expectations for their attainment.

Our project seeks to address these challenges. ‘Best Practice in Grouping Students’ is an Education Endowment Foundation-funded project investigating which methods of grouping secondary school students are most effective in improving their educational attainment and engagement; with particular attention to improving the performance of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. The project interventions are specifically designed to improve the educational attainment of these students by ensuring their progress is not detrimentally affected by poor practice and to assess the relative effectiveness of different methods of grouping students.

We have different interventions that ensure all students are equally able to access high quality teaching and a rich curriculum: ‘Best Practice in Setting’, and ‘Best Practice in Mixed Attainment’. Best Practice in Setting aims to remedy the poor practice identified by research as being associated with lower sets. Best Practice in Mixed Attainment aims to ensure good practice in mixed attainment teaching contexts. This latter intervention is of significance as studies have shown that students with low attainment make better progress in these mixed groupings than do comparable students in low ‘ability’ sets and streams.

Building on the experiences of a pilot year working with six secondary schools to develop and test the intervention delivery, we are now in the main phase of the project. Working with 139 secondary schools (either allocated to intervention or control groups) since summer 2015, we are delivering professional development to support good practice, and administering large-scale surveys of students and teachers to capture their experiences. The project runs til summer 2017, at which point outcomes of the trial are evaluated and reported by NfER. We look forward to reporting our results, and providing schools with the evidence they need to ensure equality of opportunity in implementing their student grouping practices.

Professor Becky Francis

Project Director, King’s College London