Setting by attainment – an emotive issue


Read time: 10 mins



Earlier this month the EEF T&L Toolkit was updated to revise its ‘Setting or Streaming’ strand, and introduce ‘Within-class attainment grouping’ as a new strand. At the same time, the EEF published evaluations of two related trials. As a Secondary school teacher, then Head of Department, and now Senior Leader I’ve had umpteen debates with colleagues about Setting throughout my career.

Setting is firmly entrenched as the default in most UK Secondary schools. Every year most if not all Secondary teachers will field concerns from parents and students about the set they are in / the set they are being moved into. Many reacted strongly on Social media to the EEF’s announcement, questioning its motivation / objectivity. In this blog I’ll dig a little into the details.


Lack of reliable, specific evidence: as has been the case for some time

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, nor how it breaks down for low-, mid- and high- achieving students (suggesting that setting only benefit high- achievers). 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 (compare this with four padlocks for Metacognition). The toolkit shows that its effect size for Setting is now based on only six meta-analyses, the most recent being a report Rui published in 2009. Most of the meta-analysis was conducted in the USA not the UK.

Research evidence gives schools like mine ‘best bets’, which we can use to challenge our own biases, plan for improvement, and stop doing things which are unlikely to have a positive impact on students. At Notre Dame 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, mindful of the history of schools reacting to Feedback being rated ‘High impact for low cost’ by focussing on written Feedback, even though evidence on that specific form of feedback is limited and many Feedback studies show negative impact.

However, while we won’t be pushing change, Notre Dame will be using the EEF stimulus to check our biases about Setting.


Our biases on 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. Notre Dame is a member of the Teacher Development Trust, and over the summer I read David Weston and Bridget Clay’s excellent book ‘Unleashing Great Teaching’. I rather like their summary of some of the most relevant forms of bias to consider:


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:

Setting arguments

At Notre Dame, we plan to explore our teachers’ beliefs on Setting, and capture evidence of how it is working on a subject-by-subject basis, to inform the timeless debate that occurs every year here. Thankfully, the EEF have provided some questions for schools to consider. The EEF provides these questions as things to consider before employing setting, but at first glance they appear to be equally helpful as a diagnostic for a school already employing setting. I leave you with those questions to consider.


What should schools 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?
  5. How flexible are your grouping arrangements? Pupils progress at different rates and so regular monitoring and assessment is important to minimise misallocation and ensure challenge for all pupils.
  6. How will you monitor the impact of setting or streaming on pupil engagement and attitudes to learning, particularly for lower attaining pupils.



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