Research on Ability Grouping and Setting in Maths Classes

Piers YoungNotesLeave a Comment

I’ve been trying to tie together some of the various bits of research I’ve come across for and against ability grouping in maths. Below is what I’ve got so far, but would love any other pointers, for or against.

The last 30 years’ research suggests setting marginally improves high-achievers, but to the detriment of everyone else.
Sources are: DfES (2004) Making Mathematics Count (London: TSO), Askew, M. and Wiliam, D. (1995) Recent Research in Mathematics Education 5-16 (London: HMSO), Sukhnandan, L. (1998) Streaming, setting and grouping by ability: a review of the literature (Slough: NFER), Education Endowment Foundation,

This may be for various reasons but some relevant findings are:

  1. Summer births are penalised (Much like ice-hockey players with December birthdays) (Ed Endowment link above)
  2. Approximately one-third of the students taught in the highest ability groups were disadvantaged by their placement in these groups because of high expectations, fast-paced lessons and pressure to succeed. This particularly affected the most able girls.
    Boaler, J., William, D., & Brown, M. “Students’ experiences of ability grouping —disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure.” –
  3. Surprisingly, too, we all as teachers actually differentiate more poorly in set classes than when teaching mixed ability classes, teachers typically use methods and materials that allow students to progress at their own pace through suitably differentiated material. By contrast “setted lessons are often conducted as though students are not only similar, but identical – in terms of ability, preferred learning style and pace of working.” (Boaler and Wiliam)
  4. Setting is for life, though, not just for Christmas. Most children never change sets.
    Ollerton, M. (2001) “Inclusion, learning and teaching mathematics” in Gates ed. (2001b: 261-76)
  5. And nobody is very good at setting well. We are all more fallible and subjective than we like to admit.
    Watson, A. (2001) “Making judgements about pupils’ mathematics” in Gates ed. (2001b: 217-31)
  6. Ability grouping within a class has had tentatively positive results.
    Sukhnandan 1998: 17-8, 37-9. see above
  7. The conclusion from the research is that if it helps, it helps teachers more than children
    Director of IoE, Chris Husbands,
  8. The most successful maths countries set the least – PISA rankings

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