Why do we set in maths when all the evidence tells us not to?
Most schools single out maths students for ability grouping, even though setting is often deemed unnecessary for other subjects. Lucy Rycroft-smith examines the research and finds some worrying effects
“Often with a psychological brutality that nothing can attenuate, the school institution lays down its final judgements and its verdicts, from which there is no appeal, ranking all students in a unique hierarchy of all forms of excellence, nowadays dominated by a single discipline, maths.”
Pierre Bourdieu was not, as you might guess from this quote, a fan of ability grouping. But the practice of setting students by attainment is currently commonplace in maths classrooms in England, both primary and secondary. One of the catalysts for this was a 1997 government White Paper that encouraged “setting pupils according to ability” as a way of “modernising the comprehensive principle”; this followed a Department for Education report in 1993 that also encouraged schools to increase standards by setting pupils by attainment. But the preference for setting has been reinforced since then countless times. For example, there were even reports that setting would be suggested as a compulsory measure for an Ofsted outstanding rating in the 2015 Conservative manifesto, although this never came to pass.
Setting by ability is most commonly reported in maths. In 2009, a survey of about 800 randomly selected primary, junior and infant schools in England and Wales found grouping by ability within maths classes to be taking place in approximately 56 per cent of Reception classes, rising to 72 per cent by Year 2. By Year 6, setting across the age range was much more common and only about 4 per cent of pupils were taught in mixed-ability groups (Hallam et al, 2009). Other research suggests that the prevalence is even higher at secondary and much more so in maths than in other subjects.
In the course of my job, I meet hundreds of maths teachers. Almost all of them use setting as standard practice in their schools (both primary and secondary). We are not alone internationally, either: the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) last year reported that, at age 15, “ability grouping is relatively widespread across OECD countries, with more than 70 per cent of students…grouped by ability for maths classes”.
Benefits hard to find
So why is it so difficult to find research to support this? More importantly, what does the research that does exist actually say? I recently reviewed the effects of setting in maths and found – to my surprise – that the evidence from meta-analysis, Programme for International Student Assessment and decades of research just don’t support setting in maths, or indeed any other subject.
Francis et al (2015) found that “research has consistently failed to find significant benefits of ‘ability’ grouping and indeed has identified disadvantages for some (low-attaining) pupil groups. However, this research evidence has apparently failed to impact on practice in England.”
At best, the evidence is described as “unclear” (OECD, 2016) on effectiveness in student outcomes, while several other important – and negative – effects of setting showed clearly in the literature. Setting in