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

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“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

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