The research digests here approach a variety of issues relating to pupil grouping and organisation of classes. This summary draws together the main themes from a selection of these digests – ability, gender and SEN. The full digests give much more detailed information on the studies, their findings and also some suggested implications for practitioners. You can also use the resources and references within the digests to pursue more research on this topic.
Setting by ability is very common in UK schools. Two digests that look at its effects in mathematics are Effective classroom organisation in primary schools and, in secondary schools, Students' experiences of ability grouping .
Effective classroom organisation in primary schools concludes that there is no evidence that lower Key Stage 2 pupils learn more effectively in sets for mathematics at any level. In fact, the study tentatively suggests that children of all levels of attainment do better when taught in mixed ability classes. The author also recommends mixed ability teaching because of its social and equitable benefits, and suggests that setting is usually adopted in order to make the teacher’s job of whole class teaching more manageable.
In secondary schools, Students' experiences of ability grouping similarly suggests that setting in mathematics has a negative effect on both attainment and motivation, with the exception of slightly improved attainment for top set pupils. The authors conclude that setting promotes a more inflexible style of teaching than mixed ability classes, and creates unreasonably low or high expectations for the pupils in the lower and top sets. Looking at pupil attainment, the study found that students with the same Key Stage 3 scores could have their GCSE grade raised or lowered by up to half a grade as a result of being placed in a higher or lower set. The greatest value added was in the school which retained mixed ability teaching in mathematics up to Year 10 and subsequently continued to use a wide range of teaching methods, including within-class grouping.
The effects of ability setting on teaching practices and the curriculum in the secondary school example included:
The study found that mixed ability teaching, by contrast, encouraged teachers to see pupils as having different needs, abilities and working styles.
Motivation was also shown to be affected by setting in this study (Students' experiences of ability grouping). Most schools entered all pupils in a set for the same tier at GCSE, resulting in all pupils in the lower sets being entered for exams where the highest possible grade was D. This caused disaffection. In the top sets, many girls and boys were unhappy and felt they would learn more in a lower set.
The study also showed that working class pupils were disproportionately represented in the lower sets, considering their Key Stage 3 scores.
An investigation of mathematics textbooks shows some evidence that the choice of textbook for different sets has a limiting effect on the learning opportunities for pupils. For more details on suggestions for practice from all these studies, please see the full digests.
Single-sex teaching is often thought to help improve boys' and girls' attainment, and boys' attainment in particular. Is this actually the case? What about the impact on girls? Is single sex-teaching right for your school?
We decided to give it a twirl concludes that single-sex classes can provide a positive and successful experience for boys and girls, but only where there is a strong commitment from staff and where it plays part of a wider gender reform strategy – it is not a simple answer. Single sex teaching in a co-educational comprehensive school shows that both girls and boys taught in single-sex classes achieved very much better than boys and girls did nationally, with particularly good results for the boys. However the authors are quick to point out that the long-term effectiveness of this strategy has yet to be established.
In a study of Teachers' implementation of gender-inclusive instructional strategies, the authors suggest that it is important to investigate the circumstances and conditions under which it may be useful to separate boys and girls. They found that single-sex classes in science were more conducive to teaching that takes account of pupils' current interests, needs and concerns. Single-sex teaching also gave teachers more opportunity to address problems such as boys' tendency to have poor communication skills, and girls' typical inexperience of hands-on activities and open-ended problem solving.
Further research digests relating to gender issues are available under the Gender theme.
Two digests look at schools that have successful inclusion practices for pupils with special educational needs, and the implications for school and classroom organisation.
Inclusive practice in English Secondary schools found that successful schools made use of learning support departments, often allocating learning support staff to work with a department rather than within individual pupils. In these schools, teachers were encouraged not to distinguish between 'special' and other children, whilst making extensive use of support assistants and adopting a flexible approach to their activities.
What, in practice, does inclusion mean? investigated one school in an in-depth case study. This school minimised withdrawal from lessons and ensured that students with SEN were not excluded from any activity in their class.
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