Setting and streaming


  • Although the value of setting and streaming has been strongly questioned by research, it continues to have high-level political support.  Nicky Morgan, Michael Wilshaw and David Cameron have all spoken out in favour of the policy. The experience of the 1950s and 1960s tells us that Theresa May’s call for the expansion of selective secondary education will lead to streaming and setting in primary schools. 1
  • The way schools organise their classes should be the decision of the school and not the Secretary of State. Such an intervention would run entirely counter to the idea, central to the Government’s education policy, that schools should have autonomy over teaching and learning.
  • Furthermore, it ignores the evidence on any link between setting and standards. It is clear that setting does not always lead to better outcomes for pupils and needs to be used advisedly. The stigmatisation that comes from being ‘se’t in certain ability groups can lead to a lack of confidence and enthusiasm from pupils.
  • The Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF’s) Toolkit resource, which summarises the research on the impact of ability setting, states that it, “appears likely that routine setting or streaming arrangements undermine low attainers’ confidence and discourage the belief that attainment can be improved through effort. Research also suggests that ability grouping can have a longer term negative effect on the attitudes and engagement of low attaining pupils.”2
  • The Toolkit also says that setting by ability, “does not appear to be an effective strategy for raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, who are more likely to be assigned to lower groups. Summer born pupils and students from ethnic minority backgrounds are also likely to be adversely affected by ability grouping.”3
  • This means that more setting is likely to hold back disadvantaged groups of pupils rather than benefit them. Overall the Toolkit assessed setting or streaming as: “Negative impact for very low or no cost, based on moderate evidence.”4
  • On top of the absence of academic evidence or research supporting the case for more setting and streaming,  international comparisons suggest that it will not help boost overall attainment.
  • The United Kingdom (UK) already employs setting to a far greater degree than many other countries - only six per cent of pupils in the UK were not, "grouped by ability within their math classes" according to the international PISA study on educational outcomes in OECD countries. This compares to an OECD average of 49 per cent of pupils that were not set.
  • In South Korea, the equivalent figure was 28 per cent while in Japan, it was 54 per cent. 15 Yet both of these countries were ranked higher than the UK in terms of their performance in maths: 5th and 7th respectively while the UK was ranked 26th.6
  • Polish students have continued to improve their performance in all measures in PISA tests. Since 2003, mathematics performance has improved at an annual rate of 2.6 points, moving from a below-OECD-average score of 490 in 2003 to an above-OECD-average score of 518 in 2012. This improvement has coincided with reforms that mean there is significantly less ability grouping in Polish secondary schools.7
  • PISA found that maths ability-grouping in education systems tends to be linked to lower maths scores and that, overall, education systems that “group students, within schools, for all classes based on their ability tend to have lower performance across all participating countries and economies, after accounting for per capita GDP.”8
  • It is notable that in Finland, a country which consistently performs at a high level in international tests, there is a consensus that setting would encourage low expectations for some children. The Finnish education system is also extremely equitable, with very little difference in outcomes for students from different backgrounds.
  • It is clear that any proposals to introduce compulsory setting would be based on ideology rather than careful consideration of the evidence. Moreover, this is a move that would undermine schools’ freedom to determine the best approach to teaching and learning.
  • The Government should honour its commitment to give autonomy to schools over teaching and learning. In addition it should ensure that education policy decisions are based on the latest educational research.

1 Brian Jackson, ‘Streaming: an education system in miniature’ London: RKP 1964.

2 Education Endowment Foundation, ‘Setting or Streaming’ [online]. Available at

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Chris Cook (3 September 2014) ‘Should England make setting and streaming compulsory?’ [blog post]. Available:

6 3 See: (13 December 2013) ‘OECD education report: subject results in full’, Daily Telegraph [online]. Available:

7 4 OECD (2013), PISA 2012 Results: What Makes a School Successful? – Resources, Policies and Practices (Volume IV), OECD Publishing. pp. 81-83.

8 Ibid. pp. 36 and 40.