Streaming pupils by ability in primary school widens the attainment gap

25 September 2014

The practice of “streaming” children by ability in the early years of primary school is widening the achievement gap between children from better-off homes and those facing disadvantage, according to findings from the Millennium Cohort Study.

One in six children in English schools is placed in ability streams – whereby pupils are taught in the same class, grouped by ability, across several subjects – while in Wales, the figure is even higher, at nearly one in five.

But while relatively high-attaining pupils do better if placed in a top stream than they would in schools which do not have streaming, those given a place in the middle or lower streams do worse than they would if there were no streaming, the research finds.

This means that streaming in primary schools would appear to increase the gap between higher- and lower-attaining pupils, and also to accentuate socio-economic differences, because more of those from poorer backgrounds tend on average to be in the lower streams.

The findings will be presented by Susan Hallam and Samantha Parsons, of the Institute of Education, University of London, at the annual conference of the British Educational Research Association today.
They cast fresh light on the setting and streaming debate, which was given added impetus earlier this month when the Conservative party was reported to be considering making it compulsory for secondary schools to place pupils in ability groups.

The study analysed the results and backgrounds of 2,544 year two pupils (aged six and seven) in England who took part in the Millennium Cohort Study, a major research exercise which is following the lives of 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000-2001.

Teachers were asked whether the child was placed in a stream, whereby pupils are placed in an ability group which is the same for most or all subjects, or not. The responses showed some 17 per cent of the sample were “streamed”: eight per cent in the top stream, five per cent in the middle and four per cent in the bottom. Statistical analyses were then carried out to find out whether pupils benefited or not from being placed in a stream.

The study compared the reading, maths and overall (the latter a combined indicator of reading, writing, maths and science) assessment results of year two pupils who had been streamed with results of those who had not been streamed, taking account prior ability at age five.

It found that a child being placed in a top stream enjoyed a significant positive benefit, in terms of reading, maths and overall results by the end of year two, compared to children who had not been streamed. But pupils placed in middle or bottom streams fared significantly worse in their reading and overall results than those who were not streamed, while those placed in the bottom sets also fared significantly worse than their non-streamed peers in maths.

The paper said the findings were in line with research which had found that pupils, of any given ability level, tended to do better if placed in a class with high-performing peers. It was therefore logical that, in a streamed system in which such classmates were only available to other high-performers, those already adjudged to be doing well enough to be placed in a top stream would tend to benefit disproportionately.

The paper concludes: “Streaming…advantages those who are already high attainers, disadvantaging those who are placed in middle or lower groups who are deprived of working with those who are more advanced.”
This, it adds, could have serious implications for any attempt to help children from poorer backgrounds do well at school, since Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) data also indicated that such children were disproportionately placed in lower streams.

Bottom stream pupils are more likely to have behaviour problems, to be from poor backgrounds and to have less educated mothers, the researchers have shown in the past.

The paper adds: “The data suggest that streaming undermines the attempts of governments to raise attainment for all children whatever their socio-economic status.

“Data from the MCS indicate that those of lower socio-economic status, as identified across a range of measures, tend to be disproportionately placed in lower streams, with consequences for attainment.
“Overall, the evidence indicates that streaming, particularly where it begins at a very early age, is likely to be counterproductive in reducing the attainment gap.”

“Does streaming have an impact on attainment at Key Stage 1 in the primary school?” is being presented to BERA by Professor Susan Hallam and Samantha Parsons, both of the Institute of Education, University of London, on Thursday, September 25th.

Further information from:

Warwick Mansell
BERA press officer
07813 204245

Notes for editors:

  1. Streaming is the practice of grouping children in the same year by general ability, with pupils taught in these groups for most or all lessons. Setting, by contrast, is where pupils are taught in different ability groups for different subjects, including some subjects which may not be taught in ability groups. This study only analysed the effects of streaming.
  2. This study is based on analysing the data of students in England. A separate analysis of Millennium Cohort Study records indicates that, when the MCS children were aged seven (in 2007-8), 19.5 per cent in Wales were streamed, while the figures for England, Scotland and Northern Ireland were 16.8 per cent, 15.6 per cent and 11.2 per cent respectively.
  3. Streaming in English key stage 1 classes appears to have increased dramatically in the past 20 years, with comparable data from the 1990s suggesting it was operating in only 2-3 per cent of schools then.
  4. The study was able to take into account a large range of background factors, including levels of parental education and the characteristics of the child’s school, to check whether it was streaming, or other aspects of the child’s background, which was making the difference to their results. All of the findings quoted in the main text of this release were significant as effects of streaming, even after taking into account pupils’ background characteristics.
  5. While pupils placed in middle streams fared significantly worse in their reading and overall results than those of similar prior ability who were not streamed, their maths results were not significantly different from those who were not streamed. However, those placed in the bottom streams fared worse than their non-streamed counterparts of similar prior ability in all of reading, maths and overall results.
  6. The 40th anniversary annual conference of the British Educational Research Association is being held at the Institute of Education, University of London from Tuesday, September 23rd to Thursday, September 25th. More than 600 research papers will be presented during the course of the conference. The conference programme can be accessed via the BERA website:

About BERA

The British Educational Research Association (BERA) is a member-led charity which exists to encourage educational research and its application for the improvement of practice and public benefit.
We strive to ensure the best quality evidence from educational research informs policy makers, practitioners and the general public and contributes to economic prosperity, cultural understanding, social cohesion and personal flourishing.