The Education Endowment Foundation, and its associate the Sutton Trust, have produced a toolkit for teachers telling us all we need to know about research. Or rather, what it wants us to think. Its treatment of mixed ability teaching, where research evidence has been kept to a minumum and is subject to frequent misrepresentation, is straight out of the blob. Using techniques of "meta-analysis" - putting together the results of studies that may have flaws in themselves, in the hope that they will somehow produce a valid result is not science, but alchemy. It is an attempt to turn intellectual base metal into gold.
The accompanying video shows typical thinking from the educational establishment - don't discourage children by putting them in low sets in a way that damages their self belief. Never mind if this allows no attention to be paid to developing the skills they need in order to succeed. The important thing is that they should not lose faith in themselves. I heard a virtually identical argument from the head of a London converter academy three weeks ago - he wanted mixed ability teaching because he didn't want children to feel bad about themselves on the basis of their "attainment".
Most of the research on which this "meta-analysis" is based is so poorly constructed as to tell us nothing at all about the British school system. There has never been any research in to the effects of mixed ability on attainment in modern languages, as it would be highly likely to rock the progressive boat. Ireson et al summed up the situation in the Oxford Review of Education, 1999
Although there is now a large international literature on ability grouping, there has been
very little research in this country in recent years. There is a need for research taking
into account the limitations of the designs identi®ed above and the advances made in
understanding to date. In particular, we need a clearer picture of the relative effects of
grouping on both academic and non-academic outcomes for pupils. We also need a better understanding of the way in which grouping is related to the ethos of the school,
to teacher and pupil attitudes and to classroom teaching. Further research is needed on
the effectiveness of mixed ability and whole class teaching in relation to different curriculum subject matter.
Proponents of mixed ability teaching, who see it as an end in itself and as a political goal, will make sure this doesn't happen in the future, as they have in the past. In the meantime, the Education Endowment Foundation, like the rest of the blob, seems just to be using research to support a point of view. I can see no justification whatever in the evidence presented to support its view that the effect is negative, even if only mildly so. How exactly were the studies weighted, and for what reasons? We are not told.
The most important consideration, says Professor Steve Higgins, is the effect on disadvantaged pupils over time. If you're in a low-ability set, and that's your experience of education, it tends to stop learners believing that they can succeed. Professor Higgins' professional profile here. It shows no evidence of research in this field whatsoever. Not that that's any reason for him to hold back. I disagree with his principle. It is not a good idea to make children feel good about low attainment, unless this represents the best that each of them can achieve. If it is not, then making them feel good about the situation is a positive disservice, and turns schools into NEET factories.
The study of 45 schools he refers to took place in 1999. Why have we had no more in the last fifteen years? Some of the "research" I've seen on mixed ability v setting was carried out in Israel, over a short period, and on matters unrelated to school subjects. The "researcher" on that occasion did not tell his audience what the source was, and I only found this out by looking it up myself. But what can one expect from senior academics at the London Institute of Education?
The error of the Educational Endowment Foundation is to make a pronouncement on this issue when there is, to date, not enough evidence to support it. It should either produce a technical paper listing all studies it has considered, the weighting given to them, and its reasons, or withdraw the entry in its toolkit. This should be standard practice for all items in its toolkit - we need a technical paper, with full discussion of methodology and evidence base, to support each pronouncement. We know we can't trust everyone - why should we trust the EEF?
Note. A different section of the EEF website lists a study to be carried out into setting by King's College, London, to report in 2018. Some elements of this study, including "training in best practice in setting" appear questionable, but it will involve 120 schools and include comparison with mixed ability teaching. It would be sensible for the EEF to withhold judgement until it sees the results of this.
We also need to know exactly what the "training" will involve, and who will carry it out. It is highly likely to prejudice schools' normal pattern of setting to favour the purposes of the researchers. Where is there any research on "best practice in setting?" Ark and Harris are the only people with any serious experience of the issue.
And finally, the Sutton Trust's Director of Research and Communications, Conor Ryan, started as a journalist with the New Statesmand and Tribune, then worked as a press officer with the Inner London Education Authority, and became adviser first to David Blunkett, and then to no less than Blair himself. He has, in short, played a major part in New Labour's catastrophic educational policies from start to finish. The Times Higher Educational Supplement once described him as "more spin-doctor than policy adviser", and the Sutton Trust's Toolkit is exactly in this tradition. We need the truth, and not spin.