One in six UK children being taught in ability streams by age 7, study finds

5 June 2011

The controversial practice of teaching primary pupils in ability ‘streams’ rather than traditional classes is much more prevalent than is generally thought, a new study suggests.

Researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London, have found that one in six UK children is allocated to a stream — in which they receive all their lessons — by the age of seven. The highest incidence of streaming is in Wales, where one in five children (19.5%) is assigned to a stream by age 7. The equivalent rates for the other UK countries are England (17%), Scotland (16%) and Northern Ireland (11%).

The researchers, who looked at pupil grouping in almost 4,000 schools, also discovered that more than six in ten of the seven-year-olds who are streamed are further sub-divided into ability sets for maths and literacy lessons.

The study’s findings will dismay many educationists as previous research in primary and secondary schools has indicated that streaming does not raise standards, and in some cases can lower them. It can also have detrimental effects on pupils’ personal and social development.

“Given the current emphasis on social mobility it is surprising that so many children are streamed at such a young age,” said Professor Susan Hallam, the research project’s leader. “We know that once in a stream the opportunities for movement to another stream are limited so life chances are being determined at a very early age.”

The researchers’ findings are drawn from data gathered on 8,875 children taking part in the ongoing Millennium Cohort Study, which is managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education.

The new study by Professor Hallam and Samantha Parsons shows that girls are over-represented in middle streams, boys in bottom streams. Autumn born children are over-represented in top streams, summer born in middle and bottom streams. Like previous research, the study confirms that bottom stream pupils are more likely to have behaviour problems, be from poor backgrounds, and have less educated mothers. Pakistani and Bangladeshi children are most likely to attend schools that stream – 24 per cent compared with 16 per cent of white children – but ethnicity is not significantly related to stream placement, the researchers say.

Nearly 26 per cent of the Millennium Cohort children were set for both literacy and maths by age 7, and 11 per cent were set for either maths (8%) or literacy (3%). Sixty-three per cent of pupils were not set for either.

Setting at age 7 is most common in Northern Ireland where 39.5 per cent of seven-year-olds are set for literacy and 35 per cent for maths. The figures for the other countries are England (29% set for literacy; 35% maths), Wales (26%; 28.5%) and Scotland (24%; 27.5%).

Boys are more likely to be in the bottom set for literacy, but there is no significant gender difference for maths. Children in larger, mixed-sex, non-faith, non-fee paying schools are more likely to be set than pupils in small, independent, single-sex or faith schools. “Clearly, small schools have more limited scope for setting and streaming, and schools with a more homogenous intake of pupils have less need for setting or streaming,” the researchers point out.

They intend to follow the development of the Millennium Cohort children, who were born in 2000 and 2001, to establish whether their future educational outcomes are affected by their stream and set placements in the first years of primary school.

The study’s initial findings, which are based on the Millennium Cohort Study’s 2008 survey, are reported in the latest edition of Kohort, a Centre for Longitudinal Studies publication. A more extensive analysis of the data will be presented to the British Educational Research Association Conference at the Institute of Education in September.

The Millennium Cohort Study was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, whose funding has been supplemented by a consortium of government departments.

Further information from:

Meghan Rainsberry
(off) 020 7612 6530

David Budge
(off) 020 7911 5349
(mob) 07811 415362

Follow the Centre for Longitudinal Studies on Twitter

Notes for editors:

1. In total, 14,043 children took part in the age 7 Millennium Cohort Study survey. However, a teacher questionnaire was only returned for 8,875 (63%) of these children. Boys and the more socio-economically disadvantaged are under-represented in the reduced sample.

2. There is a long tradition of ability grouping in the UK. Streaming became widespread in larger primary schools throughout the 1940s and early1950s as pupils competed for grammar school places. However, it declined in popularity during the 1950s as research showed that it had no significant effect on overall attainment, and could have negative social consequences. By the 1970s, only about 20 per cent of schools large enough to stream pupils chose to do so. With the abolition of the 11-plus examination, mixed-ability primary classes became the norm. By the early 1990s streaming had virtually disappeared from primary schools. However, in 1993, all primary schools were encouraged to introduce setting by the Department for Education in England. The 1997 Government White Paper ‘Excellence in Schools’ also suggested that setting could help to raise standards.

3. The Millennium Cohort Study has been tracking children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through their early childhood and plans to follow them into adulthood. It covers such diverse topics as parenting; childcare; school choice; child behaviour and cognitive development; child and parental health; parents’ employment and education; income; housing; and neighbourhood. It is the first of the nationwide cohort studies to over-sample areas with high densities of ethnic minorities and large numbers of disadvantaged families. Surveys of the cohort were also carried out when the children were aged nine months, three years and five years. Data from the fieldwork for the age 7 survey of the Millennium Cohort are available from the UK Data Archive

4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. At any one time the ESRC supports more than 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

5. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute’s research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be “world leading”. The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its “high quality” initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students “to want to be outstanding teachers”. The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 19 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities.

Back to news listing

Media enquiries

Ryan Bradshaw
Senior Communications Officer

Phone: 020 7612 6516

Contact us

Centre for Longitudinal Studies
UCL Social Research Institute

20 Bedford Way
London WC1H 0AL


Follow us