Evidence for Learning: Setting and streaming

Setting and streaming

No impact for very low cost based on very limited evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

Setting’ or streaming’ refer to a variety of approaches by which students with similar levels of current achievement are consistently grouped together for lessons.

  • Setting’ usually involves grouping students in a given year group into classes for specific subjects, such as mathematics and English, but not across the whole curriculum.
  • Streaming’ (also known as tracking’ in some countries) usually involves grouping students into classes for all or most of their lessons, so that a student is in the same group regardless of the subject being taught.

Students in different sets or streams sometimes follow a different curriculum, particularly when different national tests, different examination levels or different types of academic and vocational qualifications are available. The aim of setting and streaming approaches is to enable more effective and efficient teaching by narrowing the range of student achievement in a class.

Although these practices are sometimes described as ability grouping’, we refer here to achievement’ rather than ability’, as schools generally use measures of current performance, rather than measures of ability, to group students. Setting and streaming are combined in this Toolkit entry because these practices are similar in that they separate students into whole classes of similar levels of achievement.

For evidence on the impact of grouping students by achievement within classes, see within class achievement grouping. Other types of achievement grouping, such as grouping by achievement across year groups, and teaching high achieving students with older year groups, are not covered in the Toolkit as they are less commonly used.

In Australia, there is a strong culture of setting and streaming in schools, even though it has not been adequately shown to considerably improve student achievement, and some research suggests it can actually be detrimental.

1. The impact of setting and streaming is 0 months progress, on average, with lower impacts for lower achieving students. The evidence around setting and streaming is limited. Schools may consider other approaches to targeting learning effectively for students (e.g. small group or one to one tuition).

2. If schools choose to use setting and streaming it is vital to consider how the approach will enables more effective teaching for all students, including lower achieving students. For example, carefully considering how to allocate teachers appropriately to different sets.

3. It is important to ensure that all students follow a challenging curriculum, including lower achieving students. Ensuring flexibility in grouping arrangements, and regular monitoring of learning will minimise the risk of misallocation for students that learn at different rates.

4. Making informed choices about the allocation of students to groups is important. For example, there is some evidence of students being disadvantaged by their relative age within a year group or through subsconscious bias on the basis of race or class.

On average, students experiencing setting or streaming make similar progress to students taught in mixed achievement classes. The evidence suggests that setting and streaming has a small negative impact on lower achieving students, and a small positive impact for higher achieving students. There are exceptions to this pattern, with some variation between studies. Overall, the effects are negligible, and it appears that setting or streaming is not an effective way to raise achievement for most students.

Setting or streaming may also have an impact on wider outcomes such as confidence. Some studies from the broader evidence base conclude that grouping students on the basis of achievement may have longer term negative effects on the attitudes and engagement of lower achieving students, for example, by discouraging the belief that their achievement can be improved through effort.

One of the challenges of achievement grouping is ensuring that students are correctly allocated to groups. Some studies from the UK suggest that misallocation is a particular problem for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are at greater risk of misallocation to lower achieving groups, and the negative impact which can accompany this.

In Australia, there is a strong culture of setting and streaming in schools, even though it has not been adequately shown to considerably improve student achievement, and some research suggests it can actually be detrimental. In Australian schools, the most common practice is setting – commonly in literacy and numeracy classes – without explicit targeting and rearranging. An Australian study that examined the effect of streaming for primary students in New South Wales found a zero to negative effect on student outcomes. 

  • Similar effects have been found for both primary and secondary age students.

  • The impact appears similar for reading, mathematics and science.

  • In some development contexts the approach Teaching at the right level (TaRL) has become popular, which has some crossover with setting or streaming. The outcomes of these studies tend to be higher than the overall average. This might be explained by the greater variation in student scores in these contexts and by the other elements of the TaRL program.

Evidence suggests that disadvantaged students may suffer from lower teacher expectations which increases their chances of being placed in lower sets or streams. Students in lower sets and streams are more likely to be taught by less experienced and qualified teachers, and often develop a lack of confidence in their own capabilities.

Setting or streaming may construct negative self-fulling prophecies for disadvantaged students, whereby their chances of improving and experiencing success is hampered by the combination of lower teacher expectations and between class stratification.

There is also some evidence that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be misallocated to lower sets.

Setting and streaming aims to improve student outcomes by ensuring that class content is well-targeted to student needs, and that students in lower achieving groups get appropriate support. Given the weakness of the evidence base, strong implementation will consider how to mitigate the potential risks of setting and streaming for lower achieving students, it might include:

  • Careful consideration of teacher allocation between sets to ensure that lower achieving students receive high quality teaching.
  • The use of continued monitoring to ensure that students are in appropriate sets and are not misallocated.
  • Flexible practices that allow students to move between sets.

Approaches to setting and streaming are typically delivered over the course of an academic year, with grouping often being informed by students’ outcomes from the previous school year. Some schools may however move students between sets or streams during the school year.

Moving either from mixed achievement grouping to setting and streaming or in the other direction is a substantial change that will need a careful implementation process. When introducing new approaches, schools should consider implementation. For more information see Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation.

Grouping by achievement is an organisational strategy which has few, if any, financial costs associated with it. Additional resources may be needed to support different groups. Overall the costs are estimated as very low.

The security of the evidence around setting and streaming is rated as very limited. 58 studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria for the Toolkit. The topic lost padlocks because:

  • A small percentage of studies that have taken place recently. This might mean that the research is not representative of current practice.
  • A large percentage of the studies are not randomised controlled trials. While other study designs still give important information about effectiveness of approaches, there is a risk that results are influenced by unknown factors that are not part of the intervention.

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strength
Number of studies58
Review last updatedJuly 2021