SStreaming, it seems, is making a comeback in our schools. According to Educational Research Departmentmore and more schools are turning to this form of learning bundling in response to the learning gaps created by Covid.
The report, published in January, found limited evidence that streaming had been introduced by a number of schools in order to support underachieving students in the wake of the pandemic – staff normally agreeing with the practical or not.
Indeed, the report quotes a high school teacher saying, “We aired all of our age groups, which I don’t believe in, but I think in this case it was the right thing to do.”
The idea was to allow teachers to offer specific support to pupils who needed it – which would mean slightly larger classes at the ‘higher academic end’ and smaller classes at the ‘weaker end’ .
But what exactly is streaming and how does it differ from tuning?
According to Ed Baines, lecturer in educational psychology at the UCL Institute of Education, there is some confusion around the definition.
Streaming and tuning: what’s the difference?
“Streaming typically groups students based on a perception of their ‘ability’ across subjects, and with the aim of forming classes of students who have approximately the same general level of ability – and where that group has all their lessons together in all or most curriculum subjects,” he explains.
This is different from the framework, which places students in achievement groups for specific subjects.
Streaming is a controversial approach, Baines says, because it can overlook learning potential.
“Two students may achieve similar results on a test, but one may have greater development potential than the other – and this also makes assumptions about notions of general intelligence, which are problematic and unsupported by research literature,” he says.
Throughout education, there are many different interpretations of streaming, which can be selectively implemented. For example, a school might have streaming for the top performers and mixed-grade groups for everyone else – or just have a low-performing group, etc.
“It can become very difficult to establish an evidence base against all the varied approaches,” says Baines.
So what do we know? Is there evidence to suggest that widespread dissemination within a school can enhance achievement – especially for students who are struggling academically?
Becky Taylor is a senior researcher at the UCL Institute of Education, an expert in staging and dissemination, and co-author of the Do’s and Don’ts of Result Aggregation guide. She warns that, in fact, research has found the opposite: that streaming can limit progress.
“Some teachers say grouping students with others with similar ‘abilities’ means they can target teaching more specifically to support or challenge,” she says. “But for many years research has consistently shown that students from disadvantaged backgrounds … are more likely to be assigned to lower sets and streams.”
Researchers including Taylor have also found evidence that some ethnic minority groups and some girls are more likely to be misallocated into lower ability groups than their previous level would have predicted.
“We had a similar result for English, but in this case it was the boys who were placed in the lower groups,” says Taylor. “Another disadvantage is that lower groups tend to be assigned less experienced or less highly qualified teachers, and do not have access to the same rich curriculum taught to students in higher groups. As a result, students in less successful groups progress less than students in the higher series and streams.”
The pitfalls of streaming
Another big pitfall of streaming is that it “isn’t very specific,” she continues.
“Streaming is based on the assumption that students will perform at a similar level across subjects, but that may not be the case,” she says. “The framework, where students are grouped subject by subject, is more flexible, but there can still be problems when the grouping takes into account factors other than prior learning, because that is when students prejudices can creep in.”
Research also suggests that once students are in a particular group, it can be very difficult for them to get out of that group – even if they have made progress.
“It’s the same for tuning and streaming,” Taylor says. “Research suggests that teachers tend to overestimate the amount of movement between groups and we have found that in some schools the structure of groups and schedules can make this almost impossible.”
Rob Webster, director of research, innovation and education consultancy at the School of Education at the University of Portsmouth, agrees that, in practice, schools often fail to build flexibility into their delivery approach.
“If you’re going to be streaming based on achievement, you need to make sure you’re actually doing it – and that includes making sure you allow kids to hop on and off. [through the groups],” he says.
Another concern related to this rigidity is that the success group in which a child is classified will then often become his social group, since these are the children with whom he spends most of his time.
“So if you’re lower overall, you’re also socialized with that group, not just inside the class, but outside of it as well,” he says. “So you end up with a sort of unintended, but nonetheless quite palpable, social segregation. Children in the upper classes learn and socialize with each other, just like children in the lower classes.”
There are a number of reasons why this can be problematic, Webster says, particularly at the primary level, where children are at earlier developmental stages.
“An example I always come back to is speech and language,” he explains. “You will have children who have difficulty with speech and language learning and socializing with each other, so they may not have good speech and language patterns because of that.”
Schools considering going the streaming route should think about improving the social mix of different streams, he points out.
“Yes, we need to look at the porosity between groups on the basis of success, but we also need to be aware of the unintended establishment of different environments and different worlds where children end up being less exposed to different social groups. “, he says.
Another concern is that, in addition to not benefiting all students academically, streaming can lead to stigma, especially for those streaming in low-capacity groups.
“We found evidence that 7th graders felt really hopeless about being stuck in low groups and unable to progress, even when they were working really hard,” Taylor says. “Some of them were ready to give up and not try at all.”
Should schools avoid streaming?
Additionally, research shows that streaming can also have a negative effect on students with SEND.
Peter Blatchford, Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Education, co-authored a 2018 Institute of Education study, which illustrated that as a result of setting up or streaming, students SEND spent a lot of time with teaching assistants and separated from their teachers.
“In mainstream secondary schools, students with SEND were almost always assigned to low performing sets in all defined subjects and we were concerned about how, despite being in an ostensibly comprehensive school system, they were actually experiencing a sort of diffusion,” he explains.
For Blatchford, the “general problem” with streaming is that “it relies on a notion of fixed abilities or intelligence, which is now widely discredited, at least by psychology.”
“Development is far too fluid and changing to be fixed at age 11, and there is a body of psychology that is concerned with how students, once assigned to [lower-ability streams]can get stuck and align with how teachers seem to view their abilities,” he says. “This confirms the initial selection of teachers and is central to the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Does all of this mean that schools should avoid streaming at all costs, then?
While there are clearly issues with streaming, grade grouping remains prevalent – particularly in secondary schools – and Covid recovery presents a unique set of circumstances. Even schools that hadn’t used streaming before could consider implementing it now.
So how can these schools minimize the risks?
According to the Education Endowment Foundation, it’s “vital” that schools choosing to implement streaming consider how the approach will enable more effective instruction for all students, including those with grade levels lower.
“It is important to ensure that all students follow a challenging curriculum, including the lowest achievers,” says the EEF, adding that “ensuring flexibility in grouping arrangements and regular monitoring of learning will minimize the risk of misassignment for students learning at different rates.”