The government's own research has shattered one of the central planks of Tony Blair’s educational philosophy — that the way to raise standards in schools is by putting more pupils in sets.
An authoritative study showed no benefit in grouping by ability. It warned that less able children were more likely to fall behind in schools that used sets.
The report, written by academics at the universities of Cambridge, Brighton and Sussex and the Institute of Education, was published by the department for education and skills last week.
It came out two days after a government White Paper, described by Blair as a “pivotal moment” in his leadership, announced plans to encourage more schools to use sets.
More than a third of teaching for 11 to 14 year olds is organised into sets, including most English, science and foreign language classes.
In maths 90 percent of secondary school classes are divided by ability.
But the report challenged the White Paper’s claims that sets can “help to build motivation, social skills and independence”.
It said, “There are no significant differences between setting and mixed-ability teaching in overall attainment outcomes.”
These results were achieved despite the fact that the study found that higher sets were more likely to have better qualified teachers, while lower sets had more changes of teacher.
It said, “No one form of organisational grouping benefits all pupils. In ability-based grouping, pupils in lower groups are vulnerable to making less progress, becoming demotivated and developing anti-school attitudes.”
New figures show that the schools academy programme, which purports to help disadvantaged children, is leading to schools turning their back on poor pupils and “cherry-picking” those from middle class families.
The percentage of pupils from less affluent families has dropped at almost two thirds of academies, compared to the “failing” schools they replaced.
A study of 14 academies for which figures are available found that eight had reduced the intake of children eligible for free school meals, the standard indicator of deprivation.
The findings come less than a week after the government said all secondary schools in England would be given academy-style freedoms as part of education reforms.
Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the findings showed the academies were skewing their intake in an effort to improve results.
He said, “Instead of changing the school they are changing the children.
“The children who are likely to depress their test and exam results are unwanted.”