4 questions you need to ask about ability grouping

Beth Budden looks into research on how students are separated in school and considers what to do to mitigate the effects

Beth Budden

Different colours of pencils and pens in separate pots

If you are a secondary teacher, how many of your classes are grouped by prior attainment? What about those in primary: how many of your lessons see children grouped by the same measure?

It's standard practice in many schools so I would expect most readers would reply that the majority of their teaching is to grouped pupils. Whether it is right to teach this way has been fiercely debated for decades, but often missing from the discussion is a crucial point about social justice. 

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Research by Professor Becky Francis and her team at University College London (UCL), soon to be released in a new book, finds that a disproportionate number of disadvantaged and ethnic-minority pupils are allocated to lower-attaining groups. 

What’s more, the reasons for this are not always purely academic and threaten to perpetuate social injustices; the grouping practices in some schools could be restricting access to educational opportunities for certain pupils.

For example, the research finds that pupils are frequently misallocated to groups through poor-quality assessment. Once they have been allocated, they may have little opportunity to move groups and progress. 

In addition, researchers have found that teachers’ expectations of pupils are lower for students in lower-attaining groups, as are pupils’ perceptions of their own ability, which affects their identity as learners, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of low achievement. 

Teaching differences

At the same time, pupils in lower-attaining groups do not always experience the same pedagogy, curriculum or assessment approaches as higher-attaining groups, effectively creating a kind of academic apartheid within schools and blocking equal access to opportunities afforded to other pupils. 

Consequently, it appears that poor grouping practices in schools are holding many children back – and they are often the most disadvantaged.

Yet, while research concludes that setting and streaming has a negative effect on pupils in lower attainment groups, the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit shows within-class attainment grouping appears to have more positive results. 

However, the researchers at UCL conclude that the “development of support for good practice in student grouping, and effective pedagogy therein, is underdeveloped”.

Question practice

So where does this leave schools?

The overriding message from the research points schools towards ensuring that their grouping practices do not restrict progress for any pupils.

This requires schools to examine whether all pupils have equal access to the same rich curriculum and high-quality pedagogy, regardless of their level of attainment. 

They should ask:

  1. If pupils are grouped by attainment for lessons, or within class, are they assessed frequently and able to move groups if necessary?
  2. Are pupils in lower-attaining groups allocated the most experienced teachers who will be better placed to explain concepts more clearly, enabling pupils to catch up faster?
  3. Do teachers have high expectations for all pupils whatever their level of attainment?
  4. Are teachers aware of the effect of their own expectations on pupil progress in the first place?

To find out more, visit the UCL webpage on best practice in grouping. Here, schools can also pledge to reflect on attainment-grouping practices and download a research-based list of dos and don’ts for grouping.  

Becky Francis, Becky Taylor and Antonina Tereshchenko’s new book, Reassessing 'Ability' Grouping: Improving practice for equity and attainment, will be published this month

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