‘Grouping primary children by ability is indefensible’

Primary school ability groups are 'outdated and entirely unfit for purpose', says headteacher Rod Grant

‘Grouping primary children by ability is indefensible’

For more than 30 years, primary schools have been in the habit of grouping children according to ability. So, in almost every primary up and down the country, we find spelling groups, reading groups and maths groups with children being placed by dint of their “ability”. This system is outdated, indefensible and entirely unfit for purpose.

Placing children in groups according to ability is all about making classroom management easy and nothing to do with educational gain for children. It is management at the expense of performance.

Grouping children by ability creates self-confidence issues for those who find themselves in the “bottom” group, over-confidence in those in the “top” group and a middle group that is often ignored by the teacher because he or she is much more concerned with ensuring challenge for the brightest and support for the weakest.

The problems caused by this system are fairly obvious. No one child really gets what they, as an individual, needs. Groups tend to be formed by the end of Primary 1 (the first year of primary school in Scotland) and by Primary 7 these same groups are largely constituted of the same children – in other words, there is no fluidity within the groups. So, a child who finds themselves in the “bottom” group early on recognises this, thinks they are not clever and their entire schooling is based on the knowledge that their teachers have labelled them as weak.

Labelling children by ability

If we label children into ability groups, we remove the opportunity for growth and the willingness to take risks with their answers. Children in bottom groups learn to have low expectations of themselves and soon learn to accept their position as non-academic.

A considerable number of research studies have taken place over recent years, both here in the UK and abroad in the USA. I cannot find one major research study that concludes that young children should be grouped by ability in primary schools. Indeed, quite the reverse. The best any research study can conclude about ability grouping is that it does not improve educational attainment in pupils. At worst, conclusions reached include social segregation being compounded, birth date being more relevant than potential ability and, further, that grouping by ability is often subjective and misinformed. Indeed, at a time when the attainment gap continues to persist, we should be questioning the rationale for ability groups more than ever.

Recent evidence also indicates that ability grouping, of itself, does not raise standards, and in some cases can actually lower them. It can also have detrimental effects on pupils’ personal and social development. One study, conducted by University of Nottingham, back in 2002, actually concluded that the practice of group seating in primary schools was “an indefensible strategy” and that the group seating “configuration is so normal and so well established in our schools, it is unusual to ask about its rationale or to question its appropriateness”.

The system is seriously flawed and is actually, in many ways, quite cruel. I am not suggesting all children are the same, nor do I believe that children should be shielded from their own difficulties – but I do believe that we should not be in the position of telling a child their ability is “fixed” in some way. We need to move to a situation that is fluid and open and provides opportunity.

That will cause teachers some classroom management difficulty – but it will also re-engage those who have been written off far too early.

Rod Grant is headmaster at Clifton Hall School in Edinburgh. This article was originally published as a blog post on the school website

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