Ability grouping was most likely to happen in English and maths, as recommended in government strategies. In most instances, however, grouping seemed to provide little more than convenient seating arrangements, researchers said.
The study also said that grouping by ability can be to the disadvantage of low-ability children, especially boys, who are less able to elaborate their ideas. Such groups were also less likely to work with teachers. Children deemed to be of low ability would spend almost half of any contact time they had with adults with a classroom assistant while high-ability groups had more contact time with teachers. Groups largely consisted of four to six children, but most of the time pupils worked as individuals sitting in groups, which could lead to them being distracted by chattering.
The report, from the Institute of Education at London University and Brighton University, said that the researchers did not want their findings to be interpreted as a criticism of teachers, and pointed out that initial teacher training concentrated on "curriculum know-ledge" rather than "pedagogy".
A second study into the way pupils are seated, also by researchers from London's Institute of Education, found that grouping might limit learning as children are not often moved between groups. This could mean that those who had been put into the wrong groups might be trying to cope with unsuitable work.
'Pupil Groupings in Primary School Classrooms: Sites for Learning and Social Pedagogy?' By Peter Kutnick et al. Also, 'Within-class Ability Grouping: Placement of Pupils in Groups and Self-concept.' By Helen Macintyre and Judith Ireson. Both articles in British Educational Research Journal, 28, 2, 2002