Back when I was a dewy-eyed NQT, children were routinely labelled as being lower, middle or higher ability from as early as five years old.
They were slotted into aptly-named groups, such as circles, squares, triangles, pentagons and hexagons. “The more sides and corners, the more brains,” an older teacher explained to me.
Needless to say, at every parents’ evening there were a string of middle-class parents wanting to know why their child was not a hexagon. Heaven forbid they were a circle: the group usually populated by children from underprivileged backgrounds, or with special educational needs.
It was also regular practice in many schools to assign the circles, or equivalent group, to work with the (usually unqualified) teaching assistant, while the other groups had the undivided attention of the teacher. What’s more, it was rare for these children to move groups, or have the opportunity to do the same tasks as other groups.
If the odds in life were already set against poor kids, schools certainly didn’t help to address the issue here.
Ability grouping is 'pedagogically unsavoury'
Setting by ability may not be as stark these days, but I still look back on this and cringe. While grouping pupils by ability in such an inflexible way is considered pedagogically unsavoury now, we are still faced with the problematic issue of children having different learning needs in any one lesson.
Yet while advocates of ability grouping might use this disparity to justify segregating children by ability, I would say this is the very reason why we should not be putting children into sets or groups.
Grouping children by presumed ability rests on the assumption that teachers know exactly what each child will achieve in a lesson. In reality this is rare, as completing tasks does not always equate with achievement.
In fact, the idea of the ‘omnipotent teacher’ has led to an approach to lesson design defined by passive pupils waiting to be moved on. This ignores the pupil as a rational, self-regulating agent who has the potential, if given the chance, to understand their own cognitive capacity better than anyone else; it also belies the ability for pupils to act as resources for one another.
The solution lies in reversing who controls the setting of tasks to pupils. A teacher’s role is to understand the curricular trajectory pupils need to travel along, but more emphasis should be placed on pupils themselves understanding where they are and what they can attempt next.
Children take charge
This relies on teachers making learning journeys and outcomes explicit. Pupils can then choose tasks to suit their present ability. This choice might be after direct instruction – or, indeed, pupils might opt for more instruction.
But sitting alongside peers who may be at different points in that journey lays the foundation for a powerful community of learning where pupils regulate themselves exactly according to their needs and support each other.
Having a concept explained to you by a peer is more powerful than we have realised in education and equally; articulating methods to others embed concepts more thoroughly.
This might sound resource-intensive and open to abuse by pupils, but children dislike being either bored or confused, so after they settle into this freedom, they will take charge of their learning.
With the current emphasis on mastery and teaching fewer things in greater depth, mapping out a longer series of tasks to take children through a Blooms-type journey from fluency to application, synthesis and evaluation requires no further resourcing and will last over a series of lessons.
The difference here is that the tasks are ranked and ordered, rather than the children. As a result of this approach, I have seen pupils’ self-esteem improve by not being seen to be on ‘that table’ or in ‘that group’.
I have watched large disparities in attainment lessen over time. Perhaps if all primary children had this experience from the start, secondary schools would be more inclined to adopt a less divisive approach too. Here’s hoping.
Beth Budden is assessment leader and head of lower key stage 2 at John Ball Primary School in London. She tweets @BethBudden