Research corner

28th November 2014 at 00:00

`Stratified at seven: in-class ability grouping and the relative age effect' by Campbell, T British Educational Research Journal, 405: 749-771, October 2014 (Wiley)

Setting children in ability groups at primary school may exacerbate existing biases towards autumn-born children.

That is the assertion of new research from the University of London's Institute of Education, which used data from more than 5,000 children from England. The data was taken from the Millennium Cohort Study - a long-term research project following the educational progress of about 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000-01.

Previous research looked at teachers' predisposition to classify autumn-born children as more able; this research was designed to build on that by looking at whether this tendency became more pronounced when children were placed into in-class ability groups.

Researchers found that ungrouped autumn-born pupils were already more likely to be considered to be "above average" than their summer-born peers. When grouped, there was a significant positive impact on teachers' perceptions of them. Although grouping had only a minimal effect on teachers' perception of summer-born students, it was a negative one.

Because of this, the study found, there is a larger gap between the perceived ability of autumn- and summer-born pupils when they are placed into in-class ability groups. This, the author says, goes against the government's view that ability grouping is positive for students. "The policy and practice of in-class ability grouping early in primary school may, in fact, be detrimental to mobility," she argues.

Sarah Cunnane

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