Pressure to achieve government aims may have turned around opinion on primary ability grouping, says Sue Hallam
Nearly two-thirds of English and Welsh primary schools appear to be adopting ability grouping in response to government pressure for higher educational standards.
The trend towards more setting, which was originally highlighted by school inspection reports, has been confirmed by a study we have carried out at the Institute of Education, University of London.
We found that 62 per cent of the 765 primaries surveyed had altered their grouping system since September 1997. Most said that they were trying to improve pupils' performance or were responding to the Government's literacy and numeracy hours.
The type of grouping adopted by schools largely depended on the size of the pupil roll and whether classes already included more than one year group (almost half of the schools fell into this category). But a significant minority of primary schools are now grouping pupils by ability rather than age even though their intake is big enough to permit single-year groups.
Nearly one in four schools (24 per cent) is now using mixed-age setting for maths (usually Years 5 and 6). In English, 17 per cent of Year 6 pupils are being taught in such groups.
Where classes covered only one year group, there was very little setting in the reception year, but setting gradually increased through to Year 6. This trend was most marked in maths where, by Year 2, 10 per cent of pupils were being set, as opposed to 4 per cent in English and 2 per cent in science.
By Year 6, 40 per cent of maths classes were set, 23 per cent of English and 5 per cent of science classes. In other curriculum subjects there was little setting.
Where classes included more than one year group, schools tended to adopt within-class ability grouping, although the trend towards increased setting as children progressed through school continued.
In maths, where children from Years 5 and 6 were combined, setting was adopted in 30 per cent of schools, within-class grouping by 50 per cent. This compared with 40 per cent setting and 42 per cent within-class grouping where there were no mixed-year group classes.
A minute proportion of the schools adopted streaming, teaching all subjects in separate ability groups. Overall, most ability grouping was within class.