European Conference on Educational Research in Geneva
Study reveals one in four primaries now organises classes by overall ability
The trend for primary schools to set pupils by ability is leading to children being grouped largely by their social class, research has found.
The paper by Bath and London universities also revealed that in some schools pupils of similar ability were put into separate groups and then taught in very different ways.
The study looked at 12 Hampshire primary and junior schools and found that they contradicted "the popular notion of primary school grouping", with all mixed-ability classes with some grouping within the classes. Instead, three-quarters of the schools were setting pupils by ability in at least one subject. Of those, a third went further and streamed their pupils, putting them in classes according to their ability for all subjects.
The researchers say their findings match the national picture. "Since the introduction of high-stakes testing, and particularly since the introduction of the national strategies for numeracy and literacy in 1999, the use of grouping has increased and changed," they said. "With the national strategies' emphasis on whole-class teaching for at least part of the lessons, and the achievement of specific curriculum objectives, many schools have moved towards setting by ability."
At one school, the need to divide a cohort of 60 into two equal sets for numeracy meant 14 pupils of the same ability were split between two classes.
The researchers found that in these borderline cases it was more likely to be working class pupils who ended up in the lower set, resulting in major differences to the way they were taught.
"In the top set there is a strong focus on formal learning and children are constantly reminded not to call out or disrupt the learning of others," the report said. "The teacher of the bottom set allows a more exuberant and noisy environment and emphasises fun."
Teachers at this school admitted that some children who would do better in the upper set had been placed in the lower one because of the need to have two classes of roughly equal size.
At another school that used streaming, Year 4 pupils were split and placed, according to their ability, with either Year 3 or Year 5 pupils, in mixed-age classes they stayed in for all lessons.
Again the academics found that learning experiences were very different for the two streams. The less able were in "a more gentle and even 'therapeutic' environment" with teddies to dress up, a dolls' house and construction toys.
Such equipment was absent from the higher-ability class where one Year 4 pupil described the work as "quite hard". The study also found schools reinforcing the hierarchy of different ability groups. One named classes Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark and England in descending order. In another classroom, storage trays labelled with group names were placed in order, with the top group's tray at the top.
The academics concluded that future studies on the social mix of schools should look beyond their overall composition and also examine the impact of setting.
At Holy Trinity junior, Guildford, not one of the schools in the study, pupils are split by ability into four different classes for numeracy. But the setting does not extend any further. Richard Rowe, the head, said:
"Children can move forward much more quickly in that one area. But if you do it too much it is disheartening for pupils of lower ability."
'School socio-economic composition and pupil grouping in the primary school' by Ruth Lupton, Amelia Hempel-Jorgensen, Frances Castle, Ceri Brown and Hugh Lauder.