This blog, written by Melanie Saunders Chief Education Advisor at HPL, explores the challenges of student grouping and offers suggestions on how to effectively implement it.

You can download the PDF version here

 Student Grouping – the issue

Schools arrange their students into groups – it makes teaching manageable. The challenge though, is to re-examine our rationale for how we group and that cuts to the heart of what we believe about student capability. 

Ability streaming and mixed-ability teaching have moved in and out of fashion since 1960s.  As with so much else relating to education in England, the choice of ability grouping is, at least partly, political. comprehensive education was introduced by a Labour government in 1965 and, even now, there is a view that well-meaning, liberal teachers shy away from placing kids in "faster" and "slower" classes in an effort to create social equality at the expense of rigour. Studies on mixed ability Vs ability streaming show that both work but, unsurprisingly, the efficacy of any type of grouping relies on the quality of teaching. 

In the face of a lack of any form of definitive evidence, teachers, and school leaders, fall into two camps based upon belief. 

“It’s better for the children (to be set) because otherwise your more able children get bored and frustrated, and your less able children just get left behind. So ability grouping means that you can focus your attention,” one school leader said.

The trouble with this response is threefold. 

Firstly, it places at its core the convenience of teachers rather than the benefit of students. It is undoubtedly easier to plan material for classes where children are all working at a similar level but is it better for children? Whilst the comment above suggests that pupil progress is the rationale for setting the final sentence reveals that, underlying this, is an anxiety about the capacity of the teacher.

Secondly, teachers are very much aware of the psychological impact of ability grouping, one classroom teacher from the same study said, “Ability groups can be highly limiting and lead to disruptive behaviour, especially at the lower ability end,” 

This is an issue which increases in impact as students get older and their perception of their own ability and likelihood of success is reinforced year-on-year with a related impact upon behaviour, attitude and outcomes.

Thirdly, grouping, whilst apparently based upon perceived ability, actually takes into account a range of different factors which unavoidably influence the decisions made by teachers. These include behaviour, attitude, gender balance and classroom management. Previous research has found that disadvantaged children are more likely to be in lower sets and have less experienced or qualified staff. Boys and children with special needs are also more likely to be placed in lower-ability groups.

This binary choice, to group by ability or not, becomes entirely void, once we accept that intelligence can be grown, we can teach students to be successful and there is no such thing as inherent “ability.” 

What we have, in fact been doing, is grouping students based upon their current level of performance - then embedding that level through the opportunities and level of challenge we offer.

What is the answer?

The alternative may appear to be mixed-ability grouping but this is also fraught with challenge. Most school leaders recognise that classes where children are working at different levels require high-quality planning and can present management and organisational difficulties for inexperienced teachers. 

The default of “teaching to the middle” helps no-one and is demotivating and unsatisfactory. Furthermore, parents are often hard to convince, particularly if they feel their child is more able and being “held back” or struggling in need on special support. The popular press characterise this as, at best well-meaning but misguided and, at worst, anti-accountability and dumbing down!

Between 1979 and 1993 successive Conservative governments captured all the “good” words such as “traditional,” “excellence” “quality” “standards,” “discipline,” “choice” and “autonomy” and counter-posed these with “bad” words such as “equality,” “expertise,” “bureaucrats,” “educationalists” and “progressive.” 

“They loathe what they describe as the permissive society, trendy teachers, loony left staffrooms, the false cult of egalitarianism, mixed ability teaching, collaborative learning and democratic classrooms. Terms such as “trendy,” “permissive” and “caring,” are applied as terms of abuse.”

Both approaches to pupil grouping are, however, based on the same assumption, that students arrive with different abilities. Both approaches are also intended to help students to do as well “as they are able.” 

If “A key breakthrough in our knowledge of the brain in this century is that brain structure and function is not fixed and unchangeable – but is exquisitely plastic, moldable by experience throughout life” then we must conclude that notions of ability are an irrelevant factor in grouping children. However, it is also unsustainable to pretend that students are not operating at different levels and that all teachers are able to manage this variation in their day-to-day teaching.

For most students we know two things:-

  1. Their current level of performance
  2. The level of performance they need to reach by the end of the current educational stage

If, when grouping, we can forget about ability and talk about performance, this changes everything. It isn’t just semantics. Ability carries the assumption that this is an immutable characteristic of a child that teaching can only serve to mitigate. Performance, on the other hand, is a temporary state which teaching is designed to improve.

We can compare this to the change in the way we now view student behaviour. In the past teachers talked about “naughty children,” as if their behaviour was a manifestation of something intrinsically bad. We have moved beyond that and now talk about “behaviour” which is inappropriate or unacceptable. It is the behaviour we don’t like, and the chid can change that – with the right support.

Why then, is it still acceptable to talk about “low ability?” What we are seeing is performance which is below the level we expect and below the level it needs to be. This performance isn’t a manifestation of something intrinsically wrong with the child, it is something the child can change – with the right support.

Intelligent student grouping – how to proceed. 

I would encourage schools to reflect upon their student grouping policy and practice with the following in mind:-

The assumption that ability is not known and potential must, therefore, be assumed to be limitless – and we need to stop talking about both of these as unchangeable parts of a child’s genetic make-up. 

If we chose to group by current performance, this should be done in the knowledge that this is performance in this subject at this time, it can be improved with the right opportunities and practice and has nothing to do with ability.

If students are grouped with others at a similar level of current performance, this must be done in the expectation that this level of performance can and will be improved as students acquire the right knowledge and skills.

That different “flight paths” based on current performance are limiting and irrelevant if we assume that competence, expertise and mastery are a continuum and can be grown in students with the right teaching. 

That the aim is not just to make progress but to reach, at least, the required level of competence by the end of this educational phase and we need to group, and to teach, with this expectation. 

 1 Beyond Communitarianism: Citizenship, Politics and Education edited by J. Demaine, H. Entwistle

 2 Wraga, Duncan, Jacobs, Helt & Church, 2006

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