Rampant ability grouping in primary is ‘necessary evil’

Testing pressures are forcing primary school teachers to group their pupils by ability, even when they don’t believe it will raise attainment.

Eighty-one per cent of reception teachers divide their classes into ability groups to teach phonics, new research from the National Education Union and UCL’s Institute of Education has found.

However, just 52 per cent of respondents believed that grouping by ability actually works, according to the report, entitled ‘Grouping in early years and key stage 1’, which surveyed 1,373 teachers and involved interviews with teacher focus groups at four schools.

In year 1, 78 per cent of teachers group their pupils in phonics, 72 per cent in maths and reading, and 68 per cent in literacy. By year 2, 72 per cent of teachers set their pupils for phonics, 71 per cent for reading, 66 per cent for maths and 60 per cent for literacy.

Alice Bradbury and Guy Roberts-Holmes, the study’s authors, said previous research has confirmed that grouping does not improve attainment overall, while mixed-ability teaching produces higher attainment overall.

Teachers feel conflicted about the use of grouping

Children are aware of which ability group they are in even when they are very young or when teachers attempt to disguise the hierarchy, the research found, which can have a negative impact on their mental health.

But almost three quarters of teachers in the survey (71 per cent) said that grouping by ability is “easier for the teacher”, and interviewees reported that it helps classroom management and highlights differentiation to senior leaders.

“Teachers feel conflicted about the use of grouping,” Roberts-Holmes said. “Though in their hearts they disagree with it, sometimes because they themselves had been grouped as a child and remember how it had affected their self-esteem and confidence, here they are as a teacher doing the same thing to children.”

One teacher participating in the research said grouping “benefits some children at the expense of others”.

“However, in a climate of results I also think it is a necessary means to an end in many circumstances,” they explained.

The researchers also warned that further tests for primary school pupils – such as the new baseline test for reception pupils – will only encourage further “labelling of children”.

The report recommends that policy experts “reflect upon the introduction of further assessment into primary schools, and consider the impact of grouping practices”.

Mary Bousted

Dr Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the National Education Union, said ability groups could have a “damaging effect” on children, with low-ability labels “becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy and achievement gaps widening between disadvantaged pupils and their peers”.

“The findings make for challenging reading, and we hope will open a discussion into the underlying drivers of these practices and how they can be mitigated,” she said. “High-stakes accountability testing and chronic workload are significant factors, which the National Education Union will work hard to address.”

Recent research from Teacher Tapp, an app used by 1,435 teachers that gathers information about their work, suggests the negative impact of exam pressure on primary teachers and pupils extends to secondary level.

Its data revealed that just nine per cent of secondary teachers feel key stage 2 test scores accurately reflected their pupils’ academic standards.

This mistrust is due to a feeling that pupils are overprepared and given “excessive support” during tests.

Secondary school teachers were asked if their pupils had told them any stories about their primary SATs exams, and around a third reported hearing about classes given extra time or teachers pointing out errors.

Meanwhile, questions to primary school teachers found that one in three had been asked to undertake some form of cheating during SATs.

Despite a lack of faith in the results of primary assessments, 64 per cent of secondary teachers said their school created ability sets by using KS2 data, raising further questions about the efficacy of ability groupings.

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One comment

  1. Time and again research (OECD,EEF shows setting has a negative effect. But teachers in England continue to do this because of tests. It’s counterproductive and unprofessional. Evil is still evil even when it’s sanitised as ‘necessary’.
    Perhaps the time is ripe for schools to boycott KS1 and KS2 tests for the sake of pupils and their education.