Grouping By Ability

Published as an interview, The Scotsman, Tuesday 7th May 2013

‘For more than 30 years, primary schools have been in the habit of grouping children according to ability. So, in almost every primary up and down the country we find spelling groups, reading groups and maths groups with children being placed by dint of their ‘ability’. Now seems the perfect time for educationalists to be saying that this system is out-dated, indefensible and entirely unfit for purpose.

Placing children in groups according to ability is all about making classroom management easy and nothing to do with educational gain for children. It is management at the expense of performance.

Grouping children by ability creates self-confidence issues for those that find themselves in the ‘bottom’ group, over confidence in those in the ‘top’ group and a middle group that is often ignored by the teacher because he or she is much more concerned with ensuring challenge for the brightest and support for the weakest.

The problems caused by this system are fairly obvious. No one child really gets what they as individuals need, groups tend to be formed by the end of Primary 1 and by Primary 7 these same groups are largely constituted of the same children – in other words, there is no fluidity within the groups. So, a child who finds themselves in the ‘bottom’ group early on recognises this, thinks they are not clever and their entire schooling is based on the knowledge that their teachers have labelled them as weak.

If we label children into ability groups we remove the opportunity for growth and the willingness to take risks with their answers. Children in bottom groups learn to have low expectations of themselves and soon learn to accept their position as unacademic.

The system is seriously flawed and is actually, in many ways, quite cruel. I am not suggesting all children are the same nor do I believe that children should be shielded from their own difficulties but I also believe that we should not be in the position of telling a child their ability is ‘fixed’ in some way. We need to move to a situation that is fluid and open and provides opportunity. That will cause teachers some classroom management difficulty but it will also reengage those who have been written off far too early.

The obvious answer is to stop transfer of academic information from one primary teacher to another so that each teacher makes their own minds up about grouping children if that is what they wish to do.

However, the debate needs to commence now before another generation is mishandled.’



Letters, The Scotsman

I am delighted that my recent comments on the disadvantages of grouping young children by ability has stimulated considerable debate about the pros and cons of such methodology. However, there have been an alarming number of quite ludicrous assertions about my opinion. It is incredibly important that education is discussed and that the merits or demerits of a system are debated. Scottish education is not the best in the world – far from it – and if we accept that basic premise then it is our absolute duty to discuss the factors that may be impinging on our performance. If we continue simply to spout the wisdom of the day and use jargon to give substance to our argument, then it feels as if we are no longer questioning that which we do, rather that we are simply going through the motions as if this is the only course to navigate.

A considerable number of research studies have taken place over recent years, both here in the UK and abroad in the USA. I cannot find one major research study that concludes that young children should be grouped by ability in primary schools. Indeed, quite the reverse. The best any research study can conclude about ability grouping is that it does not improve educational attainment in pupils. At worst, conclusions reached include social segregation being compounded, birth date being more relevant than potential ability and further, that grouping by ability, is often subjective and misinformed. Recent evidence also indicates that ability grouping, of itself, does not raise standards, and in some cases can actually lower them. It can also have detrimental effects on pupils’ personal and social development. One study, conducted by Nottingham University, back in 2002, actually concluded that the practice of group seating in primary schools was ‘an indefensible strategy’ and that the group seating “configuration is so normal and so well established in our schools, it is unusual to ask about its rationale or to question its appropriateness”.

It really is time that Scottish educationalists looked at the research with an open mind and considered whether we really are in the position of being simply the best. If our genuine response is that we are not, then the first thing we need to do is to study the research and conclude, fairly and honestly, that grouping children purely by ability can negatively affect self-esteem and levels of confidence and that this system also fails to raise educational attainment. Any other view is actually to ignore the evidence or to stick our heads in the sand and believe we are right without backing it up with anything other than the present day attitude that says “we do this just now so it must be right”. In the latest study, 99% of UK primary schools follow the system of grouping children by ability. In the Western world, Finland has the lowest percentage. Finland is currently at the top of OECD education league tables. Might there be a correlation? Is it not worth asking the question? Is it not worth debating the rationale? Judging by recent comments, it would appear that my concerns are seen as lacking in credibility. I would suggest that debating an issue is more important than worrying about from where it emanates.