Research Myth 11: Ability Grouping

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Why do we bother with ability grouping?

Policy makers have repeatedly supported the practice and many parents back it, yet research regularly tells us that ability grouping has no academic benefits and there is a severe negative impact for students in the lowest groups.

Professor Rob Coe and colleagues at Durham University published ‘What makes great teaching?’

The research warns that many common practices can be harmful to learning and have no grounding in research including grouping students by ability. They note: “Evidence on the effects of grouping by ability, either by allocating students to different classes, or to within-class groups, suggests that it makes very little difference to learning outcomes” (Higgins et al, 2014).

Described as a zero-sum game, watch the Toolkit Talk video from the EEF’s website and see John Hattie’s highly pertinent comments in relation to equity.

Saiying Steenbergen-Hu et al (2017) have recently scrutinised thousands of studies and the results of almost 100 years of research on the effects of ability grouping and acceleration. They found  evidence of academic benefits of within-class grouping, cross-year grouping by subject, and grouping for the gifted, but didn’t find any benefit of between-class grouping and the results were consistent regardless of whether pupils were high-, medium-, or low-achievers.

The whole-class approach of maths mastery programmes has now started to a shift in thinking about ability groups. As Pete Boyd and Andy Ash (2017) have found, setting is in tension with the beliefs of a mastery approach and teachers are beginning to move away from ability groups as it is the old-way of doing things.

Mastery has made setting irrelevant. For a real insight into the politics of setting see Tim Dracup’s incredible blog. Ability groups is rubbish if you are in the bottom group.


5 thoughts on “Research Myth 11: Ability Grouping

  1. I was saddened when SLT set the pupils in a special needs school and put all the least able together which had a detrimental impact as they were no longer exposed to their peers with higher thinking skills and communication abilities… They knew they were in the bottom set and it showed in the drop in their self esteem and confidence

  2. As for me, sorting students by their academic performance is a very bad practice. I do not think that you need to beat people with good academic performance and with bad. It can negatively affect the progress of the latter, is not it? 🙂 I believe that proper competition and random distribution is the best option for any training practice. Let the students know about their good or bad results, this will serve them as an additional motivation, what do you think? 🙂

    1. In theory yes, but this does not seem to consider mixed attitude learning. Students with poor behaviour (not necessarily the least able!) will impede this.

  3. You know, it seems to me that in such situations, parents often need to have their heads on their shoulders. When they hear about the next super technique, they should at least read about it in detail before sending the child to study. I think that this approach can exclude more than 50% of cases when the teaching method was chosen incorrectly!

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