Ability Groups Are Damaging, Ineffective And Chaotic

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Nick Burton

Since qualifying as a Primary Teacher, Nick has held a number of teaching positions in the UK. He recently moved to Scotland and is currently working in Midlothian. He loves finding new ways to deliver lessons and use educational spaces in ways that best suit...
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Are ability groups a form of segregation?

Shortly after I first stepped foot into a classroom, I felt like there was something wrong with grouping my kids by ability. In my mind, ability groups weren’t just counter-intuitive, they felt like a form of segregation.

I’ll explain why. Let’s say in maths, ‘Joe’ is near the top of the class at shape, space and measure but in every other element he is achieving below average.

Under the grouping system, Joe may be put into a low ability group for all of maths.

Consequently, he is suitably challenged in most areas but totally patronised when it comes to shape. This is wrong! Joe didn’t spend his entire early life hearing cries of “Isn’t he just an adorable low ability baby!”

Ability Groups Are Related To Low Confidence

Children are acutely aware that their teacher groups them by ability. They know and ‘feel’ what group they belong to.

I’d bet almost every child from the age of eight knows if they are on the ‘clever table’ or the ‘thick table’. This is despite the cunning table name trickery many teachers deploy in order to mask the reality. Children aren’t that easily hoodwinked.

As a supply teacher, getting to know the class I was teaching was always my first priority. In every school I have taught in, I have seen a pattern between a child’s ability group and their levels of motivation. That is, the higher the ability, the more confidence, resilience and motivation you seem to see.

So, is a child’s lack of confidence, motivation and resilience a result of being put in a low ability group?

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Perhaps most importantly though, is something I have realised more recently.

Ability groupings reinforce a child’s status as a low ability child. By sitting in one group, the low ability children not only suffer a loss in confidence, motivation and resilience, they are almost completely insulated from the higher achievers. We are setting a large proportion of our children up to fail.

Think about it – if  a teacher only observes poor practice, he or she won’t progress as fast as they would if they were regularly seeing exciting new ideas and excellent practice. So why are we doing exactly that with our youngsters?

In order to progress, a child has to see progress. To learn to be resilient, a child has to see resilience. In life, we aren’t insulated from success – we regularly stare it in the face.

Something Had To Change

I decided to be the change I wanted to see, so I tried to address the problem in my own practice. Thinking back to one of the lessons I’d observed in university, I remembered I had once seen a lesson in which the children were able to choose the level of difficulty work they thought would challenge them – either Bronze, Silver or Gold. I now understand this differentiation technique as the ‘Chilli Challenge‘.

The atmosphere in the class had been turned on its head. I saw support, communication and, above all, quality, enjoyable learning taking place.

Two friends, who had previously been separated by ability, had helped each other answer the questions. The class had been totally transformed. The next lesson went back to the grouping format. Normality resumed.

My Solution To Ability Groups 

I have vowed never to use ability groups again. In my classroom, I use the challenge format every single day. There is no limit to what a child can achieve. A child can excel in one area of a subject, choosing all of the most complex challenges and have no trouble asking for, and receiving, encouragement and support from their teacher and peers.

Children sit in mixed ability pairs for maths and literacy and I teach whole-class guided reading. As for everything else, there are no groups, no seating plans and, most importantly, no limits to what a child can achieve.

Though I never referred to my approach as ‘growth mindset’, it is clear that this approach has positive effects on morale, attainment and confidence.

By adopting the ‘Chilli Challenge’, teachers can hand responsibility for learning to the children and watch them flourish.

11 thoughts on “Ability Groups Are Damaging, Ineffective And Chaotic

  1. I agree. We now do the challenge system at our school and it works well. Initially a few children just chose the easy option, but after some encouragement the system works really well. Excellent article.

    1. Thank you Judith. I am sure you are a credit to your school! I’d love to meet one of the teachers who introduced the challenge system into your school, they seem to know their stuff!

      All jokes aside, thanks for the positive feedback.


  2. I understand within a set but across a larger sample size (say a year of 200+) the gaps between these students become less pronounced. As much as I would want all students to access the challenges of Sine and Cosine rules, a foundation tier student is not going to need this for their assessment.

    Mixed ability classes do have a place a times however the structure of assessment for students at GCSE level means a different focus for students at different levels. Yes little Billy might be exceptional at shape, but this forms around 1/6 of his overall learning content. If he were to be put in a mixed ability class he is not going to access 5/6 of the content others may and this can have negative effect on progress.


    1. Hi Simon, in terms of little Billy, perhaps identifying ‘shape’ within a targeted group may benefit Billy in this instance, but could this specific targeting be guaranteed in every lesson? For every student?

      I suspect setting is a by-product of a standardised/testing culture and current over-assessment – perhaps, leading to inaccuracy because some teachers could be making up to 100,000 data entry decisions on SIMs every academic year – leading to weaker accuracy in assessment? I would highly recommend reading The End of Average by Todd L Rose – it will shift your thinking.

      There is some interesting research here about labelling students: https://www.teachertoolkit.co.uk/2017/10/22/lost-middle/

    2. Maybe he should be labelled belittled Billy?

      Are you teaching children or coaching children to pass a test. They are distant relatives.

    3. Simon,

      As I wrote this article, I must admit I didn’t have assessment in the forefront of my mind. As I am a primary school teacher in a less affluent area currently, my principle task is trying to change children’s perception of school. The growth mindset has worked wonders with the group of kids I am currently teaching, as they all know that they can access the hardest level of work within a lesson if they understand the concept being taught. Many of them do not, and choose the easiest level of work consistently, which is usually based around a prerequisite skill useful for accessing the higher level work in future. They are not insulated from – they may even choose to sit next to – the children with excellent attitudes to learning who would otherwise be in a different room full of identically able children.

      I am really starting to make the connection in my practice between pupil confidence and results. Though I disagree in large parts with the idea that a teacher’s job is to help their child to pass an exam, I do believe that there is something in empowering children and allowing them to observe children with good attitudes to learning. Even if it may not help them directly, it would provide the skills necessary to succeed, not just in school but in life.

      Many people believe good scores on tests create a confident child, but I am beginning to see that confident children score better on tests.

  3. Everything in moderation is what I say! I mean if we take guided reading as an example, the text must suit the ability of the reader otherwise they can’t engage with the session.

    In maths- It was my thinking that in the primary setting most teachers only grouped for number. Even if this wasn’t the case, surly by knowing that little Billy was good at shape- the teacher might think to give him more a challenging task?

    As for Bronze, Silver and Gold and choosing your level. How is this different to getting away from banding? I find it strange to think that the majority of teachers don’t have fluids groups. Are all children best placed to choose their own work?

    Being able to accept your level is the corner stone of ‘resilience’. If we compared maths performance to the performance on a sports day race. Some children are going to be placed and the others aren’t . Most of the children know who the fast runners are but it doesn’t stop them competing. My point is- you won’t have first, second and third if fourth, fifth and sixth don’t compete. #aspire

  4. As a Foundation Phase teacher in Wales with three age groups in one class, I admit that I group children by ability. My justification for doing so is the difference in content and what I want the children to achieve. Whilst my focus for Y2 children might be using using conjunctions and accurate punctuation, I might be teaching reception children what a full stop is (to use an incredibly mundane example). I am not arguing that the idea of children choosing their own level of challenge can’t work in my circumstances, but in a lot of instances – particularly literacy and maths – I’m struggling to see what it might look like with the inherent difference in ability between age groups. Where I can see this working is in our independent work, and I plan to implement it immediately. Currently children are in groups and we generate loads of ideas based that the children want to do based on a topic, story or some other stimulus. I then take those ideas and create four challenges for four different groups. These are then given to the children. After reading this, I will ask the children to choose the challenges they want to do from a list; some of which will be rated using a ‘chilli challenge’ like scale. Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. I no longer ability group and often the ‘lower attaining’ children surprise me by how well they do in our chilli challenges. I feel that I know my class much better than before, including those who are more able but needs a push sometimes to challenge themselves.

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