An inconvenient truth – grouping pupils by ability is iniquitous

My youngest daughter loved school once, especially topic work. In Year 2, the Amazon Rainforest became an all-consuming passion. She would arrive home bursting with facts about the wondrous world beneath the canopy – not just the flying, jumping, swinging creatures but also the stiller delights of the forest floor. I would discover shrivelled mushrooms, lovingly wrapped in tissue paper, hidden inside her sock drawer.

Then we moved onto ‘Rocks and Minerals’; stones and fossils were added to the fungi collection and no visitor was allowed to leave our home without at least an entry level understanding of their birth stone. Peacock ore was her favourite rock, sorry ‘mineral’ (I’ve always been a disappointing parent on the recall of scientific facts front); extra special because, “It doesn’t need any polishing; it has completely natural beauty.”

Josie ollecting fragments of Blue John
Josie collecting fragments of Blue John

There were other enthusiasms – Florence Nightingale, the mummified Pharaohs, volcanoes – but then last year all talk about topic work stopped. “We’re doing rivers and oceans. They’re boring.”

Boring? Josie, bored by a topic? Bored by something as mind-blowing as the undiscovered world of our oceans? Something had to be wrong.

The clue was a dictionary on her bedside table – where the Collins ‘Rocks and Minerals Pocket Guide’ used to be. Josie explained her strategy. “I’m trying to learn some new words every night to make me clever.”


“To make me more clever. I’m one of the dumbest in my class.” Her eyes brimming with tears.

It emerged that she had been assigned to a ‘bottom table’ and was being given ‘easy work’. Sobbing, she described an experience of utter humiliation. The class was learning about the human ear. Despite her mortified bottom table state of mind, Josie was excited by the prospect of the activity, which was to draw and label an ear. She was excited, that is, until her table was given the ‘easy’ task – to cut out the key words and to stick them onto a pre-drawn version. So Josie and her group snipped and stuck away as the rest of the class sketched and wrote.

It is difficult to convince your child that ‘bottom table’ does not mean stupid; that not everything that makes you clever is actually measured in school; that learning isn’t a race and people progress at different rates; that maybe ‘test week’ went badly this time; that kindness is more important than cleverness anyway; that you are the most curious, funny, articulate nine-year-old that anyone could ever wish to meet. Actually it’s not difficult. It’s impossible.

The argument in favour of ranking learners by table within the primary classroom is of course that progress is optimised when children are organised in this way. A ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching can never work and pupils must have differentiated tasks and the opportunity to work with others of similar ability. Another justification is that all children cannot be equally good at everything and this is one of those brutal lessons in life that simply have to be swallowed. A gentler version of the same line is that children have different talents – Josie’s spelling sucks but she’s a wonderful artist (a pity about that ear). ‘Fluid’ groupings reflect this and self-esteem is preserved.

If only this were true. If only any of the arguments outlined above were valid and the end, excellent educational outcomes for all, really was justified by the means. But more than thirty years of research into ability grouping consistently tells us that this is not the case. In fact, the very opposite applies. If you are in a low set (secondary) or part of a low ability group (primary) the odds of you making the same progress as everyone else are stacked against you. According to the Education Endowment Foundation, a charity set up to break the link between family income and educational achievement, you can expect to fall behind by a rate of about two months a year.

This is not hard to believe. You don’t have to be a child psychologist to understand the EEF’s explanation “that routine setting or streaming arrangements undermine low-attainers’ confidence and discourage the belief that attainment can be improved through effort.”

Making up the ranks of the ‘low attaining’ groups are predominantly summer born children, children from poorer families and those with SEND (Josie). For different and complex reasons, they begin school with some catching up to do. But of course the result of grouping by perceived ability (forget potential) is that mostly they do not catch up. Mostly they fall further and further behind.

In a speech to the Educational Reform Summit, Michael Gove described the achievement gap as ‘scandalous’ and declared closing that his ‘personal crusade’. Since then, it has widened. Policy-makers need to be looking outwards, at what has happened in countries that have solved our enduring equality of opportunity problem. Finland now ranks first amongst all OECD nations in the PISA (Programme of International Student Assessments) programme. It had a huge achievement gap to contend with in the 1970s, closely correlated, as always, to social-economic status. Despite a sharp increase of immigrants with no or little education, that gap is now one of the smallest in the world.

This can’t be attributed to a single factor because the whole of the Finnish system has been radically reformed over the past thirty years. However, one of the first measures taken to promote equal educational opportunity was the elimination of ability grouping based on test scores. Then the tests themselves were abolished. Finns take their first exam at the age of sixteen, and there are no league tables. Here, on the other hand, the DfE has introduced news tests for primary school children, including one for four and five-year-olds. Whilst in Finland children don’t even begin school until they’re seven, in the UK, according to a recent study, 97% of our seven-year-olds are already learning in ability groups.

We had plenty of ‘bold reform’ under Gove, what’s urgently needed now is some that is also evidence-based. Otherwise our inequitable system, the most “segregated and stratified” in the developed world, to return to Gove’s speech, will fail another generation of disadvantaged young people. Pupil premium to paper over the cracks with free revision guides is not the answer.

Of course, mixed ability teaching is no fix-all either, if only the solution were that simple. It is, however, one of the nettles that must be grasped if we are really serious about tackling educational disadvantage. We should think creatively about it, invest in training, share pedagogy that is proven to work. Because nothing is more important to a child’s progress than self-belief. Sorting children into groups based on perceived ability might be convenient but it erodes that self-belief and stifles potential. Too often, a dismal self-fulfilling prophecy is triggered and life-chances are compromised. Josie’s confidence may return in time, but I don’t think she will ever fully recover from the day they learned about the ear.


Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

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