Lee Elliot Major reviews the evidence on ability grouping in schools

It is one of those education questions guaranteed to split opinion. Should teachers group pupils by academic ability? When speaking on this contentious topic during our first tour of schools presenting the then Pupil Premium Toolkit in 2011, I would carefully tip-toe through our summary of the research evidence, desperately trying to give a balanced, objective view.

Without fail, however, it would spark a heated debate among the assembled ranks of head teachers. For every passionate believer in mixed ability teaching there was an equally convinced advocate of academic setting. As ever, the academic evidence could not settle these apparently irreconcilable views. I would respond by citing our famous Bananarama principle: it’s not what you do, but how you do it that actually counts!

The question has resurfaced in my mind in recent weeks. The Trust announced the expansion of its Sutton Scholars programme, where we will work with four prestigious universities to improve the educational prospects of hundreds of bright teenagers in challenging schools. The programme is responding to growing concerns that many academically able pupils from poorer backgrounds do not get the stretch and challenge they deserve. This week England’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw put it more bluntly: many secondary schools, he claims, are failing bright pupils.

Meanwhile in the secondary state school in London where I serve as a governor, we are trying to ensure that our Pupil Premium funding for disadvantaged pupils supports children across the entire ability range: not just helping pupils cross the C grade boundary but converting B grades into As. Children at the school are in mixed ability classes but are also grouped by ability within classes, between classes at different ages and in different subjects. It can feel like a very delicate balancing act – knowing what is working best when for all our pupils.

The problem is that the issue of ability grouping is often presented as a stark black and white issue: you either do it or don’t. “Setting and streaming? NO.” was the blunt message in a recent BBC news article on the toolkit’s findings. Ability grouping was listed as one of the seven sins of teaching in the widespread coverage of our recent report on What Makes Great Teaching.

This review and the toolkit in fact present a much more nuanced message. The central point is that ability grouping or setting, as currently carried out in many schools, is delivered poorly. When I had the privilege of meeting Adam Gomoran, one of the leading US academics in this field, this was his view. “Given poor instruction, neither heterogeneous nor homogeneous grouping can be effective; with excellent instruction, either may succeed,” he says in his much recommended review of the subject.

The Pupil Premium toolkit has of course transmogrified into the Sutton Trust EEF toolkit for teaching and learning. But the entry for ability grouping remains very similar to the original version. Our summary concludes that the damage done to poorer pupils whose progress is stunted by languishing in the bottom sets outweighs the academic gains seen for more able learners flourishing in the top sets. That is not an argument for not setting by academic ability, but one for monitoring extremely carefully the impact on children when you do group by ability.

The key, as Professor Steve Higgins explains in this video, is not subliminally to suggest to children that no amount of effort will change your academic prospects. Setting, delivered in an inflexible way with little movement between groupings, is the death knell for the development of many children, particularly those from poorer backgrounds.

Another unintended consequence of ability grouping mentioned is that ironically it can lead teachers wrongly to assume that children are all of similar ability once they are grouped together. What Makes Great Teaching concludes: “Although ability grouping can in theory allow teachers to target a narrower range of pace and content of lessons, it can also create an exaggerated sense of within-group homogeneity and between-group heterogeneity in the teacher’s mind. This can result in teachers failing to make necessary accommodations for the range of different needs within a supposedly homogeneous ‘ability’ group, and over-doing their accommodations for different groups, going too fast with the high-ability groups and too slow with the low.”

Being a parent has confirmed for me my reading of the academic literature: it comes back ultimately to the core issue of teacher quality.  The very best teachers my children have benefited from have been acutely aware of the progress of every pupil in the class. They have grouped children together when needed, but the groupings have not been set in stone. Good teaching is about knowing when to group children, and monitoring closely the impact it is having on pupils. Good teachers are able to stretch and support pupils in one class who are years apart in their academic development.

More light will be shed by a King’s College London study led by Prof Becky Francis for the Education Endowment Foundation which will assess the effect of grouping by ability on disadvantaged and low-attaining pupils. What’s new about this study is that it will attempt to review the impact of setting when done well – comparing this to the impact of mixed ability classes. But I am sure that even this will not be the final word on the topic, and ability grouping will continue to divide opinion.


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