It’s all back to setting: another un-researched fad is unleashed

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 In 1997, a white paper on education expressed a preference for the organisation of pupils according to attainment in both primary and secondary schools. Since then, successive governments of both persuasions have reiterated this position. We should therefore not be surprised by new Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s recent endorsement of ability grouping.

Teachers may be forgiven for thinking that such cross-party commitment to ability grouping is supported by research findings. In fact, there is no evidence that pupils grouped, set or streamed according to ability achieve better results than those in mixed-ability settings. Because of this, the question of whether and how to group students is often cast and answered ideologically rather than empirically.

The debate divides into those who believe academic achievement will be increased if there is streaming, and those who fear the social consequences for those who find themselves in groups for the `less able’.

The decision that the grouping of pupils is the most important indicator of pupil outcomes along the lines of ‘ability groupings = high outcomes’ reveals the lack of sophistication of successive governments. As if a single indicator could be isolated in this way when so many other variables are involved. The government is also very fond of telling us that it is the quality of the teacher in the classroom that is the most significant variable. Not ability grouping then. Oh, and the level of poverty of the child – that is the most important indicator. Not ability grouping then. The message becomes very confusing as governments pick up on different single indicators at different times depending on current fads.

Some reading this will have heard of research that dates back to the 1960s which claimed that forecasts of pupil achievement are self-fulfilling. The researchers told teachers that a test they had carried out indicated which children in the class were about to have a learning spurt. When they returned some time later, lo and behold, the children identified had indeed made that leap forward. The researchers told the teachers that the children had been selected at random and not by a test. This study indicated that teacher belief about a pupil’s capability has a greater impact on outcome than their actual ability. This is even more important when children are labelled as ‘gifted and talented’, ‘average’ or ‘low achieving’ soon after they enter school as has become commonplace.

Interestingly, the 1967 Plowden Report found that, when set by ability, the oldest children in the year group dominated A-streams. The fact that the month you were born has a bigger impact on your attainment at school than your ability has become well established. Plowden also found that once allocated, children rarely moved between streams.

There are a lot of assumptions made in making these kinds of grouping. One is that ability is fixed – if a child is assessed as ‘gifted’ then it follows that they will always be gifted and vice versa. We know from the work of Carol Dweck that such fixed-ability thinking is passed on to children who believe the label they have been given – the ‘gifted’ think they are special, and the SEN children know they are not. Such thinking is very powerful and once a label is placed on a child, we have no way of knowing what they may have achieved if the label had never been imposed. It is also socially very divisive, providing achievement for the few at the expense of the majority.

So why do we group by ability? One argument is that it makes the job of the teacher easier – they can direct their focus to a narrower range of students. But there is always a peer effect, as student achievement will be influenced by the quality of peers in their class. A widespread assumption is that streaming of pupils in this way will benefit high-performing pupils. It is rarely pointed out that the opposite would be the case in classes of low-achieving pupils.

That is not to say mixed ability teaching is easy! And how you achieve it will be influenced by the underlying theoretical frameworks a teacher holds. If we consider the class a community of learners rather than a set of individuals, we will organise and manage learning very differently. In our next issue of School Leadership Today, we’ll be taking a look at how a socio-cultural approach to organising learning can support high quality mixed ability teaching which when consulted, all pupils said they preferred.

Also a big topic at the moment – the end of levels and the requirement for all schools to come up with a new way to measure student progress. Our next issue will feature a strong focus on assessment, with an article from formative assessment expert, Shirley Clarke, on Assessment for Learning in a new era.


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