Being At The Bottom

Why do we persist with ability grouping?

Being in the ‘bottom group’ is rubbish.

Ask children how they feel being in the ‘bottom group’ (or the ‘triangles’ group or the ‘yellow’ group – however you dress it up, children aren’t stupid) and they will tell you they feel stupid. Many describe feeling ‘different’ because their status is different.

I’ve written in a previous post for Rising Stars why we should forget ability grouping in maths.

There is plenty of evidence to say that ability grouping is damaging.

The UCL Institute of Education have a new project investigating, ‘How does it feel to be in the bottom group?

Through extensive, regular interviews and classroom observations across five years, we learn how a selection of 24 children respond to being in the lowest ‘ability’ group. We investigate in particular whether, and if so how, effects snowball across five years.

Through constructing a set of school-life histories, UCL aim to investigate and challenge the accepted ‘truths’:

  1.  that ‘ability’ is a fixed, quantifiable and innate property of the child and
  2.  that teaching pupils in groups defined by this ‘ability’ is beneficial for their learning and personal/social flourishing.

The UCL tell us that ‘ability’ grouping was justified by the Labour government in the 1990s because it was claimed it advanced pupils’ ‘motivation, social skills, independence’ – this was because students in ability groups apparently became ‘more engaged in their own learning’.

Despite evidence to the contrary, ability groups are still used by schools and “almost 80 per cent of pupils are now ‘ability’-grouped for most or all subjects”.

312 observations and interviews will be conducted over 13 terms, culminating in the pupils’ last term of Year 7 in secondary school. Each pupil’s experiences will be monitored in English and mathematics, as well as in art and physical education (PE).

I think we can all predict what the outcomes will be with this study – ability groups just don’t work, they marginalise pupils and segregate educational experiences.

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