Why you should forget ability grouping in maths

Currently there is a big drive for quality evidence-based practice in education, something the Chartered College of Teaching has put its full weight behind. It joined with Medical Royal Colleges and the College of Policing and publicly signed and published an evidence ‘Magna Carta’, hosted by the Alliance for Useful Evidence.

This makes sense too, as Kevan Collins, of the Education Endowment Foundation notes, “through better use of evidence: looking at what has—and has not—worked in the past can put us in a much better place to judge what is likely to work in the future.”

We can’t rely on hunches, gut instincts and untested interventions – evidence is the foundation of professional practice.

Ability grouping has been one of the most controversial educational practices for more than a century. So what does research tell us about maths ability grouping? Does it work?

Segregation by ability has in some way become a signifier for “academic high standards”. Policy makers have regularly supported the practice and many parents support it, yet research consistently tells us that ability grouping has no academic benefits and severe negative consequences for children’s development.

A research survey conducted by Blatchford et al (2008) looked at a range of studies and drew unequivocal conclusions,

“The adoption of structured ability groupings has no positive effects on attainment but has detrimental affects on the social and personal outcomes for some children.”

Grouping young children into sets is damaging and the least helpful action that any school can take as labels stick. Research shows that 88% of children placed into ability groups at age 4 remain in the same group until they leave school. Maths ability isn’t fixed but fluid but grouping clearly imprisons children.

Francis et al (2016) have surveyed research and found that segregation by ‘ability’ within schools exacerbates wider social inequalities, disadvantaged students are disproportionately concentrated in low sets and streams and students in lower sets and streams have poorer attainment outcomes. Despite these findings, it has failed to impact on practice in England.

But ability grouping takes on many forms. Saiying Steenbergen-Hu et al (2017) have recently scrutinised thousands of studies and the results of almost 100 years of research on the effects of ability grouping and acceleration.

Helpfully they divided ability grouping into four main types:

(1) between-class ability grouping, where pupils in the same year are divided into low-, medium-, or high-level classes;

(2) within-class ability grouping, where pupils within a classroom are taught in groups based on their levels;

(3) cross-year subject grouping, where pupils in different year groups are combined into the same class depending on their prior achievement;

(4) grouping for pupils considered gifted.

They found evidence of academic benefits of within-class grouping, cross-year grouping by subject, and grouping for the gifted, but didn’t find any benefit of between-class grouping and the results were consistent regardless of whether pupils were high-, medium-, or low-achievers.

Research tells us that approaches to keep students as equal as possible and that do not group by ability help all children. The recent move towards whole-class mixed-ability teaching as part of a mastery approach to teaching has seen many schools move away from setting and differentiating in-house. Setting or grouping is in tension with the underpinning beliefs of a mastery approach although is still commonplace because it is still seen as the most effective of addressing the educational needs of students whose prior achievement, skills, or abilities vary greatly.

Research by Jo Boaler found that children in mixed ability mathematics classes outperformed those grouped by ability. She noted that when given a shared responsibility for each other’s learning, this led to a significant improvement in the achievements of high and low achieving students because they had opportunities to learn work in greater depth.

Boaler (2009) notes, mixed ability teaching does work but to work effectively students must be given open work that can be accessed at different levels and taken to different levels. They must also be taught to work respectfully with each other where their different strengths are seen as a resource so everybody’s constantly teaching each other.

And finally…

Between-class ability grouping does not enhance maths achievement and research tells us that it is not a neutral or benign practice. Although it is still widespread and generally accepted, ability grouping generally depresses achievement and is harmful to students. Why then do so many schools continue to group in this way?


John DabelJohn is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, national in-service provider, project manager, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books and contributed well over 1,000 articles, features, reviews and curriculum projects to various bodies, magazines, journals and institutions. John is Eteach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru – sharing monthly insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.

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