Introduction and literature
Defining ‘ability’ is not straightforward (Wiliam and Bartholomew, 2004; Marks, 2013). Wallace (2009, p.1) defines ability as ‘the sense of “potential for performance”.’ Ability is most closely linked with ‘potential’ as opposed to ‘achievement’ or ‘attainment’ and ‘refers rather to what a student is capable of, than to what they have proved themselves able to do’ (Wallace, 2009, p.1; DfES, 2006a). In broad terms, pupils are grouped according to mixed ability or by ability grouping or setting. Lowe and Turner (2013) observe that the latter has become increasingly popular since the 1988 Education Reform Act. However, the result of research carried out on the pros and cons of grouping pupils according to ability is ‘not clear cut’ (Lowe and Turner, 2013, p.159). Instead, focus has turned to ‘strategies which target individual achievement’, for example, differentiation (Lowe and Turner, 2013, p.159).
I carried out a small-scale research project in order to gather opinions on pupil grouping from teachers at a selective, independent boys’ school in the West Midlands (hereafter School A). I used a mixture of qualitative and quantitative data. I interviewed three members of staff, all in leadership roles at School A. I found out that pupils in School A are grouped by mixed ability in all subject except mathematics, where the banding method is used to set pupils from Year 9 onwards. Broadly speaking, all three teachers were supportive of the school-wide method of pupil grouping.
In addition to these interviews, I distributed a questionnaire. 27 members of staff at School A completed the questionnaire. The questionnaire consisted of ten statements about mixed and ability grouping. Most respondents agreed that mixed ability grouping promotes pupil progress both in their own and in other subject areas. Most agreed that setting by ability had a negative effect on pupil self-esteem and motivation in their own subject. When asked this question about other subject areas, most respondents neither agreed nor disagreed. Most agreed that differentiation for pupils in mixed ability groups secures more progress than grouping by ability. When asked this same question of other subject areas, most respondents neither agreed nor disagreed.
One feature common to the findings of both the interviews and the questionnaires was the importance of differentiation for promoting pupils’ progress. No matter how pupils are grouped, any class of pupils will contain a range of abilities and teachers should differentiate for different pupils in the classes that they teach. Good differentiation depends on knowing your pupils and their needs, particularly the needs of any EAL or SEN/D pupils. In a subject like RE, differentiation can be carried out by means of a variety of ‘in-class groupings’ (DfES, 2006a, p.1) and by a using a range of different questioning techniques in order to promote the progress of pupils of all abilities.
DfES (2006a) National Strategies: Grouping Pupils for Success. London: DfES.
Lowe, H. and Turner, T. (2013) ‘Unit 4.1: Pupil Grouping, Progression and Differentiation’ in Capel, S., Leask, M. and Turner, T. (eds.) Learning to Teach in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience. 5th edn. London: Routledge. pp.157-172.
Marks, R. (2013) “‘The Blue Table Means You Don’t Have a Clue’: the persistence of fixed-ability thinking and practices in primary mathematics in English schools.” Forum. 55(1), 31-44.
Wallace, S. (ed.) (2008) Oxford Dictionary of Education. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wiliam, D. And Bartholomew, H. (2004) ‘It’s not which school but which set you’re in that matters: the influence of ability-grouping practices on student progress in mathematics.’ UCL IOE Eprints Available from: http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/1155/1/Wiliam2001BERApaper.pdf [Accessed 5 April 2016].