In Sweden ability grouping is illegal and the American education system also avoids categorising pupils (Boaler, 2005). However in the United Kingdom, it is widely recognised that there is great variation in grouping dependent on school policies, teachers and subjects (Kutnick et al., 2005). The primary aim of ability grouping is to reduce the range of attainment within a group (Wiliam and Bartholomew, 2004). However, this separation of pupils has led to pupils being labelled with a fixed notion of ability based on what they can do at one particular time as opposed to their potential ability. If a teacher is categorising a pupil on their ability in a particular subject they are suggesting that that individual will be fixed at that ability for the duration of their education. Thus the teacher holds a fixed-ability mentality.
MacQueen (2013) states that all classes consist of a range of abilities so differentiation is always appropriate. All classes require explicit differentiation thus suggesting that it is the range of abilities within a class and not the mix of abilities that puts demands onto the teacher. Hallam and Ireson’s (2005) research found that for lower ability groups topics are omitted, the curriculum is differentiated, there is less homework given and feedback was in less detail in comparison to higher ability groups. The differentiation here is so great that the opportunities that the pupils have are far less than those of pupils in higher groups. Surely differentiation should be about adding into the curriculum to aid understanding so that pupils still have the opportunity to achieve their potential ability.
Marks (2013) suggests that the term ability should continually be in question and challenged. However Swann et al. (2012) argue that teachers are expected to behave as if a pupil’s potential is predictable. Therefore how can the term ability be constantly in question if we, as teachers, are supposed to be able to predict pupils’ ability? My findings suggest that 87% of the selected teachers at school A prefer ability grouping as it is easier to differentiate and that the lower ability groups make most progress due to smaller classes and more one-to-one opportunities. 24%-50% of set B and 12.5%-25% of set B pupils scored between 0-2 on the Likert scale suggesting they are unsatisfied with their groupings across different curriculum areas. This infers that lower ability students are more dissatisfied with their groupings in comparison to higher ability pupils. This research will impact on my own teaching practice in the following ways: to maintain a growth mindset when teaching all abilities; to ensure I differentiate by including support materials and not removing areas of the curriculum to allow all pupils to have similar opportunities and to ensure challenge and support are always available for all students.
Boaler, J. (2005) ‘The ‘Psychological Prisons’ from which They Never Escaped: the role of ability grouping in reproducing social class inequalities’. Forum. 47 (2 and 3): 135-144.
Hallam, S. and Ireson, J. (2005) ‘Secondary school teachers’ pedagogic practices when teaching mixed and structured ability classes’. Research Papers in Education, 20 (1): 3-24.
Kutnick, P., Blatchford, P., Clark, H., MacIntyre, H. and Baines, E. (2005) ‘Teachers’ understandings of the relationship between within-class (pupil) grouping and learning in secondary schools’. Educational Research, 47 (1): 1-24.
MacQueen, S.E. (2013) ‘Grouping for inequity’. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 17 (3): 295-309.
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.
Swann, M., Peacock, A., Hart, S. and Drummond, M.J. (2012) Creating Learning without Limits. Maidenhead: Open 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’. British Educational Research Journal, 30 (2): 239-279.