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Should children be grouped by ability at primary school?

Discussion in 'Education news' started by TES_Rosaline, Feb 1, 2019.

  1. TES_Rosaline

    TES_Rosaline Administrator Staff Member

    'Placing children in groups according to ability is all about making classroom management easy and nothing to do with educational gain for children. It is management at the expense of performance.

    Grouping children by ability creates self-confidence issues for those who find themselves in the “bottom” group, over-confidence in those in the “top” group and a middle group that is often ignored by the teacher because he or she is much more concerned with ensuring challenge for the brightest and support for the weakest.

    The problems caused by this system are fairly obvious. No one child really gets what they, as an individual, needs. Groups tend to be formed by the end of Primary 1 (the first year of primary school in Scotland) and by Primary 7 these same groups are largely constituted of the same children – in other words, there is no fluidity within the groups. So, a child who finds themselves in the “bottom” group early on recognises this, thinks they are not clever and their entire schooling is based on the knowledge that their teachers have labelled them as weak.’
    Rod Grant is headmaster at Clifton Hall School in Edinburgh. This article was originally published as a blog post on the school website.


    What are your views? Is this good or bad classroom management? Is this beneficial for children? Are we limiting children’s potential by labelling them according to their ability or doing the opposite?
  2. neddyfonk

    neddyfonk Lead commenter

    My junior school had 3 classes per year labelled 3A1, 3A2 etc but it never occured to me that my class was any brighter / less clever than any other. It was far more important to have a nice teacher ( not the ones that used corporal punishment liberally). Sometimes ignorance can be a good thing (not usually very blissful though).
    agathamorse likes this.
  3. adam_nichol

    adam_nichol Occasional commenter

    Primary children are lumped together by age. Why? I've yet to see anything that supports this as being a good idea, with evidence, as opposed to merely an arbitrary grouping. Why do we assume that a child will be at the approximate same developmental standards in all subject areas by virtue of being no more than 363 days younger?
    Surely it would be better to have vertical subjects, grouped by ability? Children who can work to maths level X are all gathered in that group for that lesson, regardless of age. They then move to another lesson, where they join phonics class A, B, C, etc, as befits there abilities.
    No more arbitrary clustering of children. No more having to plan lessons with effective stretch for a vast array of talents. Yet, at the same time, no prejudice amongst children about grouping (unlike setting / streaming) as they will all be mixing with all ages across all subjects.
    agathamorse and Stiltskin like this.
  4. Marshall

    Marshall Star commenter

    We have mixed aged classes and find that this works well in challenging the less able and enabling all abilities to work together. We have never setted or streamed although we have grouped recently in one class for maths because there is a teaching assistant available to work with them. Even this unsettles me but it works for the children.
  5. bevdex

    bevdex Star commenter

    The huge range of different sizes of primary schools makes it impossible to decide on a single approach. Some large primary schools have enough students to group by ability - others simply do not. It is for individual schools to manage this in their own way.
    agathamorse likes this.
  6. Flyonthewall75

    Flyonthewall75 New commenter

    The first thing to say is that the Clifton Hall School, in question, is a small independent school that has expanded in recent years to cater for nursery, primary and secondary pupils. Indeed, in 2008, it merged with another independent school and it has small classes, and year groups, and a maximum roll of 400 pupils.

    The current fees are £12, 270 per annum for the senior school, £11, 325 for the junior school and £9, 510 for an all-day nursery place. Whilst there are a number of popular, independent schools, within easy travelling distance, which do select by academic ability, Clifton Hall does not, believing that 'all children are capable of excelling academically given the right conditions and motivation'.

    Now, whilst I'm sure the head teacher, and governors, believe in their policy of not having ability groups at the primary stage, I do wonder whether this is perhaps due to the relatively small numbers involved, the background of the pupils they enrol and the additional niche group of parents they hope to attract - i.e. the ones able to afford the fees, with children who were unable to pass the entrance exams for other, local independent schools.

    Meanwhile, schools within the state sector have large classes, with pupils from different social backgrounds and with a wide range of academic ability, including additional special needs. Whilst there are usually opportunities for pupils of different abilities to work together in most primary schools, I don't see how a primary teacher can provide appropriate learning for each pupil in English Language, and Mathematics, without some sort of differentiated work. In my experience, the reason pupils are in the top, middle or bottom group - or, indeed, being taught as individuals - is because that is the level of work they are able to manage. Of course, others are welcome to disagree, provided they can teach the same, or a similar, class and achieve anything like the same progress with mixed ability groups.
    agathamorse and colpee like this.

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