One of the hardest jobs in teaching is to differentiate materials and teaching among pupils of differing abilities in the same class. So is grouping by ability right for your school and for your most able pupils? Jane West examines the pros and cons.

‘A teacher at a high school in North Wales carried out a survey among gifted and talented year 7 pupils. Pupils reported that they finished early in around one third of their lessons. Of these pupils, one third said that they did not tell the teacher they had finished. Of the remaining pupils, half were told to wait and the rest were given MOTS – more of the same type of work.’
Qualifications and Curriculum Assessment Authority for Wales (2003)

Should the pupils in the above example have been stretched by more challenging work in their own class, or should the G&T coordinator have suggested that the more able children were grouped by ability, either within or without the class?

In its recent education white paper Higher Standards, Better Schools for All (see p1 of this issue) the government repeats its encouragement to schools to use setting: ‘Grouping students can help to build motivation, social skills and independence; and most importantly can raise standards because pupils are better engaged in their own learning.’ However, it still leaves it up to schools to decide how and when to do so, promising to publish independent research into current best practice in the new year.

Clearly, grouping alone will not ensure appropriate provision for the most able students, but here we consider the pros and cons of the main sorts of grouping currently used in schools.

Streaming, banding and setting
With streaming or banding pupils work in ability-based classes for all subjects. With setting they work in ability-based classes for some subjects.

Pros

  • In both cases gifted pupils are more likely to be working with their ability peers. Appropriate challenge can be a significant motivational factor.
  • You can teach the curriculum to a greater breadth or depth or at a faster pace; it can make planning a lot easier.
  • With streaming, compacted curricula (particularly at KS3) become a viable option.

Cons

  • Some pupils may feel anxious and pressurised by being placed in top sets.
  • Can streaming and setting reinforce social class divides in a school?
  • Gifted pupils may be unwillingly labelled as such, or, verbally abused as ‘boffins’ or ‘nerds’.
  • Less able pupils may feel stigmatised by their lower grouping.
  • These groupings are less likely to reveal underachievers because pupils will often work to a teacher’s (lower) expectations. It may also be difficult for a pupil to move between sets because less or more of the curriculum has been taught.
  • Boys are more likely to be clustered in lower-ability groups in mixed schools.
  • The criteria for selection to a particular set may be too rigid or narrow, for example poor handwriting is not an indicator of ability and should not be used as such.

Researchers found that G&T students ‘achieved significantly more when grouped by ability compared with those who were not, but only when they were provided with programmes that were designed specifically to meet their needs’

Researchers James and Chen-Lin Kulik found that G&T students ‘achieved significantly more when grouped by ability compared with those who were not, but only when they were provided with programmes that were designed specifically to meet their needs’. They also found that students who were ability grouped for a specific subject had a better attitude toward that subject but that grouping did not change attitudes about school in general.

Vertical grouping – the ‘sports’ model
Selection by ability is a controversial issue, but not, it seems, when it comes to talent in sports and performing arts. In school sports teams, the most talented athletes sportsmen and women are selected to play. In school orchestras, the most talented musicians are selected to play the solo parts, with less accomplished musicians playing in the main or second orchestra, for example.

But when teachers group pupils by ability in maths, science or MFL, all sorts of pedagogical arguments appear about selective education. However, some schools are now grouping pupils vertically in this ‘sports model’, the term coined by Professor Joan Freeman.

Are mixed-ability classes a viable option?
Grouping pupils by ability within a mixed ability class is a common experience in primary schools, but is used far more sparingly in secondary schools where ‘whole-class’ teaching, in every sense of the word, is more likely to be the norm.

Pros

  • Encourages peer support and interaction within small groups through an emphasis on cooperative learning.
  • Encourages social and communication skills between pupils.

Cons

  • Some teachers aim the class at the middle range of ability using whole-class teaching, satisfying neither the less able or the gifted – even when teachers think they’re adequately differentiating their work.
  • Teachers may create the perception that the interests of one group of pupils takes (or seems to take) precedence over the others.

‘The idea that lower ability students will look up to gifted students as role models is highly questionable. Children typically model their behaviour after the behaviour of other children of similar ability who are coping well with school. Children of low and average ability do not model themselves on fast learners. Students gain most from watching someone of similar ability “cope” (that is, gradually improve their performance after some effort), rather than watching someone who has attained “mastery” (that is, can demonstrate perfect performance from the outset).’
Susan Demirsky Allan

Grouping by gender
A few mixed comprehensive schools are now grouping girls and boys separately for some subjects.

  • This may avoid clustering boys in low ability sets and also allow them the opportunity to develop in subjects such as English, which can often be dominated by girls.
  • Girls have been shown to do better in traditionally ‘male’ subjects such as maths, science and IT when taught in single-sex groups.

Subject-specific issues
Subjects that are considered ‘linear’ (maths, MFL, and to some extent science) are thought to lend themselves to setting or within-class grouping in that subject. This is because, particularly in the early stages, a plateau of basic factual information is required. Non-linear subjects (creative arts, some aspects of humanities) are more likely to encourage intuitive leaps in gifted pupils.

‘Within-class ability grouping is widespread in primary classrooms. Almost all of the research on this has focused on performance in mathematics and great care has to be taken in generalising from this to other subjects. Mathematics is well known for the great range in achievement across an age group (equivalent to seven years at the end of the primary school) and for its hierarchical structure, each step being dependent on understanding the previous one. This means that teaching inputs have to be at different levels to suit pupils across a wide range of achievement. Thus the case for ability grouping in maths may be stronger than in, say, social subjects, where teaching can provide the same inputs for pupils of different abilities.’
Wynne Harlen

Grouping in itself is not enough
Practitioners at Oxford Brookes University, providers of training for G&T coordinators, point out that ‘grouping in itself does not ensure appropriate provision’ and ‘no one method of grouping suits all gifted and talented pupils’.

They say that ‘gifted and talented pupils frequently underachieve in mixed ability classes’, and that ‘top sets do not always often consist of pupils with the greatest academic potential, but rather of well behaved, well motivated pupils with highly developed literacy skills’.

They recognise that ‘when a school seeks to create the right kind of learning opportunities for gifted and talented children, grouping arrangements will be one of the key factors’. However, they conclude that grouping alone, without further input, does not constitute adequate provision.

This, they say, ‘can be guaranteed only by the sensitivity and professional competence of the teacher, working within a climate in which the school sees itself as a learning organisation, where teachers and management, as well as pupils, continue to be learners and to improve their practice’.

A final thought…
As an alternative to mixed-ability versus setting and so on, you may wish to consider forms of acceleration such as a compacted curriculum, year-skipping or early examination.

Pupils’ views on grouping by ability

Researchers at the Institute of Education have found that primary age students think they should be divided into ability groups.
Dr Susan Hallam and Dr Judith Ireson (Institute of Education) and Jane Davies (Sunderland University) interviewed 144 KS2 pupils in six different primary schools. They found that the majority of pupils were aware of how and why they were grouped, with comments such as, ‘They don’t want to put everyone in one set because it will be too hard for some people.’

Less able students preferred mixed-ability classes, but more able students felt they were likely to be labelled ‘boffins’ in mixed-ability groups. One in four children agreed that streaming could stigmatise the less able.

In schools where mixed-ability classes were used, 66% of boys overestimated their ability and 55% of girls underestimated their ability. However, the researchers concluded that evidence for the academic benefits of streaming by ability remained not proven.

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