What is ‘ability grouping’, why is it necessary and what is its potential impact on students? Kate Wall explains

Ability grouping is a generic term used to describe different types of organisation based on pupils’ perceived ability. One of the biggest areas of confusion in the field is the associated terminology – it is often the case that the same term is used to talk about different types of grouping or different vocabulary to talk about the same approach. The table below gives key terms and definitions as adapted from Sukhnandon and Lee (1998).

UK term
(USA equivalent)

The method of assigning pupils to classes on the basis of overall assessment of their general ability. Pupils remain in their streamed class for the majority of subjects.
The (re)grouping of pupils according to their ability in a particular subject. Setting can be imposed on a whole year group or on a particular band at a time.
(no equivalent)
The year group is divided into two, three or four bands differentiated by ability. Each band contains a number of classes, which may vary according to ability or size.
Within-class grouping
(no equivalent)
This approach involves dividing a class into small groups
and instructing each group separately.
Mixed-ability grouping
(heterogenous grouping)
Teaching groups include pupils of widely ranging abilities. The spread of ability in such a group depends upon the

ability range for which the school provides.

Within the UK education system there is a long history of ability grouping. What has recently changed is the type of grouping used. In the past, the tendency was towards more general models of ability grouping, with pupils grouped across a year group and the curriculum. Whereas now, with increased understanding of the nature of intelligence, there are more subtle types of grouping being used, such as setting, which considers students’ particular aptitudes in different areas of the curriculum.

The advantages credited to ability grouping are varied and often appear to reflect arguments centred on ‘administrative attractiveness’: more cost effective and less time-consuming ways of ensuring effective targeting of pupils with regard to pedagogy, curriculum and discourse. This is based on a presumption that the groups will be characterised by greater homogeneity and, the theory goes, that this will mean teachers can target their teaching to the majority of the class for more of the time, thus raising attainment.

Ireson and Hallam’s (2001) research gave the most common reasons teachers use ability grouping as raising standards, targeting learning objectives, challenging able pupils, improving teaching quality and teaching to a range of abilities. Across the research there does seem to be common belief that the individual needs, of both able and less able children, will be more accurately met within the classroom context thus supporting inclusive education agendas. Advocates of ability grouping believe that when it is employed pupils of different abilities will receive a curriculum specifically tailored to their needs.

It does appear that teachers are facing pedagogical conflict: on one side there is increasing demand for inclusion (of all abilities within school structures) and on the other, a target-driven curriculum. In the rhetoric, ability grouping does seem to be a solution commonly given to meet both.

It is not, however, a clear-cut debate. Recent research has shown that there is no obvious link to raising standards: Ireson et al (2005) showed there was little or no impact on GCSE results. Much of the research that does show a positive impact is linked to able pupils only and not those of average or low ability. Plus, across the ability spectrum, it has been seen to have potentially negative impacts on pupils’ self-esteem: different groups can become polarised and the extremes stereotyped, bringing specific pressure for pupils. In particular, pupils grouped at the less able end
of the spectrum have been shown to be removed from positive academic and behavioural role models and are more likely to represent certain members of society. As a result, the characteristics of the ‘bottom set’ can lead some teachers to be reluctant to teach them and this has been shown to be exacerbated by the least qualified teacher being allocated the least able group.

So what is the way forward
True homogeneity will always be a myth. However finely tuned and flexible a model of ability grouping might be, and there are successful ones, there always needs be a recognition that ability grouping is a tool that needs to be chosen for a specific purpose, needs to be wielded by professionals who have considered the risks and should be reflected on regularly to check that it is doing the job it was proposed for.

For more information:

  • Ireson, J and S Hallam (2001) Ability Grouping in Education. London, Paul Chapman Publishing
  • Ireson, J, Hallam, S and Hurley, C (2005) ‘What Are the Effects of Ability Grouping on GCSE Attainment?’ British Educational Research Journal (2005) Vol 31 No 4 pp443-458
  • Sukhnandan, L and B Lee (1998) Streaming, Setting and Grouping by Ability: A Review of Literature. Berkshire, National Foundation for Educational Research