Why you should forget ability groups in maths


Many schools separate and define children according to their ‘ability’, attainment, or ‘aptitude’ and setting for maths and literacy is a common practice. Children are moved from their usual mixed ability class and grouped according to one or more measures of prior attainment in an effort to best serve their needs.

The thing is, between-class ability grouping doesn’t work, and despite the lack of evidence that it improves attainment schools still persist with it.

Grouping by ability, even in Early Years and Key Stage 1, is seen as some kind of “necessary evil”. A 2017 University College London report found that grouping “is seen as expected practice, encouraged by Senior Leadership Teams” even though “teachers have concerns about the role of grouping in widening gaps in attainment between different groups of children.”

In recent years we have seen the rise of evidence-based teaching (EBT) with a focus on what actually works in the classroom rather than relying on custom and practice or fashions and fads. The newly formed Chartered College of Teaching has been established to mobilise research and evidence from across the education landscape so that teachers can be informed agents of change rather than “doing things the way we’ve always done.”

The Education Endowment Foundation has been instrumental in promoting EBT and many other organisations such as the Evidence Based Teachers Network are committed to unearthing what works and what practices we should swerve. 

Severe and damaging

When we look at the research relating to grouping by ability in maths, the evidence is screaming at us: don’t do it! Ability grouping has a negative impact academically and socially for children in lower attaining groups and can scar them for life. Research shows that low sets equals low expectations and limited opportunities. 

Taylor et al (2016) note that, “Mixed-attainment teaching has strong support from research and yet English schools are far more likely to teach students in ‘ability’ groups.”

Scrutinising thousands of studies and the results of almost a century of research on the effects of ability grouping and acceleration, Saiying Steenbergen-Hu et al (2017) found the benefits of between-class grouping to be negligible regardless of whether pupils were high-, medium-, or low-achievers.

Research by Boaler et al (2000) found that children taught in the highest ability groups are often disadvantaged because being in these groups places high expectations on them, lessons are fast-paced and there is more pressure to succeed. This anxiety particularly affects the most able girls. From a learner’s perspective, ability grouping can be alienating, polarising and contributes to failure.

 Research shows that where attainment grouping is practiced, children can often be ‘mis-placed’ and ‘mis-diagnosed’ and without a fluid approach where we refuse to see ability as ‘fixed’, we can easily cause stigma that may lead to long-term social, emotional and mental health needs.

Children can be quickly labelled as being “poor at maths” and these labels stick and can determine outcomes. As the 2017 GL Assessment report Hooked on labels not on need notes, “This may lead to teachers teaching to the label and not offering wider teaching and learning opportunities to meet the individual needs of the pupil.”

Evidence shows us that when learners are placed into ability groups, those in higher sets are treated as mini-mathematicians who can handle the maths thrown at them whereas children in low sets are seen as struggling and only able to cope with low-level work.

The mastery approach to maths can change this culture as it promotes whole-class mixed-ability teaching and a growth mind-set.

Although not a unified way of teaching, mastery lessons the Shanghai or Singapore way aim to keep everyone together and see all children as dynamic learners making a contribution to a fuller understanding. Setting is in tension with the underpinning beliefs of a mastery approach.

In their 2017 mastery research, Pete Boyd and Andy Ash have found that the exploratory and collaborative whole-class approach is changing the underlying beliefs of teachers – ability sets are out.

“The teachers changed their perception of themselves as mathematicians and raised their expectations that all children could reach a high standard in maths. They no longer believed that in-class grouping was necessary and switched to working in mixed pairs and whole class discussion.”

It certainly seems to be the case that curricular homogeneity is far more effective than between-class grouping which is detrimental, produces unequal learning opportunities and doesn’t serve pupils’ best interests. Mastery is definitely creating a change in thinking.

English Education: world class in primary? a 2017 report by UCL Institute of Education has demonstrated that England has one of the biggest gaps in the developed world between high and low achievers in maths. Does setting contribute to this?

Setting is simply not backed up by the evidence and this pedagogically grotty and archaic modus vivendi has to stop because mastery has made it immaterial.

John Dabell is a teacher with over 20 years teaching experience across all key stages. He has worked as a national in-service provider and is a trained OfSTED inspector.


mastery, mathematics, maths

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