Ability-grouping in Primary Schools: Case Studies and Critical Debates

Ability-grouping in Primary Schools: Case Studies and Critical Debates

by Rachel Marks, Ian Menter

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The use of ability-grouping is currently increasing in primary schools. Teachers and teacher educators are placed in the unenviable position of having to marry research evidence suggesting that ability-grouping is ineffectual with current policy advocating this approach.This book links theory, policy and practice in a critical examination of ability-grouping practices and their implications in primary schools, with particular reference to primary mathematics. It provides an accessible text for teacher educators to support their students in engaging with the key debates and reflecting upon their practice. Key changes in structural approaches, such as the movement between streaming, setting or mixed-ability teaching arrangements, are explored in the light of political trends, bringing this up to date with a discussion of current policy and practice.



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781910391266
Publisher: Critical Publishing
Publication date: 02/09/2016
Series: Critical Guides for Teacher Educators
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 80
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Rachel Marks has been a primary school teacher and mathematics coordinator in both inner-city and rural schools, teaching pupils across the primary age-range. Her research interests include equity issues and the social context of schooling and she has a PhD in Mathematics Education in which she explored the implications of ability practices in primary school mathematics. She now works as a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics Education at the University of Brighton where she teaches across a range of Initial Teacher Education and mathematics specialist courses and shares her research findings with teachers and educators across a variety of forums.

Ian Menter (AcSS) is Professor of Teacher Education and Director of Professional Programmes in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford.  He previously worked at the Universities of Glasgow, the West of Scotland, London Metropolitan, the West of England and Gloucestershire.  Before that he was a primary school teacher in Bristol, England.  His most recent publications include A Literature Review on Teacher Education for the 21st Century (Scottish Government) and A Guide to Practitioner Research in Education (Sage).  His work has also been published in many academic journals.

Ian Menter is former President of BERA, 2013-2015. At Oxford University Department of Education he was Director of Professional Programmes and led the development of the Oxford Education Deanery. Prior to that he was Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Glasgow and held posts at the University of the West of Scotland, London Metropolitan University, University of the West of England and the University of Gloucestershire. Ian was President of the Scottish Educational Research Association from 2005–07 and chaired the Research and Development Committee of the Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET) from 2008-11. He is a Visiting Professor at Bath Spa University and Ulster University and an Honorary Professor at the University of Exeter. Since 2018 he has been a Senior Research Associate at Kazan Federal University, Russia.

Read an Excerpt

Ability-Grouping in Primary Schools

Case Studies and Critical Debates

By Ian Menter

Critical Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Rachel Marks
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-910391-26-6



Setting the scene

This article appeared recently in Cambridge News (Mcpherson, 2015). Before reading further in this book, consider the following.


» What is your immediate reaction to this article?

» What beliefs underlie your reaction?

» Where do these beliefs stem from?

Core aims of this book

This book is written to support teachers, headteachers and teacher educators in the primary sector to think critically about ability-grouping. The book explores the beliefs and principles widely held in the English education system by engaging with key questions.

» To what extent is this common practice in primary schools?

» Can we reliably identify bright children and less academically able children? What do these terms mean?

» What are the implications of such practices for teaching and learning?

» How do children feel about such practices?

Ability and ability-grouping in primary education

The use of ability-grouping in primary schools is increasing (Hallam and Parsons, 2013). Policy plays a role in this resurgence, placing teachers in the difficult position of balancing policy directives with the needs of their class. Many approaches taken by teachers to manage an often wide attainment range take the form of some type of ability-grouping.

Grouping by ability requires teachers to hold some notion of what ability is. While it is unlikely that all teachers would give the same definition – this in itself reveals something of the difficulty and complexity of ability-grouping – it is likely their lists would contain a number of similar characteristics of the bright or less able child. This is not due to teachers seeking to elevate or demonise particular children but to the extraordinary ideology of ability deeply embedded in the English education system perpetuating a belief that individuals come hard-wired with a certain level of ability that can – indeed should – be measured and accorded appropriate educational provision.

This ideology of ability is reproduced on a daily basis through the media and popular culture with the language of talent, ability and intelligence commonplace in everyday talk. Immersed in such language and working in educational structures built on notions of selection, ideas of ability become normalised. It is not uncommon, often without shame, to hear an individual assert that they can't do mathematics. This raises questions about when and where children begin to engage with such beliefs, resulting in them growing into adults who hold a can/cannot do belief. This book explores what may be happening in primary schools to perpetuate ability language and beliefs.

It is worth noting that ability-grouping, more so in the secondary than primary sector, carries an extensive research base. It is a topic that raises strong and emotive debate and research evidence can be found to support many opinions. It will be clear that I hold a particular position and I do not attempt to disguise that in this book. I do however present the research, both from the published literature and my own study, in a robust and critical manner which I hope will contribute significantly to the on-going debate and open up channels for critical engagement.

You may ask why this topic is important to you. If many other teachers are engaged in ability-grouping practices in primary schools, does it matter? My hope is that the stories in this book – told through the children's voices – will answer that directly. Beyond this we are reaching a saturation point; with the evidence available, it should be possible to move forward, rather than having to repeat the warnings of history. You may wish to reflect on the following from the 1950s and 1960s. The language we use today may be more socially acceptable, but the issues appear alarmingly persistent. The question must be, if doubts were raised – strongly backed by research evidence – at these times, why are we still debating, let alone commonly using, these practices today?

Before 1955 or thereabouts, public confidence in the fairness and accuracy of the [11+] examination rested on the belief that intelligence tests could detect and measure inborn ability. In the middle fifties this belief was strongly challenged by such university teachers as Philip Vernon, Brian Simon, and John Daniels, who demonstrated conclusively that this was not so. None of the tests conceived and tried over the course of sixty years can satisfactorily distinguish natural talent from what has been learned. Heredity and environment are too closely entangled to be closely identified. This means that children from literate homes, with interested and helpful parents, have an enormous advantage over children from culturally poor homes where books are unknown and conversation is either limited or unprintable.

(Pedley, 1963, pp 16–17)

[I]n the homogeneous class of the streamed school the stimulus to learning is reduced ... the slower children appear slower still, accepting the fact that they are too often called 'only B stream', and making less effort than they might ... In the streamed school there is paradoxically another danger, in that, since the children appear to be more on a level, the teacher is tempted to underestimate the diversity of quality and pace of learning which in fact still remain and which must still be catered for.

(DES, 1959, p 69)

Key terminology

This book uses some key terms. For clarity these terms are defined below. Throughout this book the term ability is presented without quotation marks to aid readability but it is always under question.

» Ability-grouping: any form of re-grouping on the basis of some idea of ability.

» Setting: children are placed into ability groups between classes for particular subjects; a child could be in different sets for different subjects.

» Streaming: children are placed in the same ability classes for all subjects based on general ability.

» Within-class grouping: children are allocated to table groups within the class for all or some subjects based on general ability or subject-specific ability.

» Mixed-ability: classes are not grouped by ability and in a multi-form entry school each class in a year-group should contain the same range of attainment.

These structures may exist independently or in combination. Children may find themselves further differentiated to table groups (within-class grouping) in sets and streams.

The research study

The evidence presented in this book comes from my longitudinal study across three schools into the use of ability language and practices in primary mathematics classrooms. These schools – Riverside Primary, Parkview Primary and Avenue Primary (all names in this book are pseudonyms) – and their different approaches to ability-grouping are outlined in Chapter 3. The study focused particularly strongly on Parkview Primary and Avenue Primary, which on the surface took very different approaches.

I spent a year observing Year 4 (ages 8–9) and Year 6 (ages 10–11) children in and beyond mathematics lessons. Becoming a constant face in the schools, the children, and to an extent the teachers, took little notice of my presence, allowing me to observe closely how children seemed to experience their lessons and to hear the conversations they engaged in about their learning in the corridors and on the playground. In order to build up a fuller picture of the children's experiences, I focused on three children within each mixed-ability class, top, or bottom set within each year-group at each school – 24 children in total – representing the attainment range in each class or group. Each child, in addition to being observed within and between lessons, was interviewed individually and in groups with conversations about their learning very much dictated by the children. It is these children's voices that appear throughout this book. Data were also obtained from attainment tests and attitudinal questionnaires with all 284 children in the study, although with a purposeful focus on the children's voices, much of this analysis lies outside the scope of this book.

Embedded in the school communities, I had the opportunity to talk informally to many staff as well as interviewing the teachers of the focus children more formally, building up a sense of the schools' ethos, challenges and approaches. This allowed me to critically examine differences in how incidents in the classroom were viewed by teachers and children, putting together the story of ability in the primary school presented across this book.

A focus on mathematics

The decision to focus on mathematics classrooms was purposeful. In primary schools, most children have a mathematics lesson every day, allowing me to build up a wealth of data. Beyond this, mathematics is an interesting case, located at the extreme of our use of ability language. Popular culture plays a role here with the portrayal of real or fictional people in films such as A Beautiful Mind, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game drawing out notions of mathematical ability/talent/genius and often linking these with ideas of intelligence. While it may be okay to say 'I can't do mathematics' this is less often the case with, for example, reading or writing. Mathematics however is not unique. Similar beliefs can be seen in physical education, music and foreign languages, and notions of general ability (or intelligence) are still readily applied; how often do we hear teachers or parents referring to a bright child or a clever boy or girl? While most examples in this book refer to mathematics classrooms, the key ideas are transferable and have much to say generally about ability-grouping in the primary school.

The structure of this book

This book provides a broad and critical discussion of ability-grouping in primary schools. A number of questions have been raised in this introduction and the subsequent chapters seek to engage with these, providing a history of ability-grouping in primary education (Chapter 2), an exploration of what ability actually means both to teachers and to children (Chapter 4) and an extended discussion of the overt and nuanced implications of ability language and ability practices in the primary school (Chapters 5–7). At the beginning of each chapter, the critical issues are highlighted. You may wish to reflect on these in light of your own experiences prior to reading each chapter. These critical issues are then returned to at the end of each chapter and addressed in the light of the evidence presented.


My desire to write this book comes from a series of critical incidents impacting on how I view myself as a learner and on how I came to understand the principles underpinning my teaching. At the age of 12, less than six weeks into the new school year, my French teacher told me to leave the class with the parting words: 'you're not good enough, even for the bottom set'. I left, never engaging in another French lesson, but taking with me a lasting view of myself as not good enough. Then, as a teacher, I engaged in the same language and practices and may, inadvertently, have made children feel very similar. Later, encountering Jo Boaler's work on ability-grouping in secondary mathematics (see, for example, Boaler, 1997a) I was thrown into turmoil as I found myself unable to defend the practices I had engaged in as a teacher. Researching this in the primary context I was struck by one eight-year-old boy, Zackary, telling me he was just not born clever. Zackary is just one child, but there are many other Zackarys in our primary schools where features of our educational approach allow children at relatively young ages to construct themselves in such derisive terms. This book engages in a critical dialogue with current practices in primary schools exploring what is happening, why it might be happening, and what else could happen. It is intended to prompt thinking and debate and to challenge the status quo. You may wish to begin by reflecting on what brought you to this book.


» What were your experiences of ability-grouping in school?

» How have these impacted on you as a teacher and learner?




To what extent is ability-grouping a feature of primary education in England?

What role might policy play in the use of ability-grouping practices in primary schools?

What do we know about the impacts – attitudinal, attainment and economic – of ability-grouping?

Ability-grouping in England ... and beyond

The use of, and debates around, ability-grouping are nothing new. For almost 100 years ferocious argument has adorned the landscape of education in England as ability-grouping practices have swung between extremes. Embedded in the English ideology and fascination with ideas of ability and intelligence (see Chapter 4) and, as recognised in the 1960s, mirroring the English social system (Pedley, 1963), opponents and advocates have been embroiled in a bitter war, with children's education, and potentially children's future life-chances, at stake. While this book focuses on the education system in England, these phenomena are seen further afield – particularly in the tracking debates in the United States.

This chapter explores the history and impacts of ability-grouping practices in England, with a particular focus on primary education, outlining the current situation and its historical roots. Given the long and complex nature of ability-grouping in England, it is unsurprising to find a plethora of research dating back to the early 1900s although it should be noted that, at primary level, the research is more limited particularly in terms of the relationship between grouping and attainment (Parsons and Hallam, 2014). Rather than rehearse the literature extensively a key overview of understanding from seminal and recent publications, indicating sources you may wish to explore further, is provided.

Changes and developments in ability-grouping practices

The historical nature of our ability ideology and ability-grouping practices is long and complex. The Butler Education Act of 1944 established a need for ability-grouping in primary schools as children worked towards 11 plus examinations (for allocation to grammar or secondary modern schools). Streaming practices were commonplace throughout the 1940s and 1950s (Hallam et al, 2013) with 74 per cent of schools placing children into different classes on the basis of ability by the age of seven (Jackson, 1964).

The inception of comprehensive education and rising concerns about equity, equal opportunities and the negative social consequences of ability-grouping (see, for example, Barker Lunn, 1970; Jackson, 1964) resulted in a dramatic swing towards the use of mixed-ability approaches. During the 1960s and 1970s the use of streaming in primary schools fell to less than three per cent (Lee and Croll, 1995). Mixed-ability practices remained fairly stable until the Education Reform Act (1988) brought about the first national curriculum and paved the way for target-setting, increased accountability and the marketisation of education. Structured ability-grouping began to gain in popularity.

What role does policy play?

From the 1988 Education Reform Act onwards, successive government education policies (across political parties), calling for a rise in standards, appear to have perpetuated the return of structured ability-grouping, in many cases, overtly encouraging such approaches. A commonly cited example of such encouragement was seen in the 1997 White Paper Excellence in schools which noted that 'setting should be the norm in secondary schools. In some cases, it is worth considering in primary schools' (DfEE, 1997, p 38). Even where not so explicitly stated, teachers' readings of policy may have contributed to a rise in ability-grouping. The National Numeracy Framework was implemented in Primary Schools in 1999. While the framework, in itself, did not advocate structured ability-grouping, many schools responded to the Framework's requirement for whole-class teaching by introducing setting in order to reduce the attainment range (Whitburn, 2001).


Excerpted from Ability-Grouping in Primary Schools by Ian Menter. Copyright © 2016 Rachel Marks. Excerpted by permission of Critical Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Ability-grouping: theory, policy and practice
  3. Riverside, Parkview and Avenue Primary Schools
  4. Ability labelling and pupil identity
  5. Ability-grouping and pedagogic practices
  6. More than pedagogy: the impacts of ability-grouping on primary practice and relationships
  7. How do pupils experience ability practices?
  8. Conclusion: Shall we just change the language?



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