The use of ability groups have been mentioned on occasion by members but have not been the subject of much research, until now. Here is a summary of the key findings of this research report.

  1. Grouping by ‘ability’ or attainment is common in Early Years (Nursery and Reception) and Key Stage 1 in primary schools in England, and takes many forms: setting across classes in a year group, phase or even the school; within-class groups organised around where children sit; and interventions, where children are removed from the main class for a short period.

  2. These practices – which vary by subject and age – continue despite the research evidence that ‘mixed ability’ teaching produces higher attainment overall. In our survey, 81% Reception teachers responded that they used grouping for Phonics; 58% of Nursery teachers used grouping for Phonics and 35% for Maths. By Year 2, 72% were grouping for Phonics, 60% for Literacy and 66% for Maths.

  3. The core subjects of Literacy and Maths, and Reading and Phonics as separate activities, are the subjects where there is the most grouping. Phonics is seen as a discrete subject which is a special case, as the sequential nature of the government Letters and Sounds programme encourages grouping by ‘phase’ of phonics learning.

  4. Reliance on private companies’ Phonics schemes, particularly the Read Write Inc scheme, encourages grouping by phase of phonics learning.

  5. Teachers have concerns about the negative impact of grouping on children’s confidence, self-esteem and aspirations potentially leading to mental health problems. In our survey, 65% of teachers agreed with the statement that ‘Children are aware which group they are in’; 45% of teachers agreed with the statement ‘Ability grouping damages some children’s self-esteem’.

  6. Teachers feel conflicted about the use of grouping and see group fluidity – moving children frequently between groups – as alleviating these concerns.

  7. Grouping is seen as expected practice, encouraged by Senior Leadership Teams, and as a ‘necessary evil’ in preparation for high-stakes test such as the Phonics Screening Check and KS1 Sats.

  8. Teachers have concerns about the role of grouping in widening gaps in attainment between different groups of children, and as exacerbating other inequalities in the system such as the underachievement of summer-born children.

  9. If teachers’ concerns are reflected in practice, and thus grouping practices work to label children as ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ attainers – as suggested in the extensive literature in this area from older age groups – the fact that this happens early in their school lives and is often based on the child’s background means that grouping has a detrimental impact on social mobility and the government’s aim of a ‘Great Meritocracy’.

The extent of ability groups in the Early Years and Key Stage 1 was a surprising finding, and challenging, given the concerns about the impact of ability groups on children raised by survey respondents, focus groups and case study participants. We decided use the quotation “a necessary evil” in the title of this report as this summarised the core tension that many participants expressed of not wanting to use ability groups, whilst believing that they had to.

Two key drivers of the ability grouping practice were the Phonics Screening Check in year 1 and the key stage 1 SATs in year 2. The DfE has announced plans to make the Key Stage 1 SATs non-statutory, and we believe that this research adds to the already compelling evidence that the Phonics Screening Check must also be made non-statutory.

A number of participants in the research highlighted the opportunity that “growth mindset” approaches presented in moving away from using ability groups.

"We have started using mixed ability groups this year. I was skeptical at first but now children decide which of 3 challenges they will attempt mild, spicy or hot (our chilli challenges) and most children respond well and push themselves! This is based on growth mindset ideas.

My school have tried to get rid of ability groups this year and have adopted a 'growth mindset' approach where children sit in mixed ability groups.

Our groups are very fluid and we have been trialing a 'growth mindset' approach where children are in mixed ability groups rather than in ability tables.

We use Growth Mindset in our school and encourage the children to challenge themselves to select their choice of activities in English and Maths, therefore do not see the need to teach in ability groups."

Alternatives to ability groups put forward by participants included basing groups around friendships groups, role model groups and allowing children to form their groups through play based activities. Perhaps you could discuss this research at your next National Education Union meeting?

Grouping in Early Years and Key Stage 1: a necessary evil?

This research explored practices of grouping by ‘ability’ in this specific context of pressure on assessments and a renewed discourse of fixed ‘ability’, in the early years and Key Stage 1 in primary schools.