Children as young as three 'grouped by ability'

By agency reporter
December 3, 2017

New research, commissioned by the National Education Union (NEU), has found that using ‘ability’ groups takes place with children as young as three, and that teachers worry that ‘low ability’ labels could have a lasting negative impact on children.

The research, Grouping in early years and key stage 1: “a necessary evil”? considers the extent to which children are divided into ‘ability’ groups for teaching from the age of three, the impact on staff and pupils, and why this happens.

The study, carried out by researchers Alice Bradbury and Guy Roberts-Holmes from UCL Institute of Education, University College London, involved more than 1,400 teachers and leaders who took part in focus groups, interviews, and a large-scale survey.

Key findings include:

  • Teachers have concerns about the negative impact of grouping on children’s confidence, self-esteem and aspirations. In the survey of National Education Union teachers, 65% said that children are aware which group they are in, and 45 per cent said ability grouping damages some children’s self-esteem.
  • Many teachers feel that they are expected to use ability grouping, and worry about the negative impact of the practice on their children. They use strategies, such as moving pupils between groups, in an attempt to alleviate these concerns.
  • 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.
  • Teachers have concerns about the role of grouping in widening gaps in attainment between different groups of children, and is exacerbating other inequalities in the system such as the underachievement of summer-born children.
  • Teachers are concerned that ability grouping may have a detrimental impact on social mobility and the Government’s aim of a ‘Great Meritocracy’.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The findings make for challenging reading. It’s an absolute disgrace that the pressure on schools to ensure pupils pass tests means children as young as three consider themselves ‘low ability’ right at the start of their academic life, a belief which could impact on their self-esteem, carry on throughout their schooling and determine the direction of their adult lives.

“Theresa May’s failed attempt to introduce new grammar schools turned the spotlight onto the controversial subject of ability grouping, setting and labelling. Much research has been done highlighting the negative impact of this practice on pupils in secondary school and Key Stage 2, so it’s important that we now raise awareness of the impact of grouping in early years.

“High stakes accountability testing and chronic workload are significant factors for the decisions education staff make. We hope this research will open a discussion into the underlying drivers of early years grouping. The National Education Union will work hard to lobby the Government to address accountability and curriculum pressures that lead to the labelling of children. As a first step to improving the situation the Government should commit to make the Phonics Screening Check non-statutory.”

The researchers, Dr Alice Bradbury and Dr Guy Roberts-Holmes from UCL Institute of Education, University College London, said: “Teachers told us that the pressure upon schools to demonstrate continuously improving data in the Phonics Screening Check and KS1 SATS appears to exert a downward pressure into the EYFS. Teachers had professional concerns that the pressure of tests made grouping children by ‘ability’ necessary - despite the fact that a wide research base indicates grouping by ability does not improve results. Teachers were worried that this pressure to ‘ability’ group young children for phonics and numeracy was narrowing the curriculum and undermining the importance a play-based pedagogy encouraged within the Early Years Foundation Stage.”

Read the report Grouping in Early Years and Key Stage 1: "A Necessary Evil"? here

* National Education Union


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