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Given what I know, why am I still grouping by ‘ability’ in primary maths?

Written By: Elisabeth Royde
7 min read
My own study was evidence that the culture of 'ability grouping' constrains children’s learning

Three years ago, in the spring term of my PGCE training, I was asked to complete a research study into an aspect of inclusion. I wanted to investigate an important issue in primary education, so it would have a wider relevance and application than my own practice.  I recalled something that my mother had said when she was working as a Teaching Assistant:

The teachers never say it, but even the Circle table have worked out that the more sides you have, the better you are.  They know Hexagons are the best.

Reflecting on this now, through the prism of fixed/growth mindset training á la Carol Dweck, I can see the irony. My mother was despairing of the practice of setting children by ‘ability’, even into table groups, as she believed that it limited and demoralised the as-yet lower-achieving groups. Yet she implicitly agreed with the Circles’ assessment of themselves as the ‘worst’ at maths, and the Hexagons as the ‘best’. As such, I decided that my research project would focus on setting by ability and investigate alternative arrangements.

The research project

I chose ‘the impact of setting in mathematics on children’s self-esteem’ for my study.  I wanted to gather evidence around ability grouping, and whether it was damaging to children’s self-esteem (as I felt instinctively) or not.

After preliminary reading of previous studies, such as Boaler and Hallam et al. (2000), I decided to focus my research on Year 6. I chose 10 pupils from each of the three sets to complete a questionnaire, designed to discover their self-assessment of ability and confidence in maths.

The questionnaire also asked children about their understanding of how the groups were organised, and what hope the children had of progression across the groups.  Finally, I interviewed the two children from each group, whose answers were the most extreme, to clarify my understanding.

A graphs to show who wants to change sets and who wants to stay still


Figure 1 (above) –  A large proportion of the children wanted to alter which maths set they were in – all wanting to move upwards.

Interestingly, given their teachers’ assessments, I discovered that very few of the sample children in the lower set judged themselves as ‘struggling’ at maths; 90% identified themselves (with an arrow drawn on a continuum) as ‘OK’ or ‘good’.  They were also likely to say that the work was at the right level for them.

Despite this, 50% of the lower set and 100% of the middle set wanted to move up groups (one child in the top set wanted to be in ‘higher than top set’).

When asked why, nearly half of the answers related to ambition – the belief that being in a higher set would help you to get better at maths, or at least to achieve a higher SATS level. One interviewee put it this way:

Aryan* (in middle set): I think the quality of the work in top set … it’s helping you with your learning like because … in middle set you do the same as last year.

Some children seemed to believe that learning more ‘different’ things would improve their ability to do mathematics, rather than the conventional wisdom that having a greater ability to do mathematics made you capable of learning more new things.

The results from the research raised more questions than they answered.

Unexpected findings

I had not shown, as expected, that as-yet-lower-achieving children were demoralised by knowing they were in bottom set. In fact, the absence of high-flyers nearby seemed to allow them to get on with their ‘easier’ work without fear of showing themselves up. In contrast, this exchange with two children in the top set suggested that they were the demoralised ones:

Mohit*: I wouldn’t say that I was the greatest at maths.  Like, I am good at maths but I’m not the best at it.

Arhan*: Yeah, because the top would mean that you were perfect, and never got anything wrong, and no human being is perfect.

Researcher: So, out of the Year 6 children, who do you think would be nearer this end of the scale than you?

Mohit and Arhan: (in unison) Sanjid*! [who was working at a level 6c].

The downside of ‘ability’ grouping seemed not to be self-esteem issues, but that it constrained children’s learning to what they were expected to be able to achieve. While the children appreciated that the work set was mostly at the right level for them, many of them did feel that there were aspects of maths that were being withheld from them and that they might not get the chance to learn that year.

The temptations of the culture of ability grouping had proven too great.

Expectation versus reality

I resolved then that when I was an NQT, I would not set by ‘ability’ in maths. I wanted everyone to be on a level playing field, covering all the topics and interests that the subject had to offer.

I would teach everyone the same ambitious curriculum, supporting and encouraging the children to teach and assist one another. I would use open-ended, low-floor, high-ceiling problem-solving tasks to engage everyone, so that I could differentiate by outcome as we did for literacy. I would encourage children to set goals that were relevant to them, not based on external measures which could lead them to compare themselves with one another unfavourably. I would ensure that my children were adequately challenged by providing an endless series of stretch tasks for mastery of a topic.

Within one term at my new school as an NQT, however, we had determined as a team that the ability spread across Year 3 was so great that setting was the way forward. I was given the top set based on their results from the Autumn assessments, and managed to stretch them. No-one in my group could complain that the work was too easy.  Even here, though, I split the children on to ‘ability’ tables and gave them different work to do.

Furthermore, I discovered every time we had a planning meeting that I was showing my group more extended, deeper applications of each concept than their peers in the ‘lower’ group were being taught. The temptations of the culture of ability grouping had proven too great. My experience tallied with my reading of the White Paper, Excellence in Schools (1997, p. 38), for my PGCE research, which identified the supposed benefits of setting as: ‘reducing the range of attainment within a class; reducing pressure on teachers; making whole-class teaching easier; and allowing an appropriate [read: higher for ‘higher achievers’] pace and challenge to be maintained.’

Pervading culture of ability grouping

Reading Marks’ (2013) influential paper, ‘The blue table means you don’t have a clue’, has inspired me to revisit my research and reflect on my own practice. Marks (2013) describes a case study of a Year 4 cohort in which teachers, convinced in their own minds that they are practising ‘mixed-ability’ teaching, nevertheless subtly or overtly set children into those deemed higher or lower ability. Both ‘Mrs Ellery,’ who set children explicitly on ability tables, and ‘Mr Donaldson,’ who did not, showed in their interactions with each class that they expected different levels of understanding and behaviour from different children, based on their prior attainment. They conflated ‘attainment’ with ‘ability,’ as did all of the other teachers in the wider study of which this was a part.

One particular passage struck me as relevant to my own experience (Marks, 2013, p. 10):

‘The teachers interviewed in this study found it difficult to justify some of the practices they engaged in but admitted, in the highly doctrinaire, prescriptive and accountable educational culture we currently have, they have never had the time to engage with the practices they enact or to think about why they act, or have been instructed to act, in particular ways.’

I determined to think about why we were using setting in our school. Why was I standing by and agreeing to use it, given how fervent my resolutions following my own research findings? Did I not consider myself an evidence-informed practitioner? Did I not think it a shame that the other group were doing pictograms, while my group were interpreting pie charts three years early? Why shouldn’t all the children be learning about pie charts? Were we not also conflating attainment with ability, as the teachers from Marks’ (2013) study were doing?


On my PGCE placement I taught a Year 4 pupil whose ability to problem-solve and absorb new concepts was incredible. However, his times-table knowledge was extremely lacking. This pupil was consigned to the ‘Orange’ table based on his achievement, which had been conflated with his ability.

Faced with the conflict between my research findings, my philosophy of education, wider reading and personal experience, I came to the following conclusions:

  • Arriving at a school as a new teacher and a new member of staff, making change is hard – even evidence-based change. The status quo is powerful.
  • Inexperience meant that while I had noble ideas, my pedagogical practice was not yet at a stage where I could demonstrate effective, truly mixed-ability ambitious teaching.
  • Teacher workload, and a shortage of additional staff in my setting, meant that true mixed-ability ambitious teaching would be difficult to deliver.  While the need to produce four different worksheets for each table group would be eliminated, additional interventions would be needed to catch up some children’s knowledge of basic number facts before they could access some material.

Two years on, and I am ready to try the experiment again.  I will once more be a new member of staff in a new school this September, and I expect them to habitually group by ‘ability.’ However, this time, I plan to use my own knowledge, experience and principles to suggest there might just be a better way. I will put a truly ambitious, stretching curriculum in front of all the children in one room and see what happens.

*All names have been changed.

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