A new study at the IoE (Primary children’s journey at the ‘bottom’ of the class: a longitudinal study of ‘low ability’ grouping) is building on the previous research carried out by the IoE of grouping and setting by ability in English and Maths classes in Y7 and Y8 at six secondary schools. A discussion of the project can be found on the IoE blog here, asking “How does it feel to be at the bottom of the class?”

Apart from the questionable evidence that suggests that it is more motivating to be with children of your own ability, and the social justice implications (are we setting up a mini-Britain in each class, rather than challenging one another to become mini-Hollands?), there are some serious questions to be asked about exactly what we are trying to achieve as a class teacher and whether that conflicts with what we are trying to achieve as a school. I will write a separate post about the false god of progress soon (my thinking has moved on a bit since recent forays into this), but we need to hold out God’s view of flourishing (and I hold fast to the definition of Miroslav Volf, based on Augustinian principles, for this) otherwise we will easily allow the apparently good to get in the way of the demonstrably (and biblically) best. To put it bluntly, if we are seeing “progress” in children from grouping them in lower ability sets, but also giving them subliminal messages about fixed ability and their status in life (how many of our lower ability set children ever rise to the top of the class?), are we creating more harm than good? Undoubtedly. This is not a new debate, but the obsessives of the DfE data dungeons are moving into the world of big data so that the level of prediction of ability (as enshrined for instance in the DfE Primary School Accountability technical guides) improves (so they tell us), we see still that ability (as measured by KS1 attainment) is still regarded as a fixed quantity.

In a recent review of our classroom practice, we were challenged to improve the quality of the match of teaching challenge to children’s learning needs, which sometimes (but more rarely nowadays) is called differentiation. This is a good challenge and we accept it willingly. The danger always is that we so group (and thus label) children in our classes that we are unable to separate out the mixed messages that such children receive. What this new study at the IoE includes, and I am thrilled about, is impact of grouping and setting on the children’s flourishing (described as personal/social flourishing) that is often neglected in simply looking at attainment and measurable outcomes.

For this reason, it will be a fascinating study, pro0bably bolstering the earlier findings but giving us, hopefully, some kind of scheme in which to evaluate the impact of setting and grouping on the wellbeing and emotional growth of all of our children.


About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher by profession, now working as an educational researcher, in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011. My work looks to make education effective for the whole child and keeps a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, amateur printmaker, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for children. The views on this blog are all my own.

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