23 SES 11 A, Ability Grouping
Grouping students by their prior attainment or ‘ability’ in specific subjects is a common practice in English secondary schools. Student segregation into different ‘ability’ groupings through setting tends to be done overtly, but some schools seek to hide the hierarchy of the sets from the students for example by avoiding ordinal numbering of the sets and/or terminology such as ‘top, middle or bottom set’ in interactions with the students. This paper examines the reasons teachers give to justify attainment or ‘ability’ grouping. It draws on an on-going, mixed methods study on grouping practices in English and mathematics. The study data comprises more than 700 completed teacher questionnaires and 40 face-to-face interviews with teachers. The emerging findings suggest that ‘ability’ grouping tends to be unquestionably accepted as the standard approach for grouping students. The teacher narratives refer to ‘ability’ grouping as ‘the first port of call’ with no credible alternatives. Few have actual experience of mixed attainment practice, and many teachers view practices deviating from the ‘ability-grouping’ norm as too risky in the high stakes English education market (Reay, 1998; Taylor et al, 2016). Some of the disadvantages of ‘ability’ grouping, such as the potentially detrimental effects on the educational outcomes and self-confidence of lower attaining students (Francis et al, 2016) are recognised in the interview narratives. These concerns are however either allayed in reference to e.g. specific pedagogical approaches used by teachers or the school, not seen as applicable to the lower attaining students in the school in question, or dismissed as insufficient grounds for abandoning ‘ability’ grouping practices given the perceived lack of credible alternatives. The paper concludes that grouping by attainment or ‘ability’ successfully taps into some of the underlying English cultural narratives about hierarchy and segregation (Francis et al, 2016), and the purposes of education being decidedly about academic achievement (Pring, 2013). ‘Ability’ grouping is being constructed as the normal practice with alternative approaches to grouping not being viable. This is particularly the case in mathematics where the ‘hierarchical’ nature of the subject is seen by many to demand hierarchical ‘ability’ grouping.
Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Pepper, D., Taylor, B., & Travers, M.-C. (2016). Exploring the relative lack of impact of research on ‘ability grouping’ in England: a discourse analytic account. Cambridge Journal of Education, 1-17. Reay, D. (1998) Setting the agenda: The growing impact of market forces on pupil grouping in British secondary schooling. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 545-558. Pring, R. (2013). The life and death of secondary education for all. London: Routledge. Taylor, B., Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Pepper, D., Tereshchenko, A. and Travers, M.-C.(2016) Factors deterring schools from mixed attainment teaching practice. Pedagogy, Culture and Society http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14681366.2016.1256908
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