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My problem with ability
Image by flickr.com/photos/susivinh

I’ve always had a big problem with grouping students by ability. The Sutton Trust EEF Toolkit shows that ability grouping, setting or streaming has a negative impact on student attainment.

Ability grouping slows progress down

Ability grouping slows progress down

One of the first blogs I read and favourited when I began exploring the online educational world was Kenny Pieper’s Setting by ability: why? which used Ed Baines’ chapter on ability grouping in Bad Education: debunking myths in education to argue that setting and streaming was “self-defeating in the extreme.” Since then I’ve had a look at the research myself; there’s a list of some of the articles at the bottom of this blog. My favourite was Jo Boaler, Dylan Wiliam and Margaret Brown’s study Students’ experiences of ability grouping —disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure. Susan Hallam concluded her study: “ability grouping…does not raise standards, and in some cases can lower them. It can also have detrimental effects on pupils’ personal and social development.”

It’s fair to say, the case for setting and streaming is full of holes and there is plentiful research out there to show that it doesn’t achieve what it tries to achieve. As the Sutton Trust Toolkit says: “ability grouping appears to benefit higher attaining pupils and be detrimental to the learning of mid-range and lower attaining learners.” In other words, it exacerbates the Matthew Effect and ensures that the gap between the knowledge-rich and the knowledge-poor widens.

Ability has no bearing on your accomplishments; effort does

Ability has no bearing on your accomplishments; effort does

My big problem with any discussion around grouping is with the weasel word “ability.” As Fearghal Kelly says it has all the connotations of a fixed mindset. When you talk about a “mixed ability” group what are you really saying? That some of them are more “able” than others? This language implies that those “low ability” students you have are actually less able to improve. The word itself reinforces the widening of the gap. In actual fact, as we all know, students who end up labelled “low ability” have complex needs, some cognitive, some behavioural, some social, and some attitudinal which have led to them performing poorly. This poor performance – their prior attainment – gains them the label of “low ability,” but it does not necessarily follow that low attainment corresponds to lack of ability.

I want to root the word “ability” out of my own and my school’s vocabulary. If we are truly to become a growth mindset school we must avoid the bear-trap of labelling students with fixed terms like “middle ability” throughout schooling when we actually mean “achieved between 25 and 40 marks on their English reading paper in Year 6 which was then translated using a threshold into an arbitrary level 4.” This has nothing to do with the individual’s ability. It is all about performance.

Ability is not fixed. As teachers we can work with young people to overcome their cognitive, behavioural, social and attitudinal issues and improve their ability to access the curriculum. We certainly won’t solve all of those issues outright, but we can ameliorate them – and we must. But labelling a young person as “low ability” is not going to motivate them or us to try.

No matches. Mission accomplished.

No matches. Mission accomplished.

I wrote to parents this week explaining our grouping and curriculum approaches in school, and I didn’t use the word ability once. “Students are taught in groups with the full range of prior attainment,” I wrote to explain those subjects that mix – the majority of our curriculum is taught this way. Some still set, of course – that’s the Head of Faculty’s decision. Our challenge now is to raise attainment for all and to ensure that every student continues to increase their ability to learn, grow and achieve.

Research articles:

Cross-posted from Teaching: Leading Learning


  1. There is so much of this with which I profoundly disagree.

    “When you talk about a “mixed ability” group what are you really saying? That some of them are more “able” than others? This language implies that those “low ability” students you have are actually less able to improve.” – This is quite simply untrue; the fact that one pupil is less able than another in a given subject does not for a second suggest that they are also less able to improve, and the assumption that this is the case is a terrible indictment of the attitude of some teachers to those ‘low ability’ pupils.

    “But labelling a young person as “low ability” is not going to motivate them or us to try.” – Pupils are not stupid, and are well aware of who the most able and least able students are – that isn’t labelling, it’s just accepting the reality of the situation. The real issue here, however, is with the assertion (which is, incidentally, often correct) that teachers are less motivated to “try” with low ability pupils or groups; this, however, is again a problem with teachers themselves, and not with setting or the recognition that differences in ability exist.

    Frankly, so much of this issue is merely a question of semantics which distracts from what we should be doing – trying to help each and every pupil to do as well as their ability allows. Some pupils are, without doubt, more able than others, and ignoring this is, in my opinion, entirely counter-productive. Setting is extremely damaging when implemented by teachers who are unable or unwilling to make use of the opportunities that it provides, but harnessing those opportunities can allow us to do a huge amount for pupils of all ability levels.

    For the record, I agree entirely with the underlying philosophy of your argument: “Our challenge now is to raise attainment for all and to ensure that every student continues to increase their ability to learn, grow and achieve”; I do, however, disagree with the means by which you intend to achieve it.

    My own thoughts on setting by ability: http://mrmcenaney.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/ready-set-go/

    • That’s quite an impassioned argument against someone you say you agree with James!

      I accept that this issue is more complex than it is often possible to communicate and that there are many many nuances in the issues of ability and setting. However, I agree with Chris’ broad point on the dangers of the word ability. To be honest, I’m often surprised when teachers (who’s entire profession is built on language) write off arguments as ‘semantics’ – especially when they’re English teachers!

      Language matters. Whilst this is an obvious and general statement, it also applies very specifically to this debate. There is a growing body of research that suggest that the language used around setting has detrimental effects on the ‘bottom sets’ for a whole variety of complex reasons. Dweck’s work also supports the idea that the language we use with children affects their view of themselves and what ‘intelligence’ is.

      Ultimately though, I’d admit that much of my view on this influenced by my own experience of setting as a pupil. I passed the 11-plus easily (which still existed in NI) and went to a grammar school…that would perhaps suggest that I wasn’t doing too bad at the age of 11…but being in the bottom sets and being told I was ‘less able’ definitely left me with the impression that I wasn’t all that bright, and would never be good at english and maths…a misconception I’ve had to since slowly unlearn. I know personal experience is not necessarily the way to design an education system…but it can be hard to ignore the effect of this on our values and views and so I’m just declaring it up front.

      I suspect that the truth, as ever, lies in the grey areas between the extremes on this issue and it’s very much worth the debate.

      • The thing is though, a lot of these issues are just semantics. Panicking about the word ‘ability’, for example, is both ridiculous and entirely counter-productive, as this sort of thing – alongside the obsession with catchy, please-buy-my-book phrases like ‘Growth Mindset’ – ends up distracting from the very real issues that exist (such as an approach to examination which is not fit-for-purpose, or an education system which fails to help far too many pupils realise their potential).

        Also, the part that I made clear that I agreed with is, if we’re being honest, just stating the obvious – what else is a teacher going to do other than “raise attainment for all and to ensure that every student continues to increase their ability to learn, grow and achieve”?

        Ability is not the same thing as effort, or potential, but it certainly does exist, and only by accepting that can we every really hope to help every student put in front of us.

        • James, noone is panicking, we’re discussing. You might disagree with Chris’ (and my) point of view – but when you misrepresent our point of view like that it only diminishes your argument in my opinion.

          And, righting off Carol Dweck’s work like that is a bit short sighted. Have you read her academic papers? I have. Her ideas are based on rigorous research which deserves to be considered respectfully in my opinion. Yes the book is written in a tone which is a bit too close to the self-help genre, but as far as I understand it she was encouraged to write a book in this way to help get her ideas out of academia. Anyway, as I say, I don’t base my perception or use of her ideas on the book, but on her academic literature.

          • I have read some of the academic material she’s written and have never really thought it to be anything particularly ground-breaking, but that’s just my opinion – my issue is more with the gimmickry that surrounds so much of the education debate (but that’s a different discussion to follow a different post on a different day).

  2. I totally agree that ‘ability’ has nothing to do with progress and the resulting achievement. The problem is that education and the teaching profession over many decades has not done anything to divorce the misconception over the link between ability and progress. Of course the easy solution is to have ‘mixed’ ability classes but this is often at the detriment of those students who are more ‘able’ and especially those who are hungry to learn. After all you can have high ability students who do not want to learn.

    It is supposed to be education for ALL not just the majority. Sacrificing any group of students no matter how small or large is just NOT a solution. I am a teacher but also a parent and I have had to cope with this sacrificing or such a student – my son – this has not been easy and as much as I have tried to counter this my son has suffered throughout the whole of his school career. It does not even matter whether it is state or private education.

    When he was young the effect came out in behaviour (usually poor) plus things like sleep problems, chewing cuffs for comfort etc. Always my concerns were brushed aside or there was a refusal to do more beyond what they were already doing. Now as a young man he is disenfranchised from education and he has an extremely poor opinion of education and the majority of teachers. What do you think he will pass on to his own children?

    I am in the field of performing arts and I don’t say that often because of the opinions that education and most teachers have about it and where the argument over ‘talent’ (which is ‘ability’) is used as the excuse. Acting for example is a craft which means that skills and the practice of skills is paramount. The people who make it are the ones who perfect the craft by putting in the hours of dedicated work. So where does the ‘talent’ or ‘ability’ come into this – in general terms it does not except those with less natural ‘talent’ or ‘ability’ take longer to get there. Most of the time they end up leap frogging those with more ‘talent’ or ‘ability’. It is not any different for any other subject.

    In conclusion, education and the teaching profession need to change their attitudes. We must deal with the realities of a student and make sure the link between ‘ability’ and ‘progress’ is broken. Life is all about what we are personally prepared to do and how we deal with things. This life lesson is totally apparent in this problem and if we continue to deal with it poorly as a profession, we are totally letting down every single student irrespective of where they are on the ‘ability’ spectrum.

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