The negative effects of ability grouping

Do you use ability grouping in your classroom? New research suggests this approach may be hindering those in the lower attainment groups because their self-confidence is likely to suffer.

In a report released this month in the Cambridge Journal of Education, English and Mathematics teachers across 82 schools in England were surveyed about their experiences with, and approaches to teaching ‘low-attaining' students.

According to the authors of Nurturing learning or encouraging dependency? Teacher constructions of students in lower attainment groups in English secondary schools, the ability grouping technique is likely limiting for students learning at a low-attaining level.

The results at a glance

After surveying 597 teachers with an online questionnaire, the report concluded that ability grouping in lessons can be particularly harmful to the future learning progress of students placed in low-attainment groups. According to the report, the overall learning culture that ability grouping creates inhibits learning opportunities for some students and can leave them stuck at a level of learning they have potential to advance from.

The report also says the dialogue used by teachers when discussing low and high-attaining students demonstrated a universal agreement of how all students in these groups are learning. The report notes that most teachers perceive lower-attaining students to be dependent learners, and higher ability learners to be independent. It is therefore common for a culture to exist in many schools where individual learners are viewed to only have the traits and potential of the learning group they have been allocated to.

How are teachers using ability groups to educate?

In England group-specific learning is routine. ‘Grouping students by their prior attainment or “ability” in specific subjects is a common practice in English secondary schools with OECD (2013) figures suggesting that 95 per cent of students are taught Mathematics in attainment groups,' the report says. ‘Our questionnaire and interview data suggest that in their practice teachers adopt different kinds of pedagogical approaches depending on the attainment level of the class they are teaching.'

In the schools included in this study, teachers never had more than four attainment groups in their classroom and the group with the smallest number of students was always the low-attainment group. Nearly all the schools surveyed placed students in particular attainment groups purely based on their previous attainment levels.

The negative effects of attainment groups

The authors of study were clear in their conclusion that, for low-attaining students, group-specific teaching can limit their learning opportunities and create a ‘cycle of restricted opportunity'.

A Mathematics teacher interviewed in the report suggested that group-specific teaching is tainted with judgements about student behaviour. The authors cite this as an example of ‘how a student's placement in the lowest attainment group results in misrecognition whereby his/her placement in the attainment grouping hierarchy can be interpreted by teachers as reflecting the student's innate “ability”.

‘Some of our Set 6 pupils could easily be in a hierarchical Set 4 class,' the Mathematics teacher says. ‘But if you get a pupil into a Set 6 [bottom] class, you get treated like a Set 6 pupil, and a lot of the work you do is repetitive and dull, and doesn't take your forward.'

When teaching low-attainment groups, taking on a ‘caring' role is required, some teachers say. ‘You're gently pushing them forward and not always kind of expecting too much of them … lots of questioning in there to see what they actually do understand,' one English teacher reports.

Another teacher has a similar perspective: ‘I think you've got to work harder on relationships with the less able ones because they've got to trust you because they've been through schooling being told that they're not good enough … whereas with the top sets I'm very clinical … just do what you need to do and get out,' the teacher says.

The report says that employing different pedagogical practices for different attainment levels can unintentionally create a barrier to a low-attaining student's opportunity to develop as a learner. This, in turn, can create a general culture at a school which assumes different rigid traits about learners purely based on their learning group.

What might this mean for students?

Overall, the report suggests that ability groups may be inhibiting low-attaining students' future learning progress.

‘Once a student has been placed in a lower attainment group, the structures of grouping practices and the accompanying school cultures may ... constrain the extent to which attention is given to each student's past and present factors of low attainment, and crucially how these contributing factors may be countered to enable future learning progress,' the report says.

Several teachers reported that with dependent learners comes a greater need to develop a strong relationship with students. While such an emphasis on strong teacher-student relationships may mean that peer support activities may be being disregarded, the authors believe the peer support approach could actually aid in encouraging lower-ability students' independence from teachers.


Mazenod, A., Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Taylor, B., Tereshchenko, A., & Pepper, D. (2018). Nurturing learning or encouraging dependency? Teacher constructions of students in lower attainment groups in English secondary schools. Cambridge Journal of Education, 1-16.

Do you teach using ability grouping? In your own school context, what are the positives and negatives of this teaching method?

Thinking about your own experiences, if you were talking to a new teacher about students at your school, would you have a similar discourse to the teachers featured in this study? Reflect on whether you believe this is an accurate representation of students at your school.