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The negative effects of ability grouping

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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.

Deborah Goodwin 28 March 2018

I once had a Junior in High School explain this to me.  He was just talking, but stated, “You know, they put you in groups in elementary; and they don’t tell you you are stupid, they call the groups things like Redbirds and Bluebirds, but if you are Redbird in second grade, you are a Redbird the rest of your life.”  I was a new teacher when he told me this.  I have often thought about how he knew more about schooling than many of the practitioners I have known.

Tony 03 April 2018

Sadly, the information provided here is tainted with the belief system of the reporter and the researchers. “Research shows that some teachers don’t teach well - so let’s not send anyone to school!” This negative mindset about the benefits of grouping reports only that “some people” in the study don’t know what they’re doing and so students don’t advance as much as they could. This is about poor choices of pedagogy of the teachers. Grouping does not cause ignorance of the students learning ability.  If a student performs poorly and behaves poorly in previous tests/encounters, the belief system of the teacher will be there regardless of grouping. Without grouping, teachers are doomed to homogenised classes where, according to research, they are more likely to teach to the middle. The only successful examples of this demonstrate where teachers have good knowledge about pedagogy, good growth mindsets that they pass onto students and good support in the classroom. Imagine if those already who work harder with grouping students for their benefit, had the same resources? Sadly, one track studies, don’t look at benefits of what happens when you do grouping and couple this up with what good teachers do in the classroom.

Nicole 03 April 2018

Isn’t it interesting that one study is being cited, but the breadth of research from decades of researchers that shows the opposite is not? Is this part of a political agenda against ability grouping? Against the notion of elitism that is often associated with grouping?
Most teachers know that grouping should be used flexibly, at different points for different learners, even in achievement grouped classes (for what they are talking about above is achievement grouping, where students are grouped on past achievement or performance - unless they are using reasoning testing as the basis of the grouping).
Additionally, there is never a move against ability/achievement grouping for sport, drama or music. Do we mix sporting teams randomly, so that the players with different abilities all play together? No, we don’t, so why are there different expectations for classroom learning. They are both “intelligences” or abilities, and one is not better than the other - so why is it OK for sport to be graded/streamed, but something like maths, it is not?
There’s a lot to learn from the above study, but making assumptions from one study, ignoring all the other research, forgetting that learning that is associated with the intellectual or creative problem solving areas are always treated differently to grouping in sport, drama or music, shows that there is a bias towards accepting the findings of this one study - maybe not by the author, but by those in the community who are jumping on this study.
I yes, I support achievement and ability grouping in the classroom, as I support it for sport, music and drama - it should be no different. I group flexibly in my classes as well, through interest, learning style, and ability, using past work to continuously aid the way in which I group - so I can differentiate and personalise as much as possible.

Denise Jacobsson 03 April 2018

I find this a very sad article and it certainly points much more to the poor state of teaching and pedagogy in the UK than to whether it is or can be an advantage or disadvantage to use “ability grouping” (this is a terrible name in itself!).
The main issue is that no child should be placed in a group solely based on the last test they did. No child should have little or no chance of moving between groups. Teaching today is and should be about differentiation. Differentiating the curriculum and the learning experience for each child.
However, this is an extremely difficult and time consuming thing to achieve in a mixed ability group that has children from the very gifted to those with learning disabilities and everyone in between. In secondary school in Australia that gap can be seven year levels. So what can teachers and schools do? Teaching to “the middle” has been proved to not be the answer for most students. Fixed streamed classes where children have no chance of moving either up or down have issues and can be unsuccessful for both high and low achievers. This is especially true when teachers teach to the “expected level” and no more than that and have expectations and biases about the relationship (or lack thereof) that they should or should not be developing with their students.
While mixed ability teaching has been held up as the way to go, it has not been overly successful for students in the very high and very low achieving groups. NAPLAN and PISA results have demonstrated in Australia that we do not extend or challenge students at the top end nearly enough, although we are relatively successful with students in the lowest levels. The assumptions that gifted students can just learn independently in a mixed ability classroom are to a certain extent true, but they certainly do not thrive or grow as they should without differentiated curriculum and teaching.

Therefore some schools have tried to find a middle ground that can work better for all (and that includes the teachers). Having an advanced class of the most gifted students and a small class of students who need much more intervention and are currently not working anywhere near the expected level, yet with regular review and the ability to move classes should learning, attitude and behaviour change. The remainder of classes are mixed ability groupings. These classes are set up on a subject by subject basis, because students do not all perform the same in all subjects. The ability to learn and to grow, to be challenged and supported is what is paramount for every student. From this article this does not seem to be happening in many schools in the UK.

John Perry 03 April 2018

“Do we mix sporting teams randomly, so that the players with different abilities all play together?”

Sometimes yes, yes we do. Particularly if it is part of the school CURRICULUM rather than inter-school sports or elective sports or whatever. And mixed-ability music classes are absolutely the normal in primary school, and they work totally fine.

“the breadth of research from decades of researchers that shows the opposite is not [being cited]”.

Could you please leave an example of what you are talking about?

Tony 04 April 2018

Sporting teams may be mixed for purposes of the CURRICULUM. The aim of such a purpose is about experience rather than proficiency. (Won’t even mention about the dignity of the kid that no side wants in the class team!) Where performance is the main purpose, rather than experience, you would never find a mixed ability practice being acceptable in a competitive sporting or musical situation. (Olympics squads included!) Elective sports as mentioned is about performance. Music classes in primary school is about experience and, considering that students don’t usually get serious about an instrument until >10y.o., the ability level of the classes is around the same. Geoff Masters has stated that there can be as much as 18months difference in levels in any normal mixed ability classroom.
It is a nonsense to propose that teachers, who according the study get it wrong in grouped situations, are suddenly going to be better operators with a range of possibly 18 months in front of them. Students who are well behind need specialised and targeted support. Students who are well advanced, and learn very quickly, stagnate and deteriorate in mixed ability classrooms (google “John Hattie challenging all students”.) Prof Francoys Gagne describes grouping as an “administrative accommodation” which, by itself, offers little for learners. However, he goes on to demonstrate that it does facilitate so many other powerful interventions that are well documented and value adding to the education of students.
So let’s not demonise grouping by attributing other bad habits of teachers to it. In a mixed ability classroom, the teacher is just as likely to lower their standards for struggling students.
Not all classes need to be grouped - grouping for its own sake is the damaging waste of time that the writers of the article discuss. Acceleration (as mentioned in the Hattie video above) is a way of having students move to a group of students who are functioning at their level. Have a look at the “infographics” section of this site and you will see the devastating breadth of what students could be in a mixed-ability classroom for any subject. Pick any wide variety of 30 spots on the continuum and imagine what it must be like for some students in classes.
Finally, if we really believe that a mixed ability classroom is the best thing, then let’s dissolve Maths A, B, C and Prevocational Maths and put them all in the one room with the one teacher to prepare them for life after school. Selective grouping “at the right time”, “for the right purposes” and “with the appropriate teacher training” negates all of the bad press that the writers have tried to associate with grouping.
Our international rankings in education won’t be fixed in a one-size-fits-all classroom.

Stephen Low 05 April 2018

This article glosses over (ignores) any negative effect on higher achieving students by having lower achieving students present who strike out behaviourally when confronted with learning environments beyond their capability.

Both the situations of having and not having ability grouping in the classroom have negative outcomes for someone in the room when there is no real achievement goal associated with learning. “I don’t want to learn this, I’m confused and there’s nothing in it for me” and “I’m bored this is too easy” are just as bad as each other in a system where everyone moves at a common pace regardless of achieving the outcome early or not at all. Why bother if you are a Year 8 student who doesn’t understand something and fails it, only to be placed in Year 9 automatically to fail again because the underlying scaffolding from Year 8 was not known or understood.

In any other training environment this would not be allowed. Most industries have prerequisites on skills before you can move to the next level. 

If we had a goal based learning environment with real benefits and detriments associated with the learning standards, I think overall the system would be better. You either hold back students and give them extra help to achieve the level, allow high achieving students to acquire other skills while the rest catch up, allow the higher achieving students to skip grades with scaffold testing or some more complex version of them all.

In the end, regardless of what is decided though, the system will always be chosen on cost by those not involved in the application and who think kids themselves are just payment in, result out machines.

Lynda Lovett 06 April 2018

I am heartened by some of the correspondence on this subject. I am jaded from reading the ‘research’, meta-analyses and other articles on the negatives of ability grouping. All the articles I am referring to are championing the perspective of the lower academic performers. We are a diverse population and each member needs to be catered for as individuals and not be consigned to mediocrity due to the way research is interpreted to suit personal philosophies. For the classroom teacher, take your 6-8 top performing students and group them. Then use mixed ability groupings for the remainder of the students. So far I think this best strategy we have in this whole argument.

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