Education news

Ability grouping `promotes social segregation' with working class pupils

Two-thirds of teachers agreed that the children were aware of different ability groups
Jim Curran

RESEARCH carried out by a team based at University College London, who were commissioned by the National Education Union has found that children as young as two, three and four are being divided into groups based on ability and behaviour.

About half of the 118 nursery school teachers questioned grouped their two to four year olds for teaching reading and a third for maths, with the use of grouping increasing later in primary schools.

"Teachers have concerns about the negative impact of grouping on children's self-confidence, self-esteem and aspirations, potentially leading to mental health problems," concluded the research team.

The researchers found the groups were based on factors other than ability alone, including friendships, behaviour and concentration levels.

Two-thirds of teachers agreed that the children were aware of different ability groups being used, even if seemingly neutral names for each group were applied, such as types of fruit or animals.

"We might call them foxes and rabbits, but they know," one teacher was quoted as saying.

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union said the findings made for challenging reading.

"It's an absolute disgrace that the pressure on schools to ensure pupils pass tests means children as young as three consider themselves ‘low ability' right at the start of their academic life, a belief which could impact on their self-esteem , carry on throughout their schooling and determine the direction of their adult lives," she said.

Diane Reay, Professor of Education at Cambridge University, interviewed 500 young people for her latest book Miseducation: Inequality, education and the working classes. Prof Reay, the daughter of a coal miner and the eldest of eight grew up on a council estate and received free school meals.

Prof Reay said that even as a small child she realised that she would have to work twice as hard as the middle-class children to achieve the same result.

All the children she interviewed had a powerful sense of their position in the academic hierarchy.

"Right from reception now some children are in sets aged four and they can tell they're only in the `monkeys' and that's not a very good group to be in. That means they're not very clever."

She was shocked by the anxiety displayed by very young children, who she says, blame themselves if they are put in lower sets.

Research has shown that the practice of ability grouping has promoted social segregation with working class pupils and those from some minority ethnic groups, disproportionately represented in low sets and streams and over the past half century, practices of allocation have been consistently shown to be biased and not necessarily reflective of ability or prior attainment.

In 2004, World Bank economists Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey reported the results of a remarkable experiment. They took 321 high-caste and 321 low-caste 11 to 12 year old boys from scattered rural villages in India, and set them the task of solving mazes.

First the boys did the puzzles without being aware of each other's caste. Under this condition the low-caste boys did just as well with the mazes as the high-caste boys, indeed slightly better. Then the experiment was repeated, but this time each boy was asked to confirm an announcement of his name, village, father's and grandfather's names, and caste.

After this public announcement of caste, the boys did more mazes, and this time there was a large caste gap in how well they did - the performance of the lower - caste boys dropped significantly. This is striking evidence that performance and behaviour in an educational task can be profoundly affected by the way we believe we are seen and judged by others. When we expect to be viewed as inferior, our abilities seem to be diminished.

Looking internationally, Finland suggests that an alternative approach is possible. Finnish education is one of the most high achieving internationally yet there is little setting or streaming. Instead schools make extensive use of early and targeted intervention. Indeed the latest results from the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) demonstrate that the highest achieving countries are also the most equitable. In addition, schools which select students by ability early on have the largest differences in performance by socio-economic background.

:: Jim Curran is a teacher, psychologist and committee member of the Reading Reform Foundation.

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