Eleanore Hargreaves with Denise Buchanan and Laura Quick.
Children are not often asked to voice their true opinions at school, especially not about school. In my own previous research, I found that primary school pupils could voice valuable and sometimes shocking insights into their own classroom experiences. Such insights came from some pupils in ‘bottom ability’ groups who expressed a sense of being treated as different, and less worthy, by their teachers. They also perceived that other pupils looked down on them, which undermined their confidence and sometimes made them unhappy. For example, Jack, a nine-year old pupil, explained:
‘I thought I was okay but it turned out I wasn’t. I tried my hardest and now I just had to move down [to the ‘lowest ability’ group]. People have laughed at me every day for two weeks’.
Several new studies have highlighted the way grouping disadvantages those deemed
“less able” – for example, the IOE’s Best Practice in Grouping Students project, which asked teachers about their practices. In our new project, which began this month, we directly explore how a particular group of primary school pupils describe being in a ‘bottom’ attainment group. Through extensive, regular interviews and classroom observations across five years, we learn how a selection of 24 children respond to being in the lowest ‘ability’ group. We investigate in particular whether, and if so how, effects snowball across five years. Through constructing a set of school-life histories, we aim to investigate and challenge the accepted ‘truths’:
- that ‘ability’ is a fixed, quantifiable and innate property of the child and
- that teaching pupils in groups defined by this ‘ability’ is beneficial for their learning and personal/social flourishing.
‘Ability’ grouping was justified by the Labour government in the 1990s with the claim that it advanced pupils’ ‘motivation, social skills, independence’ because students in ability groups apparently became ‘more engaged in their own learning’. As a result, almost 80 per cent of pupils are now ‘ability’-grouped for most or all subjects. Yet grouping appears to have the opposite effects to those stated by government, for pupils in ‘bottom’ groups. In addition, the concept of innate ‘ability’ has proved more complex than it was portrayed: criteria for being labelled as ‘low ability’ sometimes appear to involve factors such as social class or language rather than attainment. And yet the commonly accepted view still persists, that ‘ability’ grouping is both necessary and normal.
Some reasons for the negative effects of low ‘ability’ groups seem to originate in unsatisfactory teaching conditions in those groups. Relatedly, ‘bottom’ group pupils seem to experience reduced levels of motivation and aspiration; a poorer sense of belonging; and general feelings of unhappiness/anger. In addition, they make less progress than their peers according to national tests. Up to now, research conducted on this issue only points to general trends, while our project highlights the detail of individual pupils’ experience over five years. Our aim is to improve the sophistication of our knowledge about how ‘ability’ grouping functions by drawing on the perspective of pupils whose voices have been systematically marginalised.
This Leverhulme-funded research project – A longitudinal study of primary children’s journey at the bottom of the class – started on 1 April with a team of three IOE researchers. In June we embark on our first round of data collection with six Year 3 pupils in each of four schools. Altogether, 312 observations/interviews will be conducted over 13 terms, culminating in the pupils’ last term of Year 7 in secondary school. We will monitor each sample pupil’s experiences in English and mathematics, as well as in art and PE. A short film and a monograph will highlight our findings at the end of five years.