How does it feel to be in the bottom group? A new project investigates

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’:

  1.  that ‘ability’ is a fixed, quantifiable and innate property of the child and
  2.  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.



Tagged with: ,
Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
5 comments on “How does it feel to be in the bottom group? A new project investigates
  1. […] classes in Y7 and Y8 at six secondary schools. A discussion of the project can be found on the IoE blog here, asking “How does it feel to be at the bottom of the […]

  2. John Mountford says:

    The comment about these children feeling different because of their different (unequal) treatment by their teachers should send shock-waves through every level in the profession and with political leaders. That said, it hides a truth that the children themselves know – they are different! Their problem arises because WE have yet to find ways to engage with the nature of the difference.

    What an amazing and worthwhile piece of research this looks set to be. Oh! to be able to share the insights of the brave young people involved.

    But five years is a long time in the lives of children and young people when common sense should dictate we already know of the problem so we should have solutions at hand RIGHT NOW.

    For the record,” that ‘ability’ is a fixed, quantifiable and innate property of the child” is not my ‘accepted truth’, any more than “teaching pupils in groups defined by this ‘ability’ is beneficial for their learning and personal/social flourishing”. I was a primary teacher/headteacher for thirty wonderful years. For the final twenty years of that time I set children in mixed ability groups for English and maths and every other subject was conducted in simple mixed ability groups. As a headteacher I saw it as my responsibility to establish such an ethos across the two schools I served. Some teachers were more successful than others at accommodating this approach. It was more pleasant for those children taught according to that ethos but even then, the children knew if they were different and in what ways.

    The subject of innate ability is certainly more complex than portrayed. It is also, for educationalists a very troublingly taboo subject. Enter the elephant in the room – intelligence (that troublesome quotient). Children’s attainment in national or other tests is determined by a complex interplay between nature and nurture. The former derives from our genes and it is up to the latter to allow or depress potential. Success, or otherwise, depends upon the quality of the environment the individual is subjected to. Intelligence is not therefore fixed at birth or any time later. One needs look no further than the groundbreaking work Professor Reuven Feuerstein to appreciate the plasticity of the human brain and the impact cultural deprivation in its many guises has on development.

    I would take you to task and suggest that rather than “Some reasons for the negative effects of low ‘ability’ groups seem to originate in unsatisfactory teaching conditions in those groups.”the most common reason is that it is the teaching that is at fault. With the ‘popular’ acceptance that the biggest game in town is high-stakes, summative testing, it could be argued that until this is challenged our children, of all abilities, will continue to lose out.

    While we wait for this madness to end, isn’t it time that professionals across all age ranges learn from the best that already exists and deliver cognitively challenging teaching in circumstances that recognise the value of all individuals, irrespective of their intelligence? Its time to agree to change what can be changed.

  3. Emma Dyer says:

    Fascinating! I wondered whether students in your study had voiced any opinions about the spaces and places where they learn in the primary school, for example, if they are seated at a particular table within the classroom or ‘withdrawn’ from the classroom for extra tuition in a different location in the school building?

  4. […] new project investigates, ‘How does it feel to be in the bottom […]

  5. […] UCL Institute of Education have a new project investigating, ‘How does it feel to be in the bottom […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

UCL Institute of Education

This blog was written by academics at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), for anyone interested in current issues in education and related social sciences.
IOE Tweets
%d bloggers like this: