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Views on ability groups

(187 Posts)
averywoomummy Thu 21-Nov-13 12:37:11

Having just read the thread about summer borns and having done a bit of reasearch on the internet about ability groups I was just wondering what people's views were on them.

Personally I am quite worried about how they are used at DCs school and wonder if I am right to be so. The thing is I could understand if they sat at mixed tables and then went into separate groups for maths etc but in DCs class they sit in their ability group for the majority of the time - even doing crafts within their group. This seems to very much fix them in their ability band and they don't get the chance to work with children of different abilities and share knowledge.

This also means the groups are very obvious and as they use the same names year in year out parents instantly know what group their child and others are in.

It also concerns me that it is a small classroom with a fixed number on each table and so for a child to move up - another has to move down (and vice versa) this doesn't seem right as surely children's development is very fluid and just because one is ready to move up doesn't mean that at the same time another child is ready to move down. It also seems quite divisive as children could perceive their place has been "taken".

As DC is in a lower group I also worry about her learning being capped and I think that even if she is capable of a bit more she may not be encouraged to do it. I worry that the lower group will start to see themselves as not so capable and that it will become a self fulfilling prophesy.

I can understand differentiation of work but does it have to be so obvious?!

Really interested to hear others opinions of how this has worked for their DCs - also how does a class with no grouping work?

PastSellByDate Thu 21-Nov-13 13:44:39

Hi aveerywoomummy

Well this is a hot potato and there have been all sorts of long conversations about various points you've raised, so I suspect I'm just the first of many who will comment.

Teaching to ability - Nice idea in principle. Not completely sure differentiation works in practice, unless the teacher is highly organised and prepared to put in that extra work to target learning to individuals or small groups of similarly performing pupils.

I will say that intervention (so extra support/ teaching for low ability/ struggling pupils) is a different kettle of fish. I personally would like to see this happen sooner, not after years of raising concerns at Parent/ teacher meetings or indeed formally complaining. Shouldn't be necessary. Again if teachers are professional parents shouldn't have to virtually wage war to get help for their children. If a 9 year old can't take 1 from 10 that should be a problem and it shouldn't take the parent complaining to OFSTED to get their child help.

Our school has ability tables (usually funky names based on colours, shapes, gem stones, authors, etc....). At first DDs and I had no idea what was 'top' table but over the years the kids have twigged. Certainly by late Y3 they've known roughly where they stand vis a vis their friends. I think the tables thing if left stagnant does affect a child's view of themselves. My DD1 has moved up the tables and is very proud of that - so it's been a positive thing but DD2 is a veritable yo-yo because the school will only teach 5-6 high ability pupils at a higher level per class.

I think the fixed numbers of pupils on tables thing is awful. Our school follows this so therefore only 5-6 pupils can be in 'top group' and get higher ability work. Our school tends to handle 'fixed numbers on top table' by rotating the same 4-5 kids about between top and 2nd table (so part of the year they're on top table and part they're on a lower table). DD2 is often in this situation - frequently at start of school year - and being only 8 she finds being demoted to a table with obviously too easy work humiliating but faithfully believes the teacher must be right in doing so, so she must be stupid. The result is she's incredibly stressed by her 'position' on a table and constantly working her little heart out to please a teacher who frankly probably won't ever move her up.

What do you say as a parent. 'No darling, it's your teacher who's stupid'

I've had DD2 in floods of tears for demotions since Y1 (she's now Y4). Every year there some form of drama. I try to be positive and encourage her to work harder with me at home so that she will be moved up again (moving up dependent on optional SATs given 3 x a year by teachers at our school). Fortunately our cycle with this is moved down at start of year and moved back up by end of year. However, I now hate September/October (used to be autumn was my favourite time of year) because I live in dread for the evening when DD2 is demoted from maths, reading and/or literacy table.

All in all I really hate this fixed number on top table thing - I'd far rather see two top tables (Maybe Rubies 1 and Rubies 2) for the 9 children working at that similar level - instead of one Ruby table which is reading classic children's fiction and the rest are all reading Horrid Henry, Michael Morpurgo or Jacqueline Wilson (and I do not joke - that's been the reading diet on the lower tables since start KS2). The difference in quality of education resources is what I really object to.

Our solution has been to do more at home and I've just decided it's easier to have the view that school is 'day care'.

Yogurthoney Thu 21-Nov-13 13:48:57

i can't agree more now, PastSellByDate.

ReallyTired Thu 21-Nov-13 13:53:48

Schools are now pushed that every child has to show progress. Surely its OFSTED suicide to have a child being given work that is too easy or too hard. A school should strive that every child reaches their full potential.

Children should be given work that is suited to their next steps in learning. If there are too many children for the top table then there needs to be an overlow table. A good teacher will know where a child's strengths and weaknesses are in maths or English. For example a child might be excellent at reading but struggle with English. Or a child is really good at geometry but struggles with money questions.

Ironically my son's school which had an overflow top table still ended up failing its OFSTED inspection. Ds' year 6 teacher used to assign children to activites depending on whether they understood the concept in the last lesson. A child might find themselves sitting on table 4 to revise basic fractions and then moving to the top table to have more challenaging work on geometry.

Layl77 Thu 21-Nov-13 13:54:29

I didn't think my ds had ability groups but there are four or five groups which have been there since the start, do you think these are ability groups? Surely they didn't know the children's levels before they started?

cranberryorange Thu 21-Nov-13 14:16:13

Ds in Yr 1 remains on the lowest ability table which he stays on for a majority of the day.

My biggest concern with this system is that he isnt being exposed to the same information or education as those DC on the higher tables so will the gap just widen because he cant learn what he isnt being taught and it becomes a vicious circle from the age of 5 as he moves through the school years.

How will the school fill the gaps or dont they have to for slower childrenconfused

moldingsunbeams Thu 21-Nov-13 14:21:01

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

DeWe Thu 21-Nov-13 14:24:14

What I noticed at infant level was that generally the top two tables did very similar work, most of the time the same, but the top table was expected to be more independent. There was also usually extention work that they would expect the top table to get onto, but if someone on the second table finished, they would get to.
They also did ability tables for maths, literacy and guided reading separately, plus had a separate, non-ability- group for other things.

Interestingly, I did a questionaire once with children at secondary about half a term after they had been set for maths. This was about how they felt about being set, their confidence in how they were doing and that sort of thing.
The children that really appreciated being set were the bottom set. They felt that it really improved their confidence not to see others rushing through the work they found really hard, and they appreciated having work set more at their level.
Middle sets felt that in a more moderate way, and the top set was fairly indifferent about being set-with a few complaints that they were now expected to work harder as they couldn't hide.

PastSellByDate Thu 21-Nov-13 14:26:22

Hi Layl77:

If your DC is in Year R then there is a chance these are just groups (with no ability basis)


If your child has gone to nursery then most nurseries prepare a very detailed report for the school on where the child is at against EYFS learning outcomes - e.g.

They will also have assessed each child against EYFS skills during the first few weeks of school.

So yes, even from Year R, there is a likelihood that children will be placed into different ability groups. But, in some ways this makes a lot of sense, because there is a huge difference between a new 4 year old and someone already 5 years of age at this young age.

There is a strong likelihood that reading groups will reflect ability and the stage your child is at - and to be fair schools will have Year R pupils who can read some words and those who have never seen a book all in the same class.


MilkRunningOutAgain Thu 21-Nov-13 14:41:16

I don't think you'll like this but many lower table kids simply won't understand the work the top tables are getting. Yes, it does mean they will be exposed to less content and in less depth. This could be a good thing for many, to ensure they grasp the basics.

I do agree that the system is not as flexible as it should be nor well used by some teachers/ schools.

For my DS in yr 6 it works relatively well, he is borderline table 1 / 2 out of 5 tables. It upsets him when he goes down to table 2, but then he tends to work a bit harder to go back up. He is inclined to be lazy about school work, only really interested in sport.

For dd it is not working well. She was bottom table in yr 1. This had a horrible effect on her self esteem as she knew she was bottom table. She has since moved up, and in yr 3 is about in the middle of the class. But her self esteem and ability to work independently ( she was great at independent working in nursery) are both poor. She thinks she is stupid. I've not succeeded in changing her view, despite a lot of effort. Dd has covered much less than DS but to be honest, though it is irritating, it's probably a good thing, she was not ready to learn in yr r or yr 1 and DS was.

DS seems much more self assured and assumes he is clever, he has after all nearly always been on or next to the top table.

PastSellByDate Thu 21-Nov-13 14:50:36

Layl/Cranberry/ Molding:

Absolutely hear you in relation to worries that your children are not accessing the same teaching as other children.

several things:

1) Yes, they aren't getting taught about that (say adding fractions) at the same time, but they will be taught it (or at least introduced to it later).

2) I think the disadvantage of not learning at same time as top table is that top table (having two DDs on top table now in KS2 in maths) seem to be endlessly reviewing things in whole class sessions, but then given tricker problems to cope with in group work.

This has two advantages for top group (or conversely disadvantages for lower groups):

Top group get more practice/ review of concepts
Top group get more challenging work (which they also learn skills from)

3) I think that feeling of being excluded is problematic. It really upsets DD2 to be demoted. I personally find it very hard shoring up her confidence afterwards.

PastSellByDate Thu 21-Nov-13 14:51:27

sorry should have been

but then given trickier problems...

moldingsunbeams Thu 21-Nov-13 14:59:43

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

moldingsunbeams Thu 21-Nov-13 15:00:19

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

LittleSiouxieSue Thu 21-Nov-13 15:03:22

All this shows is that children should be encouraged to do their best and not worry about what others are doing. Sitting next to a clever child will not make the less clever child suddenly become a top table child. Some children read books in Reception so these will probably accelerate their learning in comparison to a child who is struggling to recognise letters. I do however, think schools can rotate tables frequently so that the top table work with children a bit lower down the pecking order. The top ones , and indeed bottom ones, do not have to work together all the time. Some parents seem to expect a continual berth at the top table whereas there might be work where a mixed group could be beneficial. Parents can do a lot to fill in the gaps too. Lots of reading at home etc. Lower groups in year 7 may well include children who are level 2 at KS2 or a 3c. You would not expect them to get a C at GCSE.

LydiaLunches Thu 21-Nov-13 15:08:16

DD1 (yr 3) sits on a very mixed table (like a tiny form group) then is in ability groups for maths and English, seems to work well. The top maths group is 9 out of 30 children. I have noticed that the reading groups in DD2's class are all different sizes although was a bit hmm to see that the small top group has had a specifically female name given to it (all named after book titles)!

LifeIsBetterInFlipFlops Thu 21-Nov-13 15:14:30

I'm not sure, but wouldn't a more able child be held up in a mixed ability group, as they would have to wait for all the pupils to reach the current level?

LittleSiouxieSue Thu 21-Nov-13 15:22:21

A bright child would only be held up if they were not given extension work or had no other bright child on the table. They could be moved in a pair or a trio. My DDs never sat on a table that comprised the brightest only but did sit with the middle group children too. However they did have someone to work with who was roughly their level. This meant there was no elitism but to stop any child being held back, extension work was given to the brighter/quicker children. I felt this was fair and the lower/middle groups were mixed up a bit too.

LifeIsBetterInFlipFlops Thu 21-Nov-13 16:00:11

That sounds a sensible and fair way of doing it Little.

TheWomanTheyCallSarahJane Thu 21-Nov-13 16:04:26

And this is where I thank goodness ds3 goes to a small school and there is one table as there is only four of them in their year

ZooCheur Thu 21-Nov-13 16:11:03

DD's class R is streamed; the school aren't really shy about saying so. They're streamed separately for maths and english too - the groups are on the wall, althogh of course they aren't labelled as 'top set' to 'bottom set' or anything like that.

It makes sense to me - there is an english set for those that can already read, and sets for those that are at various stages on the way there. The groups are dynamic too, DD told me yesterday about people who had swapped groups, and wonders if she will. She sees it as a fun thing to do rather than as something positive or negative. I guess the maths groups are the same, although I don't know what the criteria are for that. In fact I don't know what it is for the english groups, I just know that only one group got reading books with words when books were first given out.

If the school thinks that teaching that way is the best way to get each child to access the curriculum at the right level for them, then I am happy.

cranberryorange Thu 21-Nov-13 16:16:16

I'm sure a good school could manage the different abilities without dividing them all up into groups at such a young age.

Ds has a TA doing most of his teaching because its her who spends most of the day sat with them doing something different whilst the teacher steams ahead with the majority.

I view this as my Ds is already clinging onto the tailcoats of his peers at the age of 5 and he is becoming more aware of it. If you throw in the amount of times his little group go off for 'small group' interventions then he might as well be in a different school. It also adds to massive chunks of the school curriculum that he's missing which must surely just add to the problemhmm

Its hard as a parent not to think that the expectations for my son are so low that the schools only interest is maintaining some sort of progress however small so that their paper trail is complete when OFSTED visit.

Maybe i'm just a cynical old bagsad

ZooCheur Thu 21-Nov-13 16:37:00

cranberryorange I'm sure a good school could manage the different abilities without dividing them all up into groups at such a young age."

Well maybe they could, and maybe they couldn't. What I do know is I'd find teaching a class containing a four year old with limited spoken english and a five year old who is a fluent reader in mixed ability groups to be a challenge.

The point is I think there is a perfectly valid case to say that setting is beneficial to all the children, regardless of whether or not the school could 'manage' without doing it.

cranberryorange Thu 21-Nov-13 16:53:26

The point is I think there is a perfectly valid case to say that setting is beneficial to all the children, regardless of whether or not the school could 'manage' without doing it

Thats my biggest worry because it certainly doesnt benefit my Ds, even if it does benefit the other 26. The school have managed to teach him that he is slower than the rest which in turn has knocked his confidence and self esteem and his enthusiasm for learning is about Zero now. They have also limited what he is able to learn so in effect have limited the level he can reach.

How does anyone know what a childs potential is at the age of 5.

I want him to access everything on the curicculum and have support in place to get him to a level where he can learn effectively and confidently.

There is a huge emphasis on early intervention being crucial to a childs education and success. It appears to be much easier for schools to put in the ability divide at the age of 4 and set the expectations at whatever level they have guessed at using EYFS.

There was a massive thread on here about how different schools interpreted achievement for EYFS which is frightening when you consider those at the bottom end like my Ds are now being educated to a level that test has set.

ZooCheur Thu 21-Nov-13 17:12:11

Obviously I don't know anything about your DS or the school he attends. It may be that the way they stream at the school has knocked his confidence and enthusiasm, but I'd say that if it has then it's a function of how they've streamed rather than streaming per se.

It shouldn't be about limiting what a child is able to learn, it is about making sure that the work presented is of a level that stretches the child without seeming incomprehensible to them - presenting them each day with something that's juuuuuust within reach.

That's easier to do if the children are in smaller groups. To teach a whole class that way you'd have to teach to the least able (so no-one was presented with something they couldn't do) and then add on extensions for the next (however many) levels. I think there are 6 groups in DDs class; it's be boring for the children if the teacher was having to present stuff to suit all of them as one big group.

I still think that, done properly, setting is best for all the children involved. It sounds like you think it's not done properly at your child's school.

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