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Ability grouping - experienced teachers weigh in please!

(24 Posts)
year5teacher Tue 18-Aug-20 12:16:50

Hi all,

I’m an NQT about to start in September. I’ve worked as a TA for three years previously so I have quite a bit of experience in classroom management, different teaching strategies etc, but this will be my first time planning everything myself.

Now I know that with Covid, we’re not really going to be having “group work” anyway. I’ve got them all sitting in rows, but there should still be opportunities for partner work and discussion with the children immediately around them.

I am pretty strongly against ability grouping because I think it’s shit for the LA children and I also don’t think it’s necessarily the best for HA kids either. I had tons of parents having a go on another thread saying how terrible this was for their child who is so clever (etc etc).

I’m interested in what those of you who have been teaching for years think.

As an NQT I am not exactly in a position to consider myself a fountain of knowledge and experience on these matters so - what do you all think?

OP’s posts: |
olivo Tue 18-Aug-20 15:07:43

I have been teaching for more than 20 years and prefer setted by ability classes, certainly for GCSE. Now that my own children are in secondary, I can also see the benefits for subjects other than my own. One of my DC has made little progress in one key subject this year as they cruise below the radar in their mixed ability group. Luckily, next year, they will be set and, hopefully , needs better noticed and addressed.

In terms of planning, much easier too. My subject still has tiered GCSE exams so sets mean we are generally aiming for one or the other, with only a little cross over.

Backgroundvicki Tue 18-Aug-20 15:17:30

I agree with you. I've worked everywhere between year 1 and year 5 and have never grouped children according to their ability. The great thing about having your own class is you can group them how you like.

I love mixed ability seating because it encourages great classroom discussions. I've also noticed that children who are great at number in maths are often bad at shape, space and measure and the children who find number difficult are great at shape, space and measure. Mixed ability means they are able to support each other at different times.

It also encourages independent working as you won't be able to sit with the "low" table and gives you the opportunity to work with different children throughout the week. Just ensure you differentiate appropriately and foster a growth mindset to ensure it's a success.

Backgroundvicki Tue 18-Aug-20 15:20:18

Are you primary or secondary though? My post above is in regards to primary. I would have no idea what secondary is like.

Hercwasonaroll Tue 18-Aug-20 15:36:20

Iamnotthe1 Tue 18-Aug-20 17:32:59

In my primary school, we don't ability group. For the last four years, I've run chosen seating so the children pick where they are sitting when they come in and move around as needed (to work with those on the same challenge, to engage in peer review, to join focus groups, etc.). but I teach Year Six so can do that much easier than younger years. Other classes tend to have seating plans which change regularly (weekly, fortnightly, half-termly depending on the year group).

In September, I'll have a seating chart though as a control measure, which will actually be a little weird.

I can see the purpose of setting in secondary schools though: different levels of exam have different content to cover.

Iamnotthe1 Tue 18-Aug-20 17:34:38

However, I would just say that you need to check whether your school has a policy on this. You will have to follow it even if you personally disagree with it.

year5teacher Tue 18-Aug-20 18:36:43

I teach primary (year 5), I can imagine it’s very different in secondary!

My concern is I’ve seen pretty bad practice before in constantly putting the TA with the lower group so they don’t learn any kind of independent work.. and this also isn’t necessarily that great depending on the TA. My first year as a TA I sat with the LA group every SINGLE lesson! It was mad, I was totally unexperienced. They actually all did well but it could have gone the opposite way!

I just remember always being in the bottom set for maths and it has followed me my whole life! I had such a bad attitude to myself as a learner in that subject and I feel like it really made me underachieve my whole school maths career.

@Iamnotthe1 good point, there’s no policy on it! In fact I don’t know any teachers there who do it. We would normally set for maths in Y5 but can’t this year.

OP’s posts: |
DollyMixtureLulus Tue 18-Aug-20 20:04:48

It depends on your class, and as someone pointed our, your school policy.

My class last year had to be grouped because the ability spread was so unbelievably huge. None of the 'LA' children could access any of the lessons that the 'HA' needed. This year, I think I'll be able to have mixed groups.

There are ways to balance out grouping though. Some non-numerical aspects of maths can be equally accessed for some children, like symmetry. Very hands-on, one off practical lessons should also be whole class.

ohthegoats Tue 18-Aug-20 21:52:37

I don't do grouping by ability. I might have a sort of greater depth task in a maths lesson that involves lots of discussion, so would put those children in their own group for that lesson (or two lessons). But I'd be expecting the rest of the class to get to that stage too, just more supported.

We have a big cohort in my year groups, so we split for children who still needed to be taught phonics like phonics (rather than age specific spelling rules), but that won't be happening this year.

flythewindmill Wed 19-Aug-20 08:29:09

I've been teaching for 16 years and prefer mixed ability (secondary). The subject I teach has a lot of scope for discussion and students interpreting texts and I have found low ability groups tend to be unable to do this and really benefit from hearing others' ideas. I have taught so many small, low ability groups over the years that just had no life in them. Now similar students are in mixed ability groups and most are thriving and results have gone up. We have scaffolding/extension tasks available and set them as needed during the lessons - we don't decide in advance who's definitely going to need them.

At KS4 we do have a very small top set for those who are hitting the top end of our mark scheme consistently (about 20 kids) and a small bottom set for those who need TA support (about 10 kids). The other sets will have WAGs of 7-3 equally distributed among them.

My head needed some persuading 3 years ago for us to move to this system but he's happy with the results and I've been asked to work with other departments to introduce it across the school.

In my school, pretty much all groups were mixed ability in reality anyway and this ensures there's an even mix of abilities in all classes, which is important. Setting is awful for disadvantaged children, who are over-represented in lower groups.

year5teacher Wed 19-Aug-20 09:39:50

Thank you everyone!

We have scaffolding/extension tasks available and set them as needed during the lessons - we don't decide in advance who's definitely going to need them.

This is really interesting. I’m definitely going down the “so and so will need help/an extension” which is silly. Some children find certain topics randomly hard and some really excel at them regardless of their ability.

OP’s posts: |
Hercwasonaroll Wed 19-Aug-20 10:39:13

By ks4 secondary maths, sets are needed because Higher and Foundation are two different courses. I'm looking forward to mixed attainment teaching from Sept. It's something new. Arguably every group of students is mixed attainment!

cantkeepawayforever Wed 19-Aug-20 11:10:26

I think it is absolutely right to have support and extension available - but not to assume in advance who is likely to need it.

I teach a year group young enough to sit on the carpet for input, and have increasingly grouped 'on the fly' as a result of what I see in verbal answers / whiteboard work during that part of the lesson. They have normal (mixed ability) seats, and often it will be 'now go back to your normal seats except x,y, and z who I would like to stay on the carpet with me, and a, b, c and d who will sit on this table with the TA'. the specific children chosen could either need more support, or need input for the extension work. Or i rerlease in phases, filling up from the back of the room furthest from the carpet as children become ready for the independent work. Or, if it is the second or later lesson of a sequence, i may place marked books on tables in advance and have slightly adapted tasks / support / resources for the different groups.

What I'm going to do this year, with fixed, allocated, paired seating all facing the front, is yet to be decided....

PoloNeckKnickers Wed 19-Aug-20 22:05:03

This will be my 32nd year in Primary teaching and I never group according to ability. Several TAs who have worked with me over the years have said they love the fact that they're not constantly put with the lower ability children. Some children get lazy and just expect an adult to do the thinking for them. That doesn't happen in my class.

Iamnotthe1 Wed 19-Aug-20 22:37:50

Some children get lazy and just expect an adult to do the thinking for them.

Learnt helplessness is such a major issue for children with historically low attainment. It's a battle but wonderful when you see them realise that they can actually do something for themselves.

PenOrPencil Thu 20-Aug-20 21:27:27

@Hercwasonaroll’a link to EEF says it all. I hate setting (secondary) and have abolished it in my department.

SE13Mummy Sun 23-Aug-20 00:08:53

I'm a primary teacher and am not a fan of grouping by performance. Mixed ability but with different level activities feels much more productive and encouraging. Wherever possible, I let children choose which level activity they will work on so make sure there are enough copies of whatever it is on the table so there's flexibility. It's great to see a less confident child pushing themselves to quietly tackle a harder task knowing that s/he would be unlikely to speak up and say that's what they wanted to do.

I sometimes need to direct specific children towards the higher level task at the start of the year but once they've realised it's not a case of whizzing through the work and then just doing their own thing, that tends to be less of an issue. It's important to ensue the highest performers have sufficiently challenging work available so they don't regularly finish before everyone else and end up 'helping' lowest performers on their table. Likewise, it may be necessary for you to explicitly ask your TA not to automatically support those lowest performers but to work with a particular group both reinforcing or supporting the learning but also encouraging independence and use of agreed strategies for working out what sort of help is needed.

MadameMinimes Sun 23-Aug-20 09:00:21

I totally agree with @PenOrPencil. I can’t stand setting and never set as a head of department. It entrenches disadvantage. At SLT meetings I now bang the drum for getting rid of it in the only two subjects that we have left that set. The more pronounced disadvantage gap in those subjects speaks for itself IMO.

I do however teach a subject that lends itself particularly well to differentiation by outcome and mixed ability teaching. I teach history and so a question like “Why did Henry VIII break from Rome?” can be sensibly set for primary school students or PHD students. Differentiating for the range of ability that you get in a class of 30 teens is pretty straightforward compared to what might be needed in other subjects.

Fuzzyspringroll Sun 23-Aug-20 09:58:07

I'd just go with what you feel comfortable with and then adjust as needed.
I usually let kids choose their own tasks and they sit in mixed ability groups. I usually teach UKS2, though, and they are already quite used to moving around and working more independently.
I took over a first year class last week. They are currently in allocated seats and for next week, they will be in ability groups. However, it's because this is their first year at school. They haven't been before. They can't read or write, yet, some are only just learning to identify their we take it slowly and I introduce things step-by-step. To begin with, I feel they needed an allocated seat, somewhere they knew they go when they are asked to sit down. It would be much more frightening for some of them to be told to now go off and just sit somewhere. We'll get into the independent work and them taking more ownership of their learning after a while but at the moment, it's not appropriate for them, yet.
Start with a plan...then adapt it as you go on.

cantkeepawayforever Sun 23-Aug-20 11:42:01

Start with a plan...then adapt it as you go on.

i think that is key! Dogmatism of any kind limits your options for doing the best for the class in front of you at that moment.

Chocolatecakeandcoffee Mon 24-Aug-20 15:38:33

I think Science and Maths are better taught in sets. The content for the most able and least able and the pace you teach as is completely different.
Most high ability students are strong across the board and they are unchallenged in mixed ability settings. Students who are high ability achieve consistently high grades across all subjects. Over 20 yrs teaching experience and rarely seen bright kids who are only bright in one area...also have two dc who have been bored in mixed ability settings and are now in selective independents...

cantkeepawayforever Mon 24-Aug-20 17:10:18

I think Science and Maths are better taught in sets.

In secondary, I presume?

In primary, setting is rare - though 'fixed ability grouping', while old-fashioned, is common, I have taught in a primary big enough for maths sets, and the results went up HUGELY when sets were abolished - of course Y6 SATs only have a single level, and that is different from the GCSE situation. The greatest gain seemed to come from those at the bottom of each set and the top of the one below (so no more 'I'm bad at Maths because I'm not as good as X' nor 'I'm bad at Maths because I'm only in Set 2 not Set 1') and also from the non SEN members of the lowest set, who greatly benefited from hearing the answers of and working alongside slightly more able peers.

MrR2200 Mon 24-Aug-20 22:20:18

As said above, flexibility is key. And knowing your class, which will come with time.

Under normal circumstances, I usually mix them every day depending on the needs of the day but do at-least-weekly carousels to mop up gaps - these are grouped by the gaps I want to fill so are broadly by ability but change constantly. And most work is tailored to be low-threshold, high ceiling (e.g. find a way, find more ways, prove you've found all the ways).

Ability tables are okay on a very short-term basis. I haven't used them since my NQT year (and moved away from it even then). The thing is, ability isn't a static thing - there are lots of aspects to it. Some kids can reason but don't know their times tables; others know their times tables but can't read the questions; others can do both but have low confidence; and then there are ones who are bright but will crib off their neighbours if you put them with the bright kids. Pure ability is rarely the main concern, and even when it is, kids often have different strengths and weaknesses within subjects so it depends what you're working on. Usually better combinations become apparent: e.g. a numerate but quiet EAL child next to a reading-loving mathsphobic child.

For your high-highs, working with other GDS+ children can become a crutch (especially where you have strong personalities with a reputation for being right and people defer) but equally you want them to have people to spark off now and then so I try and give them something meaty to collaborate on maybe once a week. If they really are off the scale and sail through everything, be aware of what problem solving skills you want to develop (Everyday Problem Solving and Reasoning is great for this if your school has it).

If parents are cross about a lack of GDS grouping, probe for the issue that underlies their complaint. If they want the child to be with the HA group, is this because the child doesn't feel stretched, or because the child has been with these kids before and feels nervous without them or feels like they've lost prestige... or is it just the parent projecting and the child is actually fine? If you work the GDS kids hard and keep them stretched, they generally won't have time to complain about their seating!!

Don't underestimate how much you can inspire a less-confident child by having them work with more confident children if you can identify a strength of theirs - for example, I had a girl last year who had great times table knowledge but was very behind in general. I asked her to join a group of confident kids for a times table investigation. I didn't think twice about it really but at parents' evening mum told me it was a huge deal for her to be doing a project with "the clever kids" -- apparently this had never happened before!

My experience of class-by-class primary setting is that kids aren't evenly distributed and the vast majority are in the middle -- splitting them doesn't do much as the extremes are still extreme relative to the set and you just create problems in the middle. In secondary where you can split more ways, there's doubtless more benefit to the top and bottom but I suspect in the middle there's room to consider group dynamics beyond blanket "ability".

Anyway, good luck with your NQT year. Crazy time under any circumstances but especially now. Pace yourself and be kind to yourself. smile

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