GROUPING BY ABILITY
Does it help the equity agenda? Look at international practice.
Jo Boaler, formerly Professor of Mathematics at Stanford University, now Professor of Education at Sussex, in her paper ‘The ‘Psychological Prisons’ from which they never escaped: The role of ability grouping in reproducing social class inequalities’ asserted that the ability grouping policies that new Labour encourages in schools would not be entertained in most other countries in the world and goes some way to explaining the inequities in the UK system. She writes ‘England strides forward, encouraging extensive ability grouping practices at the youngest possible age. It is only the rarest and bravest of teachers who have managed to resist the pressures to group by ‘ability’ from the current Labour government, thereby maintaining a vision of schooling that promotes equity and high attainment for all. ‘ In Sweden ability grouping is illegal because it is known to produce inequities. In the US parents have brought law-suits against school districts that have denied high level curricula to students at high school age; the idea that such selectivity in ‘opportunity to learn’ (Porter, 1994) could happen at elementary school is inconceivable for most Americans. In Japan (Yiu, 2001) students are believed to have equal potential and the aim of schools is to encourage students to attain at equally high levels. Japanese educators are bemused by the Western goal of sorting students into high and low ‘abilities’.
Boaler suggests that one of the most important goals of schools is to provide stimulating environments for all children; environments in which children’s interest can be peaked and nurtured, with teachers who are ready to recognize, cultivate and develop the potential that children show at different times and in different areas. It is difficult to support a child’s development and nurture their potential if they are placed into a low group at a very early age, told that they are achieving at lower levels than others, given less challenging and interesting work, taught by less qualified and experienced teachers, and separated from peers who would stimulate their thinking. Yet the predictability of performance in English schools seems not to trouble policy makers who support early and extensive ability grouping (Carvel, 1996). This is one of the reasons that the UK scores at the bottom of the scale on PISA’s measures of equality (OECD, 2000; Green, 2003) she claims. It is an interesting point. How many children are identified early on as weak in a particular subject and placed in a low ability grouping normally with the worst teacher, and stay there, so reinforcing their sense of underachievement and failure? Quite a few I would suggest. Large scale analyses of school effectiveness, conducted with international datasets, such as PISA and SIMS, conclude that ‘schools that group students the latest and the least have the highest outcomes.’ Research on ability grouping has persistently shown high correlations between social class and setting (Ball, 1981, Boaler, 1997a), with social class working as a subtle filter that results in the over-representation of working class children in low groups.
Boaler conducted a longitudinal study of two schools, one of which set by ability early on, the other had mixed ability classes and then set by ability just before exams. Cohorts of students in the two schools, who were similar in terms of social class and prior attainment, were monitored for three years (Boaler, 1997a, 2002).. The one that left setting to the last moment had much better results. Indeed, many of the students in the setting school reported that they gave up on their learning when they were placed into any set from 2 downwards. Boaler was particularly worried about how keen the Governments was to introduce ability grouping in Primary schools. Her conclusion was that if the Government (Labour) cares about promoting ‘social justice’ then an important part of their agenda for the future must be to learn about equitable and effective grouping policies that promote high achievement for all and reduce rather than reproduce social inequalities. This is all very interesting given how strongly some educationalists and politicians feel about the positive impact of setting.
The Tories even mentioned it in their manifesto. Politicians shouldn’t be telling schools whether they should set by ability or not, that is called micro-management from the centre and self-evidently undermines school autonomy. It is precisely the kind of decision that should be left to schools themselves, informed by evidence of what works best in particular contexts.