Ability grouping in primary school may reinforce disadvantage of summer-born children, study finds

8 April 2013

Ability grouping may be intensifying the disadvantages experienced by summer-born children, new research suggests.

It is generally assumed that primary school pupils are assigned to ability groups predominantly on the basis of their aptitude and potential. However, a study from the Institute of Education, University of London, shows that the youngest children in a school year are far more likely to be placed in the lowest ability groups than autumn-born pupils.

The research found that, by age seven, September-born children were nearly three times as likely to be in the top stream as those born in the following August. If the children were not only streamed, but also grouped by ability within their class or year for specific subjects, then the age differences became even more marked.

Such practices could be compounding the problems faced by younger pupils, says the study’s author, Tammy Campbell, who examined information on the schooling of more than 5,000 English seven-year-olds being followed by the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS).

“If teachers place younger pupils – early in their school career – in lower ability groupings, and older pupils in higher groupings, this hasty (and potentially premature) sorting may have a significant impact on subsequent differences in educational attainment,” she says.

Studies have shown that ability grouping tends to entrench differences between pupils – being placed in a particular group can affect children’s self-perceptions and behaviour, and possibly how their teachers interact with them. Group placement can also limit pupils’ academic opportunities.

This may mean that ability grouping has particularly negative consequences for younger children who tend to do less well academically, on average, than their older classmates. Previous research has also found summer-born children to be less confident than their autumn-born peers, and more likely to be bullied both in and out of school.

Tammy Campbell found ability grouping to be widespread in English schools. Ninety-seven per cent of children in the study were ability-grouped by the age of seven – either within their year, within their classes, or both.

Nearly one in five pupils was streamed within a year, and consequently received all lessons in a particular ability group. Just over 30 per cent of the children, who were all born in 2000-01, were grouped within their year for English lessons. Thirty-seven per cent were grouped within their year for maths. However, grouping pupils by ability within their classes was most commonplace. Almost 80 per cent of pupils were grouped in-class for most or all teaching. Eighty-seven per cent were grouped in class for literacy and 85 per cent for numeracy.

Notably, more than 80 per cent of the seven-year-olds in this study were subject to at least three or more types of grouping at the same time.

“Some people will find this surprising, given the age of these children. When the data from the MCS age 11 survey becomes available, we will be able to see whether the inequalities experienced by summer-born children at age seven are reflected in their attainment at the end of primary school,” Tammy Campbell explained. “By following the children over time, we should be able to determine if early ability grouping is in fact contributing to younger children’s poorer outcomes in later life.”

In-school ability grouping and the month of birth effect: Preliminary evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study is the latest working paper from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), Institute of Education, University of London.

Further information

Meghan Rainsberry
Institute of Education
University of London
020 7612 6530

Notes for editors

1. This study examined six types of ability grouping: streaming, setting for literacy, setting for numeracy, in-class overall ability grouping, in-class grouping for literacy, and in-class grouping for numeracy. The definitions of the different ability-grouping practices are as follows:

Streaming refers to division of all pupils in a year group into classes hierarchically structured according to a measure or judgement of ‘overall’ academic ability.

Setting refers to division of pupils within a year group into ability-based classes specifically for the teaching of a given subject, based on measured or judged ability in that subject.

In-class ability grouping refers to division of a class into sub-groups, based on measured or perceived ability, for the purposes of general teaching (in-class overall ability grouping) or teaching of a specific subject (in-class ability grouping for literacy or numeracy).

2. This study builds on previous research from the Institute of Education, which found that one in six pupils across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland was streamed by the age of seven. These earlier findings also indicated that month of birth predicted stream placement, even when controlling for other influencing pupil and family characteristics. See Hallam, S. and Parsons, S. (2013) Prevalence of streaming in UK primary schools: Evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study. British Educational Research Journal. Available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01411926.2012.659721

3. The Millennium Cohort Study has been tracking more than 19,000 children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through their early childhood and plans to follow them into adulthood. It covers such diverse topics as parenting; childcare; school choice; child behaviour and cognitive development; child and parental health; parents’ employment and education; income; housing; and neighbourhood. Surveys of the cohort have been carried out at the ages of nine months, and three, five and seven years. The Millennium Cohort Study was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, whose funding has been supplemented by a consortium of government departments. It is managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London.

4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2012-13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk

5. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute’s research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be “world leading”. The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its “high quality” initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students “to want to be outstanding teachers”. The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 12 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities. More at www.ioe.ac.uk

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