Ability grouping: does it affect UK primary school pupils’ enjoyment of Maths and English?

In Episode 16 of Series 3 of the DIAL Podcast we’re discussing ability grouping in UK primary schools and how it affects children’s enjoyment of certain subjects. Our guest today is Queralt Capsada-Munsech from the University of Glasgow, who as part of DIAL’s LIFETRACK project has been looking at primary school children’s enjoyment of English and Maths at age seven, and later at age 11 to see whether ability grouping positively or negatively impacts their enjoyment of those subjects.


Does ability grouping affect UK primary school pupils’ enjoyment of Maths and English? is research by Vikki Boliver and Queralt Capsada-Munsech, and is published in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility.


Transcript Christine Garrington  0:00 

Welcome to DIAL a podcast where we tune into evidence on inequality over the lifecourse. In this episode, we’re talking about how grouping children by ability at school affects their enjoyment of certain subjects. Our guest is Queralt Capsada-Munsech from the University of Glasgow, who as part of DIAL’s Life Track project has been looking at primary school children’s enjoyment of English and Maths at age seven, and later at age 11 to see whether ability grouping positively or negatively impacts their enjoyment of those subjects.  

Queralt Capsada-Munsech  0:29 

There are people who are advocates of ability grouping, and their main argument is usually that high ability pupils improve their attainment, while there is no detriment in lower ability, once their academic performance mainly. But you know, the opponents in the general debate of ability grouping, what they say is that high ability students only do marginally better when they are grouped with a, yeah with a group of students that are homogenous to them. While lower ability ones are the ones that are substantially worse off from these ability grouping. And what we have seen mostly in previous research is that there is the main mechanism that we call that is the self-fulfilling prophecy of low attainment that you know, because you are grouping the low ability grouping and people, and students are aware of that. So they just know that they are not doing as well. And they continue to do more poorly while those that are in the high ability grouping, so they think better of themselves. And that leads them to better academic achievement. And usually, the way it has been measured has been based on what we call academic self-concept that basically is asking students, how good are you at maths, at English or at school in general? 

Christine Garrington  1:48 

So talk us through some of the policy context here – ability grouping as an education policy.

Queralt Capsada-Munsech   1:53 

In the gaze of the UK ability grouping was encouraged by the New Labour governments in the 1990s and in the 2000s. And the main idea was that it would raise standards generally, with higher grades in brightest kids in particular, that was something that was quite influential in past decades. And that had clearly an effect in policy because, you know, the prevalence of grouping practices still remains in place. And it increased quite a lot for the past few years. And we see in the UK, even that ability grouping is becoming increasingly common in early years, you know, at ages three and four and even in Key Stage One ages five to seven was, which was something that we didn’t see in the past. While you know, in the 1990s, there were fewer than 3% of primary schools who reported that they were streaming students by 2008 16% of seven year olds, were being streamed by ability for all subjects and 26% were being taught in ability sets for English and Math so that’s quite the change.

Christine Garrington  3:01 

What was it for you that you wanted to look at exactly about the way in which children are grouped by ability at primary school? What was it you wanted to look at and why?

Queralt Capsada-Munsech   3:10 

Empirical evidence what did show us that at least for the UK suggested that there weren’t many benefits of practising ability grouping. Mainly at the secondary level was most of the studies and it did little to raise the school’s standards, and it was more detrimental for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. And it was through that, you know, measured ability at the early ages is predictive of ability group placement. But so were also a lot of socio-economic indicators. So there were also a few mechanisms, you know, that people were looking at. So for instance, teaching practices or teaching learning environments. So the reason why this happened, that it was more detrimental for some instruments to the individual than others because teacher quality is correlated with ability grouping, meaning that mainly you know, teachers that are more qualified, more experienced tend to be a placed with a high ability grouping, while less experienced in the lower one, which maybe should be the opposite. But also because of students self-perception, so they internalise these labels of consequences for their self-esteem. We could see that there were many studies that had been undertaken at secondary level, but not that many at the primary level. So what we want to talk that was that academic enjoyment so that it would be different question like, how much have you enjoyed reading or doing number work or English or maths more, more precisely.

Christine Garrington  4:45 

So why was it important to look at how much children enjoyed subjects? What was it about that particular concept or idea that was was important in your research?

Queralt Capsada-Munsech  4:56 

Academic self-concept, the question how good you are at? It’s informed by students awareness of their test scores or their ability group placement, but it’s also a relational construct, you know how good you are compared to the rest of your pupils in your group or in your class. While academic enjoyment, we thought that it was a more an intrinsic motivation and is more of a personal preference, you know, you might like or dislike reading, even if you are very good at English or not. So it’s more of an independent one. And it’s less relational. So it’s not that you enjoy reading compared to your peers, it’s more they do you enjoy it more? Yes or no, or to what extent.

Christine Garrington  5:39 

So talk us through what you actually did.

Queralt Capsada-Munsech  5:40 

The question that we wanted to look at was looking okay, for instance in primary school at age seven, how much did pupils enjoy Maths or English and school in general? And then to look later on, you know, at age 11, before going to secondary school, how much they enjoy again, Maths, English and school in general. And to see to what extent it had changed from age seven to 11, depending on the ability group that they were in. So we were expecting that, okay, maybe your academic enjoyment of Maths might be different to those that are in the top or bottom ability group. But our hypothesis was that, theoretically, there is no reason for people to change how much they enjoy or not enjoy reading, for instance, from age seven to eleven, regardless of the relative group they are in.

Christine Garrington  6:38 

So where did you get your information from? And why was it a good source of data to help you address these questions that you were interested in?

Queralt Capsada-Munsech  6:47 

So we use one of the cohort studies that are called, that its the Millennium Cohort Study. But basically, it’s a longitudinal survey that follows about 19,000 people born in the UK in 2000 and 2002, approximately. You have the same people, the same individuals, and they have been surveyed throughout their lifetime. What it was important for us in order to make this comparison is that we would have that data about the same individuals, but also that we would have like similar questions at two points in time. So in this case, for instance, because if we want to check if there is a change or not in academic enjoyment, from age seven to eleven, we needed to have this very same question of academic enjoyment at those two points in times. And in addition, obviously, we had some information about ability grouping. And so.

Christine Garrington  7:41 

And when it came to this question of whether being grouped by ability did in some way influence whether a child liked a subject or not, what did you see?

Queralt Capsada-Munsech  7:50 

If we start just with the descriptive statistics, we already saw, obviously, that there were some differences. So maybe it’s worth starting by saying that, you know, overall, there was quite a lot of academic enjoyment among students. So the majority of them like a lot Maths, or reading or English, and most of the students so in most cases above 35%, were placed in the high ability one. And students that were placing the low ability one was usually smaller numbers like below 20%. That already gave us an idea of the distribution. But more importantly, yeah, when just looking at some bivariate descriptive statistics, we could see that those that are in high ability groups, tended to enjoy more Maths, for instance, than those that were placed in the low ability group. And that has stayed like, quiet similar when we look at it both at age seven, and eleven. So that’s something that we could see just from the descriptive statistics.

Christine Garrington  9:00 

Now you had some very specific findings around maths didn’t you? I wonder if you can talk us through what it was exactly that you saw there.

Queralt Capsada-Munsech  9:07 

Being placed in a lower rather than a high ability group at age seven, depress the probability of coming to enjoy continuing to enjoy or even to increasing your enjoyment of Maths by age eleven. And that stayed like this way even after controlling for you know, students measured ability in Maths, sex and social background at age seven. So we found that yeah, really being placed in ability grouping has an influence in your academic enjoyment of Maths. However, we didn’t find quite the same for English and school in general. So, you know, there was this tendency, but once we control for socio-demographic and socio-economic variables, the results weren’t statistically significant. So, we would say that, it’s mainly for maths that we would find some differences or some effects of ability grouping.

Christine Garrington  10:05 

Yeah, really, really interesting, though, and I’m gonna take you right back to the beginning of our conversation when you were saying, you know, just how much policy interest there is in this area around, specifically around education policy. What do you feel that we must take away from from this piece of work? And do you think there are any key takeaways specifically for education policy and practice?

Queralt Capsada-Munsech  10:25 

Overall, I would say that our findings are very much in line with much of the existing research, which indicates that ability grouping is detrimental to those judged to be of lower ability. And at least we find it in relation to Math. So it’s something to be worried about. And ability grouping by measured ability has a negative influence for those that label as that, as lower ability. And we can see now that it’s for both for academic self concept this idea of how good I am at maths, but also for academic enjoyment is like how much do you enjoy maths? So that can be detrimental if you are put in a lower ability group.

Christine Garrington  11:08 

Okay, so that’s the key sort of takeaway message, but what recommendations might you have in this area then?

Queralt Capsada-Munsech  11:14 

We are aware that it’s difficult to be in a classroom and that we don’t mean that because they are doing ability grouping they are bad teachers or bad educators. But yeah, I guess it’s something that we’ll have to continue exploring. And while some parts of ability grouping might work for some students or for some teachers overall, I wouldn’t encourage the policy of ability grouping, at least in the UK.

Christine Garrington  11:45 

Does ability grouping affect UK primary school pupils’ enjoyment of Maths and English? is research by Vikki Boliver and Queralt Capsada-Munsech, and is published in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. Thanks for listening to this episode of the DIAL podcast, which was presented by me Chris Garrington of Research Podcasts. You can find out more about all the DIAL projects at dynamicsofinequality.org.