Should schools abolish grouping pupils by ability? The Sutton Trust thinks so

The Sutton Trust – an organisation dedicated to improving social mobility through education – has a major report out which suggests that the practice of grouping pupils by ability should be abolished. The report suggests that such ability groups make little difference to learning outcomes because it can result in teachers failing to accommodate different needs within an ability group and over-playing differences between groups – i.e. going too fast with the high-ability groups and too slow with the low.

This is understandable with schools currently fixated on ensuring that pupils on the border between the C and D GCSE grade achieve a C-grade in core subjects, which is the key driver in determining a school’s standing in league table rankings. However, changes in secondary school accountability due to come in from September 2015 will change this. The reforms will see schools ranked according to how their pupil progress from their entry into schools at aged 11 to how they perform at GCSE, especially in the core subjects of English and Mathematics.

The school accountability changes should make schools wary of completely ending the practice of grouping pupils by ability just in case a future report finds that under the new system ability groups work best. The danger of ability groups is that teaching resources are focused higher on pupils on the C-D borderline, while higher and lower ability groups lose out. Under the new system, some schools may find that a streaming system works best for them if it enables them to target a particular group to encourage pupil progress, or increasing the proportion of high pupil attainment, as both factors will in future correspond to a higher ranking in league tables.

But, ultimately, as the Sutton Trust says, good performance comes down to good teaching – and teachers could do far worse than taking on board the recommendations of the Sutton Trust’s report on popular teaching practices.