Primary school children who are placed in the bottom ability group in their class go on to show increased levels of hyperactivity and emotional problems throughout childhood and early adolescence, groundbreaking new research shows.
While the impact of ability grouping on children’s academic attainment has been extensively researched, the study by University College London (UCL) Institute of Education focuses on behavioural and emotional outcomes for young people who find themselves in the lowest ability groups at an early age.
The new findings, published in the Child Development journal, have prompted researchers to call for children in lower ability groups within classes to be monitored closely by their teachers to ensure their wellbeing is not being compromised.
The research, which examined the impact of ability grouping at the age of seven on children in UK schools, is based on analysis of data from more than 7,000 pupils, who were periodically assessed for peer, emotional, hyperactivity, and behaviour problems up to the age of 14.
Researchers found that children in the lower ability in-class groups showed more hyperactivity and emotional problems during the study period, compared with children who were not taught in ability groups. Children in the middle ability groups showed more hyperactivity than those not in groups, while top-set children were less likely to show signs of hyperactivity than non-grouped children.
The study is significant because ability or attainment grouping is widely used in UK schools, with nearly four in five (79%) of primary schools using in-class ability grouping for seven-year-olds.
Pupils with similar levels of attainment are grouped together on tables, but all pupils are taught by their usual teacher and support staff, and they usually follow the same curriculum but at different levels of difficulty to ensure all pupils have an appropriate level of challenge.
According to the UCL research, studies examining the impact of ability grouping on attainment have produced mixed findings. The Education Endowment Fund, a charity that provides evidence-based resources designed to improve practice and learning in schools in England, found that in-class attainment grouping can result in two months of additional progress for some children, but said evidence was limited.
The UCL study calls for further research. The report’s author, Dr Steven Papachristou, said: “Our findings about the increased emotional and behavioural problems of children placed in low within-class ability groups highlight an important challenge for the use and implementation of ability grouping. Whether the academic benefits of within-class ability grouping reported by some outweigh its shortcomings should be a priority for future research.
“To date, very little is known about the learning dynamics, peer processes, and subtle effects of in-class ability grouping, particularly in classes with extensive selective grouping.
“However, if the associations found in this study are causal, they suggest that children in the lower within-class ability groups require close monitoring and support by their teachers to ensure that their behavioural and emotional development is not compromised.”
Prof Eirini Flouri, a fellow author, added: “Our study was the first general population study in the UK to explore the role of both between-class ability grouping and within-class ability grouping in child mental health. We did not find either psychosocial advantages or psychosocial disadvantages for those in the top ability groups, either between class or within class.
“However, those in the bottom within-class groups showed consistently elevated levels of emotional and behavioural problems. Whether this is because of stigmatisation, or unfavourable social comparisons, or another process remains to be tested.”
The Department for Education declined to comment on the study, saying it was up to schools to decide on their approach to ability grouping, taking into account the evidence available and the specific needs of their own pupils. It added that that streaming pupils by ability could help teachers give every child an appropriately stretching education.
• This article was amended on 13 December 2021. An earlier headline incorrectly implied that the study found a causal link between children being placed in lower attainment groups and emotional or behavioural outcomes.