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Ability groups harm children's education, say Sussex researchers

Education researchers at the University of Sussex have found major flaws in the Prime Minister's education policy, which aims to have ability groupings as the norm in key subjects.

Two new separate studies show that sorting school children into sets is neither an accurate way of assessing ability, nor is it beneficial to their learning.

Research by Jo Boaler, Marie Curie Professor of Education at Sussex, revealed that children in mixed ability mathematics classes outperformed those grouped by ability. She reviewed a new way of grouping children that also resulted in unusually good behaviour and high levels of respect and responsibility among the young people .

Another new study by Sussex researchers shows that children are being placed in ability groups according to social class, with pupils from middle-class backgrounds more likely to be assigned to higher sets, irrespective of their prior attainment.

The results of Professor Boaler's study, which followed 700 teenagers in the US over four years, were all the more remarkable because the mixed ability group came from disadvantaged backgrounds and were initially less able at maths.

Professor Boaler, who has been invited to present her findings to Gordon Brown's advisors, said: "In England we use more ability grouping than possibly any other country in the world, and children are put into groups at a very young age. It is no coincidence that our society also has high levels of anti-social behaviour and indiscipline. Children who are put into low sets in school quickly learn to view themselves as unsuccessful and develop anti-school values that lead into general anti-social behaviour."

The study, which analysed the results of different methods of teaching maths in three American high schools, found that an approach that involved students not being divided into ability groups, but being given a shared responsibility for each other's learning, led to a significant improvement in the achievements of high and low achieving students. The approach had further benefits in that it taught students to take responsibility for each other and to regard that responsibility as an important part of life.

"Many parents support ability grouping because they think it is advantageous for high attaining children," points out Professor Boaler. "But my recent study of a new system of grouping in the US showed that the system benefited students at high and low levels and the high attaining students were the most advantaged by the mixed ability grouping, because they had opportunities to learn work in greater depth. If our government is concerned about the behaviour of young people then it is time to explore systems of student grouping that teach students respect and responsibility, rather than disillusionment and anti-school values."

Professor Boaler was also the author of an earlier study in England that found that mixed ability classes achieved at higher levels than those put into sets. Her earlier research is reported in her book, Experiencing School Mathematics. Her recent study, 'Promoting "relational equity" and high mathematics achievement through an innovative mixed ability approach', was presented at the British Educational Research Association's annual conference earlier this month and is to be published in the British Educational Research Journal in the coming months.

In a separate study Dr Mairead Dunne, lecturer in education at Sussex, led a project that analysed grouping practices in 168 primary and secondary schools and found that working-class pupils are more likely to be placed in lower sets than middle-class pupils who have the same test results, and that pupils from middle-class backgrounds more likely to be assigned to higher sets, irrespective of their prior attainment.

"Schools said that prior attainment and perceived ability were the main criteria on which setting decisions were based," said Dr Dunne. "However, over half the pupils with low prior attainment in English ended up in middle or high sets. Setting decisions were therefore clearly not made on this basis alone. Teacher judgments and pupil behaviour influenced setting decisions but social class was more important."

Dr Dunne and her colleagues, who presented their findings to the British Educational Research Association's annual conference, examined pupil-placement decisions in English and Maths in 44 secondary schools and 124 primaries. Their analysis included information on pupils' prior attainment, gender, ethnicity and home neighbourhood.

The researchers, including Sara Humphreys and Judy Sebba at the University of Sussex and Alan Dyson, Frances Gallannaugh and Daniel Muijs of the University of Manchester, also checked to see whether individual pupils were entitled to free school meals. Boys and girls were equally likely to be placed in low sets. However, some ethnic groups, such as Bangladeshis, were slightly less likely to be put in higher sets. 'Effective teaching and learning for pupils in low attaining groups', which was commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, will be published on 27 September, 2007.

Jacqui Bealing | alfa
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