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

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.