EYFS Best Practice in schools - Set to work?

Charlotte Goddard
Monday, November 12, 2018

Grouping by ability is growing in popularity despite evidence showing that it can have a range of negative impacts for children. Charlotte Goddard investigates

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It has been described as an ‘educational disaster’ and a ‘psychological prison’, and is actually illegal in Sweden. Despite this, grouping children by ability is increasingly prevalent in early years classrooms in the UK.

‘Over the last 15 years, more and more ability grouping has taken place lower and lower down the school,’ says Mark Boylan, professor of education at Sheffield Hallam University.

‘It has become a naturalised part of English pedagogy, but if you take a global view it is actually very unusual.’


Grouping by ability can take a number of forms:

  • Setting – where children are organised into separate classes according to ability.

  • Within-class ability groups – often organised around where children sit.

  • Interventions – where groups of children are removed from the main class for a short period.

In early years classes, ‘setting’ is rare, but in-class groups and intervention groups are prevalent, especially for phonics and maths. Research published by the National Education Union last year found 81 per cent of Reception teachers used grouping for phonics and 61 per cent for maths.

Teachers often choose to group by ability because they believe this allows students to learn at the right pace and level – 52 per cent agreed it ‘raises overall attainment’. However, they also say that differentiating within a mixed-attainment group is difficult: more than seven in ten respondents agreed that ‘grouping is easier for the teacher’. The need to gather and improve data is a particular motivation, especially for the Phonics Screening Check and Year 2 SATs.

‘A lot of teachers feel uncomfortable with ability grouping but feel obliged to do it to get the data,’ says Guy Roberts-Holmes, associate professor at the Institute of Education and co-author of the NEU report Grouping in Early Years and Key Stage 1: A Necessary Evil?. Government-issued phonics guidance talks about ‘phases’ of learning, while some commercial schemes that are available to schools specifically advise ability grouping.

‘The companies that sell products to early years have embedded in them the notion that you have to ability-group,’ says Mr Roberts-Holmes.


In September, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) updated its Teaching and Learning Toolkit to create a new entry on ‘within-class attainment grouping’. It found that although ‘setting’ had a negative impact on all pupils, in-class grouping had a positive average attainment impact, equivalent to around three months of additional progress. The practice was found to be beneficial for learners across the attainment range, although more so for higher-performing pupils.

However, the organisation warns it may be that small-group work in itself, rather than grouping by attainment, is responsible for the additional benefit. Also, the research it analysed to come up with its findings was not specific to early years.

The EEF says regular monitoring and assessment of groups is important to minimise misallocation and ensure challenge for all pupils. Louise Jackson, independent consultant and deputy head of St Lawrence C of E Primary School in Shropshire, agrees that if children must be in groups, flexibility is key.

‘Children are still developing, and there is a risk that if you put them in an ability group, they are not able to shift out of that group,’ she says. ‘The system needs to be very flexible – you need an in-depth knowledge of the way individual children learn to arrange these groups, but also be constantly reflecting and reviewing whether it is the right place for that child.’

Ms Jackson has concerns the new baseline assessment will work against a flexible approach. ‘If they are reduced to an online questionnaire or test, that won’t give us the information we need to tailor our teaching to what the child needs.’

Teachers using grouping need to be careful when naming the groups – one teacher recalls a colleague who came up with ‘golden stars’ and ‘brown bears’, while another says even using shapes can make it obvious who is who if you go for ‘circles’ and ‘dodecahedrons’. They also need to watch their language when discussing groups, even in the staff room.

‘I have heard lots of conversations where teachers are using quite negative language about children who have been labelled as being part of a particular group, when actually they are just at a different stage of development and working at a different pace,’ says Ms Jackson.


While the EEF found some advantages to within-class grouping, there is also a good deal of evidence showing that grouping by ability has a negative effect on children, socially, academically and emotionally.

Research shows that children who are put into attainment groups in Reception tend to stay in the same group throughout their academic career, limiting the learning they are exposed to, reducing their self-esteem and confidence about learning, and sometimes leading to disruptive behaviour.

‘Judgements are made when children are four years old, but they are so subjective and often age-related,’ says Professor Boylan. ‘When you put Reception-aged children in attainment groups by tables, summer-born children are more likely to find themselves in lower groups.’

Children can be allocated to high- or low-attaining groups according to their behaviour as much as their attainment, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to be allocated to low-attaining groups. A Social Mobility Commission report published in 2017 found pupils from low-income families are less likely to make progress when they are grouped by ability from an early age.

Ability grouping has been shown to have a negative impact on children’s mental health, with children in ‘lower’ groups developing low self-esteem and a fatalistic attitude, while their peers in the higher-achieving groups suffer from anxiety and pressure.

‘If you tell kids you are really good, the best, you find this easy – that’s fine until you get to the point where it isn’t easy, then you have to struggle and work hard, it’s an effort,’ says Dr Roberts-Holmes.

Other disadvantages cited by teachers include a narrowing of the curriculum for lower-achieving children to get them up to speed with higher-achieving groups, and a fragmentation of relationships in the classroom.

Even when groups are flexible, children can still be negatively impacted, especially if they go ‘down’ a group.

EYFS principles

Many Early Years Teachers believe grouping by ability goes against the principles of the EYFS. Time spent in groups, they say, is generally not time spent learning through play.

‘The only grouping I see regularly is for adult-led learning,’ says Julie Fisher, independent early years adviser. ‘Where this impinges most on children’s learning day is when schools have a literacy or phonics programme across the whole key stage which is delivered at exactly the same time. This means all the children stop whatever they are doing to move round to classrooms and adults according to their ability. This timetabled grouping can cut across the child’s self-chosen activity and sends a strong message that what the adult has planned is of more importance and takes precedence over what the child may be choosing to do and learn.’

Growth mindset

The concept of grouping by ability both draws from and entrenches a prevalent concept: the idea that intelligence is a fixed entity. Placing children in a particular group can lead them to internalise the idea that ability is fixed and that they do not have it, resulting in a lack of resilience when it comes to challenges.

Fixed-ability thinking is at odds with the currently popular concept of growth mindset, which suggests that ability and intelligence are contextual and malleable, and can be increased through effort. It is a key aspect of the Teaching for Mastery approach in mathematics (see box, page 27), drawn from approaches in Singapore and China, which the Government is encouraging schools to take up by funding UK-China Maths Teacher Exchanges.

Professsor Boylan has written a yet-to-be-published evaluation of the Shanghai exchange programme for the DfE. He believes the approach may lead to less ability grouping in schools. ‘In Singapore they don’t do ability grouping, so as the number of UK schools engaged with that agenda increases, there is an increase in all-attainment groupings in schools.’

When schools adopt a mastery approach they give support as and where needed. ‘It is about same-day intervention,’ says Professor Boylan. ‘You start to see who hasn’t understood that particular concept, and it is not necessarily the same kids all the time.’

While ability grouping may meet a teacher’s immediate needs, it comes with a price, says Professor Boylan. ‘Do we really know the long-term effects on a child’s self-confidence, efficacy, belief in themselves as learners?’ he says. ‘There is a price being paid but no evidence there are benefits.’


Some schools, aware of the problematic nature of ability grouping, are exploring different methods of teaching. At Ms Jackson’s school, for example, groups are tailored to children’s different approaches to learning rather than their ability. ‘Some are very visual or tactile learners so they need a different kind of activity to help them learn, such as making letters in the sand,’ says Ms Jackson.

Meanwhile, other schools have developed approaches including mixed-ability groups, co-operative learning and mastery (see case studies).

The Wroxham School, Potters Bar


Reception children at Outstanding-rated The Wroxham School spend most of their day engaged in child-initiated learning, both inside and outside. Three group times each day are led by an adult.

‘We have a philosophy from nursery to Year 6 that we don’t group by ability,’ says Jo Turner, deputy head and Foundation Stage/Key Stage 1 leader. ‘We usually work in two groups of 15 children each, but the groups will be children chosen randomly on the day, or those who work well together.’

When it comes to phonics, the school uses aspects of a number of different schemes without feeling limited by one approach. ‘One group may be learning a new sound, while the other is learning to blend sounds that have already been learned,’ says Ms Turner.

The Wroxham School uses an approach known as Learning Without Limits, which rejects the notion of fixed ability in favour of the idea of ‘transformability’, with no predetermined view as to what pupils may be able to achieve. ‘We support them with whatever approach works for them – if they want to go and read with another child, then we will facilitate that; if not, we can work with them, it is a very open approach,’ says Ms Turner.


Teachers choose classroom activities and experiences for their potential to increase the scope for children to shape the direction of learning, to take responsibility for their own learning, and to learn with and from one another.

‘Let children surprise you every day, don’t come in with a predetermined idea of what they can do,’ says Ms Turner. ‘Staff are free to change the day, move things around.’

Rosendale Primary School, West Dulwich


‘When we decided to move away from ability grouping we were aware we needed to replace it with something,’ says Kate Atkins, head of Rosendale Primary School in West Dulwich, south London. ‘Otherwise there would just be a vacuum.’

The school decided to adopt the Kagan Co-operative Learning system. ‘We went to see it in other schools and we were blown away by it,’ says Ms Atkins. Reception children do much of their work in mixed-ability pairs, which are changed every half term. ‘Towards the end of Reception we might move on to groups of four,’ says Ms Atkins.


Children are introduced to a number of simple structures to help them build relationships and support each other’s learning. ‘A Rally Robin is where I say something, then you say something, and Timed-Pair Share ensures everyone gets an equal amount of time to talk,’ says Ms Atkins. ‘We have 20 seconds at the end during which children can thank their partner for sharing with them – there are lots of social skills built into it.’

Ms Atkins feels this mixed-ability, co-operative approach fits better with the principles of the EYFS than an ability-grouping approach. ‘It allows children to hear lots of rich language, encourages them to make positive relationships – there’s so much about speaking and listening in the EYFS and we want to build those opportunities into the school day,’ she says.

Rosendale’s approach has seen attainment rise across the board. ‘The interesting thing we discovered when we introduced mixed-ability learning is that everyone’s results went up,’ Ms Atkins says. ‘Children were having the opportunity to explain and deepen their learning and understanding. It’s sometimes thought mixed ability only benefits lower attainers, but it also benefits higher-attaining children.’

Deep Learning Teaching School Alliance

Andy Ash is director of Deep Learning Teaching School Alliance, based at Our Lady of Pity RC Primary School in the Wirral. Deep Learning specialises in the concept of mastery, an approach to teaching mathematics which assumes all children are capable of understanding, and builds in significant time to learn each concept or skill.

‘I realised there was lots of stuff going on around mastery for years 1 to 6 but early years was forgotten about,’ says Mr Ash. ‘I worked with the North West Three Maths Hub, led by St Helens Teaching Schools Alliance, to explore how mastery could apply in early years.’

Teachers design activities around the concept of ‘low floor and high ceiling’ – this means that tasks are accessible to all children but have the potential for more advanced learners to take further.

‘We are moving from looking at maths as being about how quickly you can do it and how many right answers you get, to seeing it as a creative subject which involves lots of different ways of doing things,’ says Mr Ash.

As an example, Mr Ash describes exploring the number nine through a story of a man who sets out to buy nine apples. ‘Then I show them a picture of four apples and say “talk to your partner, what do you see?” The children get quite excited because he hasn’t got nine apples.’

Mr Ash would then show a picture of another four apples. ‘So, some children are counting how many he has got now, but others are saying “I can see there are two sets of four”, or “four sets of two”, or they might be looking at doubling or counting in twos, if they are ready to access that,’ explains Mr Ash.

The approach has been rolled out to more than 100 schools through training and school visits. ‘Since adopting this we have seen much higher levels of inclusion and attainment,’ says Mr Ash.

STATISTICS grouping by ability


58 per cent of nursery teachers group children by ability

81 per cent of Reception teachers


21 per cent of nursery teachers group children by ability

46 per cent of Reception teachers


9 per cent of nursery teachers group children by ability

52 per cent of Reception teachers


35 per cent of nursery teachers group children by ability

61 per cent of Reception teachers

Source: NEU survey


Creating Learning without Limits by Mandy Swann, Alison Peacock, Susan Hart and Mary Jane Drummond. Open University Press, 2012

Grouping in Early Years and Key Stage 1: A Necessary Evil?by Alice Bradbury and Guy Roberts-Holmes, October 2017, https://bit.ly/2GNitcC

Education Endowment Foundation toolkit: Setting or streaming, https://bit.ly/2Jw3Hx7

Within-class attainment grouping, September 2018, https://bit.ly/2Og373T

‘Ability thinking’ by Mark Boylan and Hilary Povey, a chapter in Debates in Mathematics Education, edited by Dawn Leslie and Heather Mendick. Routledge, 2013, https://bit.ly/2P6EiN9

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