Teachers putting three-year-olds into ability groups

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Children as young as three are being put into ability groups for phonics, raising grave concerns about the impact on their self-esteem, and widening gaps in attainment, teachers warn today.


Six in ten nursery class teachers in schools put children into ability groups to prepare them for the phonics screening check, research suggests

  • Six in ten nursery class teachers put children into ability groups for phonics
  • Report recommends phonics check at six should be scrapped

Research commissioned by the National Education Union into grouping in nursery classes and Key Stage 1 finds that teachers see grouping as ‘a necessary evil’ when preparing children for tests such as the phonics screening check, which children take in Year 1, and Key Stage 1 SATs.

This is despite teachers’ concerns about the negative impact of grouping on children’s self-esteem, widening gaps in attainment between different groups of children, and causing or exacerbating other issues, such as the under-achievement of summer-born children.

In the foreword to the report,'Grouping in early years and Key Stage 1: A necessary evil?' Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said, 'This Government intends to introduce Reception Baseline Assessment, a policy which will inevitably lead to the ability labelling of young children. As this report highlights, ability groups can have a damaging effect on children, with low ability labels becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy and achievement gaps widening between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.'

The NEU is backing the report’s call for making the phonics screening check non-statutory.

In the survey, of the 118 nursery teachers that responded:

  • 58 per cent reported using grouping for phonics;
  • 35 per cent for maths;
  • 21 per cent for literacy and;
  • 9 per cent for reading.

In Reception classes 81 per cent of teachers said they used grouping for phonics.

Key findings include:

  • 65 per cent of teachers surveyed said that children are aware which group they are in, and 45 per cent said ability grouping damages some children’s self-esteem.
  • Many teachers feel that they are expected to use ability grouping, and worry about the negative impact of the practice on their children. They use strategies, such as moving pupils between groups, in an attempt to alleviate these concerns.
  • Teachers are concerned that ability grouping may have a detrimental impact on social mobility.

The research involved a survey of more than 1,400 teachers and school leaders, focus groups, and interviews with four case study primary schools and was carried out by UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

It also highlights the role of private companies in determining grouping policies, particularly for phonics. Schools frequently use commercial phonics schemes to organise their phonics teaching. The most popular is Read Write Inc, provided by Ruth Miskin Training, which is used in over 5,000 schools in the UK, according to the report.

The report says that, ‘some teachers were clear that they disagreed with grouping children in this way and were frustrated that school management had bought into these edu-businesses, but understood that the move was motivated by the need to improve scores on the phonics screening check in Year 1.’

'Detrimental effects'

It recommends making the phonics screening check non-statutory, ‘because of the impact of grouping practices which, from age three, can have detrimental effects upon children’s wellbeing, particularly for those children who are labelled as “failures” at age six if they do not pass the phonics check. Policy makers should also be aware of the frustration that teachers feel with phonics companies undermining teachers’ professional decision-making.’

Report authors Dr Alice Bradbury and Dr Guy Roberts-Holmes, said, ‘Teachers told us that the pressure upon schools to demonstrate continuously improving data in the phonics screening check and KS1 SATs appears to exert a downward pressure into the EYFS.

‘Teachers had professional concerns that the pressure of tests made grouping children by “ability” necessary - despite the fact that a wide research base indicates grouping by ability does not improve results. Teachers were worried that this pressure to “ability” group young children for phonics and numeracy was narrowing the curriculum and undermining the importance a play-based pedagogy encouraged within the Early Years Foundation Stage.’

Early years teachers in the survey commented that ability grouping was an inappropriate pedagogy with young children, instead emphasising the importance of play and sustained shared thinking, the report said.

Teachers comments include:

'I think grouping should rarely be done in nursery as you should be concentrating on developing their learning through play, sustained shared thinking and targeted teaching.'

'Dislike grouping in Reception because the curriculum in the EYFS is all about the individual and learning through play. We would not use it if it wasn't for phonics.'

Forms of grouping identified in the report

Streaming: When children are placed in a class, usually for the year, based on a general view of their ‘ability’.

Setting: When children are placed in groups for particular subjects, mainly literacy and maths.

(Within-class) Ability grouping: Where ability groups are used within a mixed-ability class or set, usually sat at different tables with different tasks and levels of support.

Interventions: When specific children are targeted and removed from the class at regular times for extra support or extension activities, often for a fixed period of time and a specific purpose, e.g ‘booster groups’ used before assessments.

Dr Bousted said, ‘The findings make for challenging reading. It’s an absolute disgrace that the pressure on schools to ensure pupils pass tests means children as young as three consider themselves “low ability” right at the start of their academic life, a belief which could impact on their self-esteem, carry on throughout their schooling and determine the direction of their adult lives.

‘Theresa May’s failed attempt to introduce new grammar schools turned the spotlight onto the controversial subject of ability grouping, setting and labelling. Much research has been done highlighting the negative impact of this practice on pupils in secondary school and Key Stage 2, so it’s important that we now raise awareness of the impact of grouping in early years.’

‘High stakes accountability testing and chronic workload are significant factors for the decisions education staff make. We hope this research will open a discussion into the underlying drivers of early years grouping. The National Education Union will work hard to lobby the Government to address accountability and curriculum pressures that lead to the labelling of children. As a first step to improving the situation the Government should commit to make the phonics screening check non-statutory.’

Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, said, ‘This is a very welcome and thought-provoking contribution to the debates about early years pedagogy. Many, including parents, will be shocked by the pervasiveness of setting, streaming and other “ability” based interventions with children aged three and four, and even more so given the evidence that shows this harms far more children than it helps.

‘Such processes are out of step with what we know works to support the learning of young children, anchored in building their confidence and skills as learners, in the context of a broad and rich curriculum. It is worrying that so many teachers feel pressured into such steps against their better judgement; we hope this will lead to dialogue in all schools about how best to ensure all children achieve their potential without fear of early labelling or artificial constraints on their learning.’

Minister for children and families Robert Goodwill said, 'Teachers and early years staff are best placed to make decisions about the teaching methods they use. There is no statutory requirement that suggests children should be grouped by ability.
'We are clear that while assessment is a fundamental part of children’s education to measure progress, it should not cause significant stress or anxiety.'

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