Is placing young children in ability groups “a necessary evil”?

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18 December 2017 by Anne Heavey
The National Education Union recently commissioned research to find out how widespread the practice of using ability groups in the early years and key stages in English schools.

The seed for this research idea was planted about 18 months ago when a teacher described how she was spending the second week of the Easter holidays “running phonics check revision classes” with “one set each day coming in for the week”. Revision classes for five-year-olds? Ability setting in year 1? We had to find out how common this activity was and crucially why ability grouping was being used with such young children.

The Phonics Screening Check introduced in 2011 is a short decoding test including 40 real words and non-words, taken toward the end of Year 1. Pupils that pass the check, achieve the “expected standard”, pupils who do not pass the check have to re-sit the test in year 2.

Ofsted often includes lengthy commentary on phonics teaching in primary school and the Government has spent millions subsidising approved teaching resources. The phonics check is often described as a “light touch” but with Ofsted scrutinising the outcome, and pupils who “fail” forced to re-sit, in reality it’s a high sakes assessment.  

What did the research find?

We’re concerned about the consequences of running such a high stakes assessment with young children, and when Dr Bradbury and Dr Roberts-Holmes presented their initial findings, we were shocked. They found grouping by ability is very common in schools in England.

  • In Nursery 58% of children are grouped for Phonics and 35% for Maths.
  • In Reception 81% of children are grouped for Phonics, 46% for Literacy, 61% for Maths and 52% for Reading.
  • In Year 1 78% of children are grouped for Phonics, 68% for Literacy, 72% for Maths and 72% for Reading.
  • In Year 2 72% of children are grouped for Phonics, 60% for Literacy, 66% for Maths and 71% for Reading.

The research also found that teachers feel expected to teach using ability groups, with drivers including the views of school leaders, Ofsted and companies providing phonics products. The report found 65% of teachers agreed with the statement “children are aware of the groups that they are in” and 45% of teachers agreed that “ability grouping damages self-esteem”.

Is ability grouping a “necessary evil”?

There were a number of justifications for using ability grouping in the first years of school, including:

  • the demands of high stakes national tests
  • grouping to manage excessive teacher workload
  • the use of phases in phonics resources which are endorsed by the Department for Education.

There is potential beacon of hope here, as the Government have plans to make Key Stage 1 SATs non-statutory, which should provide greater freedoms to school and teachers to offer the curriculum that pupils need.

However, unless the Phonics Screening Check is also made non-statutory there is a risk that this already heavy handed “light-touch” assessment will have an even greater impact on school practice, as it will be the only data point between entry and the Key Stage 2 SATs.

The Government response

Robert Goodwill provided a press comment on behalf of the Government in response to this report:

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.


The Government is washing its hands of responsibility, they funded the schemes, they prescribed grouping, they introduced the Phonics Check and they’ve given Ofsted free reign to focus on phonics in school inspections.

What kind of schools do we want for our children? 

Children are aware of groups and it damages self-esteem and sets expectations that the more able can only do the more challenging work where the rest of the class can feel they have nothing to offer.


Do we want schools where children are divided up into “foxes and rabbits” from day one? Or, one where teachers are free to offer age appropriate teaching to every child so that each one can reach their potential - not just the lucky chosen few?

Assessment is absolutely a core part of teaching, but the Phonics Check tells teachers nothing they don’t already know, while labelling children who don’t pass as failures and subjecting them to the humiliation of the re-sit. 

The National Education Union believes that the Phonics Screening Check should be made non-statutory, and continues to urge the Government to listen. 

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