Grouping and Differentiation – keeping the individual child at the heart of our decisions

Every single child comes from a different set of circumstances. In one class, the various home environments and learning styles can differ enormously. How each child experiences school, therefore, will also vary, depending on how their individual needs are being met in their classroom environment. As educators, we continue to strive to ‘close the gap’ and provide an excellent education for all pupils, of course. The question is: how? Often, it comes down to differentiation by group. However, is this always the most effective use of our classroom resources? In some cases, ability groupings can have a long-lasting effect on children and can ‘squash’ potential learning opportunities, at each end of the academic spectrum.

As an experienced practitioner, I have come across a range of opinions and suggestions over the last decade, such as ‘mixed ability can hold back the more able’ and ‘there is little evidence to suggest that mixed ability groupings affect progress’. So which is it? Let’s look at the current thinking…

Over the last 50 years, there have been periods in which ‘setting’ children was a favoured approach, interspersed with attitudes towards a more child-centred approach, then in 1997, the DfE suggested that schools should consider grouping their children according to ability in order to raise standards. More recently this idea has been supported by Sir Michael Wilshaw (Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education 2012 -2016) who stated: Where there are mixed-ability classes, unless there is differentiated teaching … it doesn’t work.” This is a pretty strong statement in favour of ability groups.

So, what is the down side? Well, most teachers are very aware that there is a stigma attached to the weakest of the ability groups, both amongst children and parents. Attempts at changing the colours or names of the tables, re-arranging of the furniture and describing interventions in a careful manner are often quickly identified by children and often parents as a ‘bit of a cover up’. Through years of personal experience, generally speaking, regardless of how teachers ‘group’ their children within the classroom environment, the children can usually decipher the order of the groups in terms of ability.

So what are teachers supposed to do?

As with all outstanding practitioners, continuous reflection is key. Excellent teachers know their children. Opportunities for progress, mastery and profound learning should be continuously provided across not only the curriculum, but also for the social and emotional aspects of well-being. Classrooms need to continually evolve, be dynamic and offer continuous provision for their children throughout the school in terms of the planning, the learning environment and the quality of teaching and learning.

In order for children to learn and make progress, any potential barriers need to be identified and removed. A rich, diverse, safe learning environment with fluid planning and excellent teaching needs to be established with consistent approaches and systems embedded for ALL pupils. A combination of keeping an open mind, an attitude to developing professional practice, supported by continuous assessment will create opportunities for all groups of children to make progress.

Key questions:

  • What are the children learning?
  • How will progress be measured for this learning objective?
  • Has prior knowledge and experience been taken into account?
  • How do you know this approach to differentiation and grouping will work for your children?
  • Could the differentiation ‘cap’ or ‘squash’ potential learning? How? How will you avoid this happening?
  • How could you provide differentiation with the opportunity for children to confidently pitch their own learning?
  • How do you know the learning opportunities are accessible for all groups?
  • How do you know the opportunities for challenge cater for all groups?
  • How is the learning environment offering the opportunity for new learning, revision, reflection and challenge?
  • How will this support you as a learner and reflective practitioner?
  • How will you evaluate the success of this approach?

Remember – experience and reflection are key.

Experiment, evaluate and excel.