Maths Ability Groups

A good thing or a bad thing?

This is a topic which interested me so much I decided to find out for myself what does this actually do to children and their learning/development?

Obviously, we all know that maths is a complex concept which many children have difficulty understanding within the classroom as it is without the pressure of being in the highest attainment group.  This is something I saw often in my own placement. Are we right to arrange children in ‘ability’ groups? Does this change children’s perception of mathematics? Does this encourage children to give up? I believe that arranging children in different ability groups has the ability to boost confidence but also to drop confidence.

Okay so what are ability groups?

My understanding of this is being arranged in groups according to academic strategies, which is not always your academic preference. Take me for example, in school I was in the bottom group for language and the top for maths, but I too HATED maths, but I now ask myself was that because I was in the bottom group? Was I not getting pushed enough?

However, Hallinan et al. (2003, pp. 95) suggests that the theory of mathematic ability groups is to ideally get full potential out of all student learning and development but realistically does this happen? I would agree with Hallinan et al no.

In reality this is not the case. It can also be shown that Hallinan et al believe that assigning children in different ability groups highly restrict learning opportunities for children. So how are children supposed to find mathematics easy when their learning in the classroom is significantly narrowed due to the group they have been assigned?

I believe that giving children different attainment groups will begin to make the children may begin to feel discouraged in their mathematic abilities and begin to give up therefore reduce their confidence and growth mindset in maths. This can encourage children to have a certain feel about mathematics that they can’t do it or it’s too hard. This is commonly seen in lower ability groups in maths.

The BBC News tried to unpick the issue of maths ability groups. The article entitled “Should young children be grouped by ability?” (2017) Something that really touched my heart in this where a child quoted ‘I really hoped to be a doctor like my mum but that changed when I have moved down a group” Should children really have to change their dreams due to their math’s ability group?

From my personal experience of maths grouping I would agree with this statement, as bad as it sounds I once changed a dream due to my academic success in maths. When I was little I wanted to be a lawyer, just like members of my family and that dream ended in secondary school where I was put again in the lowest maths class, is that right?

So what does this do to children? Do they begin to feel like a failure? Or that they aren’t getting pushed enough? Personally… I believe yes. Why?

Well, due to the fact that some groups are being taught differently and more important different stuff. From my experience of primary school, children are given different work for their individual topics depending on what group they are in. By the end of the topic children in the lower groups hadn’t covered nearly the same stuff as children in the top groups, personally I believe this is profoundly unfair. But why do they do that?

This is supported by Pritchard (2012) as they believe that maths ability groups does not allow children to achieve the full benefit for the curriculum due to the groups varying the different aspects of maths. Not all children achieve the same education as others.

Right okay, so maths ability groups are sounding bad at the moment.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom…

I came across a very interesting document produced by the Dr Marks, NCETM (2012) that shows the pros of having maths ability groups. The thing I found most interesting about this document is that it give children a sense of identity and a feeling of being apart of something with in the class. I found this really quite touching, this gives children the chance to make friends and relationships within their class and even grow confidence in their learning.

Furthermore, maths ability groups allow children to have a group discussion and allow help from other members of their groups which are working at the same level/work as them. This may in fact boost confidence for maths knowing they are not going through it alone and can seek help from peers as well as the teacher.

Okay so, after this research I have came to the conclusion that I believe that maths ability groupings has pro’s and cons. It is something which I have speculated upon a lot and have decided that I agree with maths ability groupings to aid all children in work through discussions etc however, I believe all children should be initially taught the same material where they then choose how far they wish to progress with it, this is something I will choose to do in my future teaching.


  • Hallinan, M.T et al. (2003) ‘Ability Grouping and Student Learning’   Education Policy (6) pp. 95
  • ‘Should you children be grouped by ability?’ (2017) Available at: (accessed on 23/10/17)
  • Pritchard, R. (2012) The Influence of Ability Grouping on Math Achievement in a Rural Middle School New Jersey, USA: Seton Hall University
  • Marks, R (2012) Well-meant intentions: ability-grouping in primary mathematics King’s College, London: NCETM

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