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SATs preparation leads to children as young as 3 grouped by ability


In a recent report commissioned by the National Education Union (NEU) has discovered that teachers are grouping children as young as three by their abilities even though they worry that being labelled as ‘low ability’ could have a lasting negative impact on children.


The study conducted by two researches from UCL Institute of Education, involved more than 1,400 teachers and leaders. In order to prepare children for the phonics test taken at the end of Year 1 and the KS1 SATs taken at the end of Year 2, teachers are expected to group children. The study raises concerns about the impact of teaching by ability on pupils’ confidence and aspirations.




Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, 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.”


The report states “Many teachers think children are aware of their group, and they are concerned about the detrimental impact of being labelled on children’s self-confidence and behaviour, and about the production of limits on children’s learning.”

“There were concerns raised that this could have a potentially negative impact upon some children’s mental health.

“Teachers both in early years and KS1 feel that the pressure of assessments produces the need for grouping in some form.”

The research quotes a teacher from a focus group who recalled a girl telling her that her aspiration to become a doctor, like her mother, had disappeared when she was moved down a set.


Mixed Views

Whilst there are those opposing to the idea of groups, there are those in favour of it.

John Blake, head of education at the think tank Policy Exchange, says: “If children need additional support to understand the key concepts of learning, then grouping them together to provide such support is perfectly sensible.”

“Provided it is clear to teachers why the division has been made, and the additional support required is given, there is no reason such grouping should be bad for children – quite the reverse, in fact, since schools should be using whatever tools they think are appropriate to ensure children have learnt the curriculum.


“Parents should be worried if schools were avoiding teaching children appropriately, using effective methods, including ability grouping if the school judges that to be appropriate.”

Mr Blake says it is a teacher’s job to make sure that children don’t feel inadequate or stressed.

“There is no reason at all that teachers should be passing on to children any stress or pressure about the phonics screening check or their SATs tests – these are not ‘high stakes tests’ for the students.

“Indeed, many schools never even tell the children they have been through a statutory test at all. I find it extraordinary that teachers think that children are stressed and it’s not the pupils’ fault.”

Half of the teachers who took part in the research said overall attainment improved as a result of grouping children.

One school leader quoted “I personally think it’s better for the children, because otherwise your more able children get bored and frustrated and your less able children just get left behind. So the grouping means that you can focus your attention.”


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.”

The report concludes with by teaching primary-age children by ability can be done in a number of ways:

  • Streaming: Children are put in a class based on a view of their ability.
  • Setting: Children are placed in groups for particular subjects, usually literacy and maths, and move from their normal mixed-ability class for this subject.
  • Within-class ability grouping: Ability groups are used within a class – usually sitting at different tables with different tasks and levels of support. This may occur in a mixed-ability class, or within a set.
  • Interventions: Specific children are targeted and removed from the class for additional support or extension activities. This is often for a fixed period of time and a specific purpose, for example booster groups.



The research has been ordered as the government prepares to reintroduce a Reception baseline assessment, which could mean teachers having to test children at the beginning of Reception in literacy, maths, communication and possibly “self-regulation.”

Earlier this year the House of Commons Education Committee raised concerns over the mental health of young children as an impact of the pressure placed on them to pass the tests. The survey revealed 94 per cent of those who teachers who took part in the survey agreed with the Committee board. The Education Committee and teaching bodies have supported demands made for the current system to be reviewed.



December 1, 2017