How should pupils be grouped for teaching? Should they be grouped according to some notion of general ability or should children be taught in mixed ability groups? Should pupils of different 'ability' be offered different curricular opportunities? What are the effects of different forms of ability grouping on teaching and learning? Are some sorts of pupil grouping more appropriate to particular school subjects?
In this chapter, I review the research that has been conducted on ability grouping in the UK and elsewhere. I look at the impact of different forms of ability grouping on pupils' learning, achievement and attitudes. Finally, I examine alternative approaches to grouping and teaching pupils at different levels of attainment.
The ideology of 'ability' is particularly powerful in UK educational policy and practice. There is a widespread belief both within and outside the education profession that individuals have a fixed 'ability' with a strong genetic component (Sukhnandan and Lee 1998). According to this belief, ability can be measured accurately and is a significant determining factor in educational achievement. (See White 2005 for an interesting philosophical discussion as to why the ideology of ability is so powerful in the UK.) This focus on ability is in marked contrast to many of the countries that outperform the UK nations in international comparative studies of educational performance (Stigler and Hiebert 1999). In China, for example, a much greater emphasis is placed on the notion of effort.