Reforming the use of primary school ‘ability’ grouping for maths at age seven could help improve UK schools’ maths achievement and encourage more girls to pursue the subject, according to new LSE research.
Dr Tammy Campbell found that placing children in bottom groups in class at this early age has a lasting effect on how they view their ability when they reach the age of 11, regardless of their maths cognitive test scores. This ‘self-concept’ affects their trajectories through education and beyond, impacting learning behaviours, subject choice and specialisms, attainment, and adult careers. It is particularly important for girls, because girls and women are underrepresented in subjects and careers related to maths.
The research, which was funded by the British Academy, analysed data for 4463 children from the Millennium Cohort Study: 2299 girls and 2164 boys. It used information on the in-class maths ‘ability’ group children were placed in at age seven, teachers’ judgements of the children’s maths at age seven, and the children’s own reports of whether they are good at maths four years later, at age 11.
It found that 83 per cent of the children were put into ability groups in class for maths at age seven. At 11, 13 per cent of children said they were not good at maths; 16 per cent of girls and nine per cent of boys. Fifteen per cent of all girls and boys who were placed in the bottom ‘ability’ group at seven thought they were not good at maths at 11, compared to seven per cent of children placed in the top group, regardless of their maths cognitive test scores.
Breaking things down by gender, all boys placed in the top group at seven had very low chances of negative maths self-concept at 11 – regardless of their maths skills. In contrast, only high-scoring girls placed in the highest ‘ability’ group had positive maths self-concept at 11. Girls with lower scores at 7 who were placed in the top group were more likely to have later negative maths self-concept.
When it comes to teacher judgements of children’s maths, at seven 43 per cent of children were judged ‘above average’, 40 per cent ‘average’, and 17 per cent ‘below average’. 20 per cent of all girls and boys who were judged ‘below average’ by their teacher at seven thought they were not good at maths at 11, compared to seven per cent of children judged ‘above average’, regardless of maths cognitive test scores.
All girls judged ‘below average’ by their teacher at seven were likely to have negative maths self-concept at 11, even if they scored high marks in the maths cognitive tests.
The research concludes: “This research finds that bottom maths ‘ability’ group placement seems to disadvantage all children, even if they have the same maths scores at seven as high-grouped peers…At seven, children’s skills and self-concepts are rapidly developing. Relegating children to a hierarchy of groupings at this premature stage can alter and shape their educational trajectories.
“These substantial associations between both ‘ability’-grouping and teacher judgements, and maths self-concept four years later, show that both are feasibly instrumental in forming primary children’s maths self-concept in ways that vary by gender. Therefore, both should be considered as sites for intervention which could boost maths progression and contribute to closing gender gaps.”
Dr Campbell of LSE’s Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) added: “This research indicates that the messages children receive in early primary school about their capabilities and potential can have a long-lasting effects on their views of themselves. We know that self-concept plays an important part in children’s progress and choices, so it is crucial for schools to consider how their policies, practices, and messages, including those on ‘ability’ grouping, impact pupils’ wellbeing and academic progress.”
In-class ‘ability’-grouping, teacher judgements, and children’s mathematics self-concept: Evidence from primary-aged girls and boys in the UK Millennium Cohort Study is published in the Cambridge Journal of Education: https://doi.org/10.1080/0305764X.2021.1877619
A briefing paper, Little fish, big currents: How do early in-class maths ‘ability’-groups and early teacher judgements relate to primary school children’s later maths self-concept is published by LSE’s Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion: