IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


More than ‘mixed-attainment good, ability grouping bad’

This research project explores the attitudes and experiences of trainee primary school teachers when it comes to grouping practices at key stage 1 and key stage 2.

This project is funded by the Centre for Teachers and Teaching Research. It started in November 2021 and will end in July 2022.


Project leaders



There is a reported discomfort amongst primary school teachers when it comes to the juxtaposition of their desire to support the confidence of all learners by using mixed-attainment groupings and the demands imposed by high-stakes testing and assessment that has led to a rise in the use of ‘ability grouping’ for children aged 5-11 (e.g. Towers et al., 2020).

While this discomfort can be presented as a simple dichotomy of ‘mixed-attainment good, ability grouping bad’, Towers et al. (2020) and Bradbury (2019) are amongst those that highlight the complexity involved in the perspectives and external factors that have led to ‘fixed-ability’ grouping becoming so prevalent in primary classrooms.

This project will focus on the formation of these perspectives at the very start of a teaching career - it is hoped that such perspectives will allow those working with new teachers to support them in navigating the space between the desire to exhibit agency in the grouping of the children they teach and the barriers that currently restrict such agency in many cases.

The project is built on the rejection of the notion of a simple dichotomy of ‘mixed-attainment good, ability grouping bad’. It recognises that the practice of teaching using ‘fixed-ability’ grouping is commonplace in primary schools, particularly in the teaching of maths and English (Hallam & Parsons, 2013; Marks, 2016). It also recognises the negative impact, both academically and socially, of ‘fixed-ability’ grouping (e.g. Taylor et al, 2017). Specifically however, it is built on research that reports the tensions felt by teachers in the classroom.


This project aims to build on work that demonstrates how intense the pressure of high stakes assessment, school policy and entrenched practices can be (Bradbury, 2018; Hallam et al, 2003; Marks, 2016).

It will also build on the finding that teachers often lack a credible pedagogical alternative to the use of ability groupings (Taylor et al, 2017; Francis et al, 2020).

Ultimately, by exploring the perspectives of trainee teachers, the project will aim to lay the foundation for supporting the agency of new teachers by later presenting a credible alternative.

Research questions
  1. What are the attitudes of trainee primary school teachers towards how children are grouped in the classroom?
  2. What are the experiences of trainee primary school teachers towards how children are grouped in the classroom?
  3. How do notions of self-competence and agency underpin these perspectives?


The current Primary PGCE cohort from IOE and University of Worcester and Final Year students from University of Brighton BA Primary with QTS would be invited to participate in the study. This would make the sample size up to approximately 500.


The research questions separate the exploration of perspective into attitudes and experiences. Thus, the project will use a mixed-methods approach involving the use of questionnaires to measure experiences and focus group semi-structured interviews to explore attitudes and notions of self-competence and agency.

Research instruments


All participants will be invited to complete a descriptive closed-question survey at two time points during their PGCE (or final training) year to capture the experiences of grouping during in-school placements. This would be based on the model used by Towers et al. (2019) but the data would be used to provide context for the specific cohorts involved in the research, rather than to be generalised more widely.


At the time of questionnaire completion, all participants will be invited to state their willingness to participate in a focus group at one of two time points. A sample of two groups of 6 students will be randomly selected from each participating institution. The focus group will take the form of a semi-structured interview so that pre-determined questions, informed by previous research and questionnaire data, are supplemented by prompts arising from the discussion. Prompts would include the clarification of relevant terminology to determine shared or divergent understanding.

Data analysis

Mixed methods research is necessarily the convergence of two or more appropriate forms of data to the benefit of the overall interpretation (e.g. Kara, 2015; Creswell & Creswell, 2018). To this end, the analysis of the questionnaires will be descriptive in order to contextualise the responses given during the focus groups. Focus groups will be audio recorded and transcribed.

Thematic analysis using the approach as presented by Braun and Clark (2006) will be carried out. This analysis will combine deductive analysis, using codes predetermined by the literature and by the questionnaire outcomes, and inductive analysis involving a re-coding of the transcribed data.