24/02/2014 12:41 GMT | Updated 22/05/2015 10:12 BST

The Guessing Game Of School Ability Groups

Children in classroom in ability groupsGetty

"He was a jellyfish last year but now he's a triangle. I'm a rectangle but sometimes I'm also purple," said my six-year-old. I couldn't resist the temptation. I'm afraid I had to ask, "so who else is purple and a rectangle then?"
If you don't have primary school-aged children, you might wonder what on earth such a conversation was about. If you do, you've probably guessed I was partaking in that annual start of school year parental pursuit - trying to work out which ability groups my child is in.

For me, this involves a subtle interrogation (of my son - I'd never ask someone else's child although I believe some parents have no such qualms). I'm trying to discern who is in my son's group (hoping, frankly, there won't be too many of the more disruptive kids). I also admit I'm rather curious about whether the rectangles are higher than the triangles (do the number of sides signify anything)?


I know I shouldn't really care, that I should focus on how my son is doing per se and whether he is happy, instead of relating him to some sort of classroom hierarchy. I'm not even a particularly competitive parent (honest), so why am I so bothered whether my son is top, middle or bottom?


Well, for a start, getting so little information from school - two five minute parents' evening chats a year - it's one of very few insights I get into how he's doing academically.

What's more, which group a pupil is in IS important. A child in too low a group won't learn as much as they could, too high and they might struggle and lose confidence. Of course, unlike me, the teacher should be aware of the abilities of all the kids in the class, so there's an argument to say we should trust them, but mistakes can happen. And sometimes children don't perform to the same level at school as they do at home.

Sarah, a mother of two primary school children takes this view: "it would be useful if you could see that your child is with others who struggle with maths, when at home he or she does Sudoku - for some reason they're hiding that in the classroom. So yes transparency about this is a good thing for the majority of parents. You always get pushy parents, but a school shouldn't be afraid to set up for the majority just because a minority is a pain in the behind."

Indeed, although it doesn't seem to be the norm, some schools and teachers do tell parents - either overtly or by leaving a list openly on the classroom noticeboard.


So why don't more do so? Wouldn't it be better than parents wondering about whether it's the snails or cheetahs who are the top group?


Graham Dresser, a recently-retired teacher who spent several decades working at my old junior school (I can't remember whether I was in his top literacy group and dare not ask, given my job....) agrees: "Parents should be kept fully informed. Failure to do so only causes mistrust and suspicion. They also need to be educated and made to understand that their child has not been labelled and the decision was made for sound educational reasons."

Another teacher, Liz Harrison, is less positive about disclosure: "We have had endless discussions about this in the staff room. It's very tricky. On the one hand if we don't tell them, parents start guessing and sometimes get it wrong which can cause them unnecessary worry. On the other hand, if we are open about it all, you tend to see more competitiveness at the school gate or labelling 'oh X is in the bottom group' and the children pick up on this." Liz has ended up going down the not telling route, deciding that it's the better of the two options.

If you do find out, take the information with a pinch of salt. Firstly, the top group in one class might be very different from that in another - 30 kids are not representative of the population as a whole, and when it comes to ability, some classes are smarter than others, some more polarised, some relatively even. If you want to gain a more meaningful idea of how your child is doing, ask the teacher. They should be able to talk you through their assessment of him or her against national averages.

Secondly, bear in mind that sometimes the group your child is in might not be solely about ability.

Liz explains, 'We might put children in a lower or higher group than would otherwise be the case. A child who is very bright but needs a confidence boost could be best off in the second from top group, or one who needs a bit of a challenge to push them, on a slightly higher ability table than they'd normally go in.'

Clever (and tongue-in-cheek) ways to find out which groups your child is in:

Start taking regular 'walks' past the classroom window each morning, peering in as you pass.

Invite every single child in the class round for tea and grill them about their group whilst providing packs of Haribos as an incentive

Accidentally on purpose 'forget' your little darling's PE kit/ lunch box and hurtle into the classroom immediately after assembly when they'll most likely be sitting down to do some serious work. Then covertly take a panoramic snap of the classroom showing all the groups (be warned that this probably breaks some privacy law or other).

What do you think? Should schools be more transparent about ability groups?