Ability Inclusion

Ability Inclusion: Getting all pupils involved

Schools are home to children of incredibly varied abilities. The task for each and every teacher is to assess the needs of the class and cater to all abilities, without holding any child back as a result. The core issue here, then, is time and efficacy. How can teach

ers incorporate mixed ability learning into their own classroom environments? One cannot, for example, simply focus on creating differentiated content for higher ability groups whilst leaving the rest of the class behind. How can we create creative, engaging lessons that efficiently differentiate for all ability levels?

There are many theories surrounding this issue. Streaming children into specific, homogenous ability groups is the most popular, whilst some teachers believe that mixed ability tables help to include all children and encourage them to work together. This page aims to take a look at what we, as teachers, can do to try and ensure that all children, whether they are high or low ability, get to enjoy the lessons we create.


Can you tell which table is the low ability one? Does it even matter?

Inclusion of ability isn’t so much an issue with those of average ability . It becomes challenging when we start working with children at both extremes of the scale. Simply streaming the class, catergorising them by ability, can produce quite negative effectives. Susan Hallam and Samantha Parsons (2012, page 4) discuss this at length in a piece they wrote on the impact of streaming in schools in the United Kingdom.  For example, grouping by ability can often produce the opposite effect we are after. While this streaming can be handy for us as teachers (we know where each ability-level is seated, for example), children can often feel not good enough or “stupid” as they are not seated on the “smart” table. This can have a domino effect, potentially having a greater impact on a child’s willingness to learn. After all, if a child doesn’t feel that they are “

clever enough”, where is the motivation to learn? This can also affect the teacher . They know which tables have the low ability children and may show less enthusiasm when teaching these groups, whilst enjoying their time more with the pupils they know can understand them.  Herlen and Malcolm (1997), in their own investigations, came to the conclusion that there aren’t really any benefits to setting children in ability groups at all.

“There is no consistent reliable evidence of positive effects of setting and streaming in any subjects or for students of particular ability levels. … [What] seems to be of critical importance is what takes place inside classrooms.” (p. 40)

And even in some studies, teachers often placed low-attainment pupils into high-ability groups, as a means of attempting to quell their behavior and provide them with positive role models for them to look up to (Dunne, 2007 pg 40). Is this a way of admitting that streaming, alone, is not sufficient?


Talking in class may not be such a bad thing after all

What we can do, as teachers
It is important that each child feels that they are valued, regardless of ability. So how can we negate the effect of clear differentiation? How can include both ends of the scale without jepordising the learning of one or the other? Well, obviously, there is mixed ability tables. This is much like simply setting up a game without rules. There needs to be a reason for them to be mixed up.

Talk buddies (partners/friends etc) is one way of getting children of all abilities to work with other outside of their own ability. This gives children the chance to talk to people they may not usually speak to, exchange ideas, inspire discussion and develop their own learning. The “gifted” child can translate their thoughts into a clear explanation to the SEND child, who can learn from it and receive praise and encouragement from a fellow pupil and not a teacher. An NMSA study (2007) has shown that this actually has a positive effect on pupil learning. Lower ability pupils, for example, can benefit from a boosted morale, improved thinking skills and they can feel like they are actually doing something worthwhile, rather than simply feeling at a loss if working alone. Being around fellow pupils (and friends?) this allows children to discuss their ideas without the worry of making a mistake and being penalised by a teacher.

It’s important to ensure that even the Gifted and Talented students are able to make significant progress, even with the aforementioned ideas.For example, it’s important that they interact with lower-ability pupil’s such as the talk buddy system. However, they must also be set appropriate work to undertake alone. This can be done within an inclusive enviroment, however! You can set the entire class a similar task but make certain elements for G&T pupils more complex. Or in literacy, you could cover a story like Harry Potter, but set activities that still cover the same story but with differentiated questions.

References and Resources

Hallam S, Parsons S (2012), The incidence and make up of ability grouped sets in the UK primary school Research Papers in Education 28:4, 393-420.

National Middle School Association (2007), Heterogeneous Grouping. Accessed 27/11/2013. (at http://challengebychoice.files.wordpress.com/2008/01/heterogeneous_grouping.pdf)  

Harlen, W., & Malcolm, H. (1997). Setting and streaming: a research review (Vol. 18). Edinburgh, UK: Scottish Council for Research in Education.

Dunne et all (2007) Effective Teaching and Learning for Pupils in Low Attaining Groups: University of Sussex


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