Reference: Shaun D. Wilkinson & Dawn Penney (2023): A national survey of ability grouping practices in secondary school physical education in England, Research Papers in Education, DOI: 10.1080/02671522.2023.2217819
The abstract and section headings: Using a large-scale survey of 3187 secondary schools in England (of which 903 responded) this paper sought to better understand ability grouping practices in PE in England. In doing so, the authors set out to extend our knowledge of the various grouping practices that are being adopted in and across schools. Overall, mixed-ability groups were purported to be the most common form of grouping, although the form and nature this type of grouping wasn’t uniform and varied by year group, Key Stage, gender of students, and/or curriculum activity. Setting was the leading approach in PE in Year 8 (aged 12-13) and year 9 (13-14). Indeed, schools used a variety of grouping practices. This included, but wasn’t limited to, mixed-ability groupings with a separate top and/or bottom set. Respondents’ explanations of how and why different grouping practices were employed in specific contexts emphasise the significant narratives around ability, gender and pragmatism that prevail in grouping practice in PE.
The section headings are: Introduction, Background: Ability grouping practices n secondary schools in England, Research questions and methodology, Design and administration of survey, Characteristics of responding schools, Analysis of survey responses, Results (The prevalence of particular ability grouping practices in PE, The process and criteria used in enacting different ability grouping practices in PE, Reasons for different ability grouping practices in PE, Preferences for particular ability grouping practices in PE), Discussion (Mixed ability grouping: smoke and mirrors?, Groupings and ‘ability’ in PE), Conclusion.
Introduction and conclusion: The practices of schools regarding ability groups have an enduring and contentious past in educational policy and practice in England. While these often reflect political priorities, societal values and/or educational ideologies they have primarily swung between a focus on the attainment of the most able (which centres on streaming) and a focus on child-centred teaching and the provisional of equal opportunities (which centres on mixed-ability groupings). For example, in the latter 1960s and early 70s, the educational priorities in England shifted away from streaming and adopted mixed-ability groups in an effort to ensure “that all students had equal access to teachers, curriculum materials and resources” (p.2). By the early 1990s, mixed ability groupings were widespread in the primary schools and the early years of secondary schools, but this was soon to change. The Labour Government in the late 1990s levelled scathing criticism against mixed-ability teaching and urged schools to employ setting. This narrative was then further supported by the Conservative government in their election campaign in 2010.
While a large body of research does exist around setting in English schools, this is restricted primarily to maths, English and science. Little research has directly explored the scope or nature of setting in other practically-based subjects. PE, the authors argue, “provides a particularly important context for exploring various forms of ability groupings and the rationales for their use” (p. 2). PE is often organised around boys and girls separately with a teacher of the same sex teaching lessons. Furthermore, it is a subject where students’ bodies and capabilities are on public display. Finally, it is a subject where the idea of ability dominates but where this conception of ability is narrowed to a privileged set of motor skills and/or sport performances.
This research set out to provide an insight in current ability grouping practices. It did so with the recognition that while “streaming, banding, setting, mixed-ability grouping, and within class grouping are distinct practices, some of these practices may be blended and/or enacted in different ways in different schools” (p. 3). The research, therefore, set out to better understand the reasons why particular grouping decisions were being made in different schools, year groups and classes.
The paper concluded with a reminder that we need to be critically mindful of the nuances of grouping across secondary schools as a whole, and across the different years and keys stages within individual schools. Such mindfulness moves us beyond the political binaries of setting and mixed-ability groups and extends our understanding of other grouping practices.
The findings showed the different ways in which “grouping discourses and practices provide a mechanism for the expression and legitimation of established ability and gender discourses in PE (p. 18). It is important, therefore, that we firstly recognise these enduring narratives and secondly, work to disrupt them in a determined effort to advance equity in PE. The authors also showed that grouping practices are not fixed but are fluid. Grouping decisions are often made daily in response to changing contexts and the changing needs of pupils. Schools often use more than one approach to grouping and blend elements of different practices, particularly within-class groupings. Indeed, “the day-to-day reality of grouping students in PE is likely to be more complex and nuanced than has been captured in the data reported” (p.18). This is made more so when we consider that the voice of pupils is missing from this paper and the ways in which they experience different grouping practices should not be ignored.
Tables and diagrams: The were seven tables.
Table 1 defined the key terms of – Streaming, Banding, Setting, Mixed-ability grouping, Within-class grouping.
Table 2 detailed the ability grouping options presented in the survey – Setting, Fully mixed-ability groupings, mixed-ability grouping and top set, mixed-ability grouping and bottom set, mixed-ability grouping and top and bottom sets, Streaming/Banding, other.
Table 3 explained the characteristics of responding schools. This was done by Location, School type, Gender of entry, Number of students, Admission policy, Ofsted rating, Progress 8 score, and FSM proportion.
Tables 4 and 5 reported on the percentage of ability grouping types by year group in PE. They covered Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 respectively. This was undertaken in the following grouping types - Setting, Fully mixed-ability groupings, mixed-ability grouping and top set, mixed-ability grouping and bottom set, mixed-ability grouping and top and bottom sets, Streaming/Banding, other, Not applicable.
Table 6 showed the potential changes to current ability grouping practices in Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4. This was shown the groupings shown in table 2.
Table 7 showed the ability grouping preferences in PE in Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4. It used the same groupings used in tables 4 and 5.
The point of the paper: The paper shines a light on the grouping practices of secondary schools. It shows that while mixed-ability groupings dominated there is a nuance in both practice and policy across and within schools. It highlights the enduring dominance of ability and gender in determining groupings while opening our eyes to the flexibility, often lesson by lesson, of schools’ grouping practices.
The main arguments: Policy changes and different ability grouping practices come in and out of fashion. That said, we know little about PE groupings and need to do more than assume. In undertaking this research we come to know more about the differences in schools assorted approaches to grouping particularly within-class groupings.
The importance of this paper: The paper shows the magnitude and mailability of grouping practices. It highlights that despite a drive for equal opportunities in PE, decisions are still predominantly being made based on ability and gender. Until we better understand both the bedrock and subtleties of grouping practices in schools and here the voices of those impacted by daily grouping decisions there is still a way to go before we can change for the better the experiences of young people in PE.
The paper’s contribution to my knowledge: As with many of these papers my understanding of grouping practices were quite binary. Boys and Girls and mixed or sets. This paper has opened my eyes to the differences and subtleties of grouping practice and any time that happens makes for a good learning day.
Summary of the paper in one or two sentences: We don’t know as much as we should about grouping practices in PE in secondary schools in England. What we now know is it’s messier than we thought.
To the Authors: I would welcome a response to this blog. If you wish to write a response to be published on PEPRN, please email me – A.J.B.Casey@lboro.ac.uk with the final text.
About the Twenty 20 Vision Blog: For many years I wrote a weekly blog. In fact, between 2011 and 2021 I accumulated a catalogue of more than 450 blogs. But then I hit a wall. I simply ran out of energy and time. Consequently, 2022 wasn’t a great year for PEPRN. Following a modernization of the blog by Philte (thanks), and recognising my enduring desire that this break be a blip and not an end, I’m back with a new format and renewed ambition.
During 2022 I acknowledged that I needed to run PEPRN differently and over time the idea of a “Twenty 20 vision” blog emerged. This was, in part, in tribute to T20 cricket (which I love) and 20/20 vision (which I used to have) and in part due to the recognition that PEPRN needed to be easier to write and therefore sustain.
The idea, therefore, is for me to read a paper in no more than twenty minutes using an approach I’ve often recommended to my students but never actually done myself. For each paper I will do a shallow dive, reading only (a) the abstract and section headings, (b) the introduction and conclusion, and (c) the tables and diagrams. All other writing will be ignored. With this information to hand, I will then write the blog in no more than 20 minutes (thus twenty 20) using the eight headers above. Whatever emerges will then be published (after a little editing because I make a lot of grammatical errors typing that fast). The aim is to make paper reading and blog writing manageable once again whilst maintaining the integrity and usefulness of PEPRN. I hope I have achieved this, but feedback is welcomed and invited. Please let me know how I can get better at this and how the blog can better serve the community.