Ability groups: a wellbeing crisis?

Dr Guy Roberts-Holmes, senior lecturer in early education at UCL, explains how grouping by ability in the early years has the potential to damage children’s mental health and wellbeing. This article originally appeared in the October issue of Under 5 - available for Alliance members to read online here.
Early childhood education is increasingly becoming a game of competition. This is due to the reintroduction of the baseline test and phonics testing. Some policy-makers have an almost evangelical belief that competitiveness, even in very young children, is an inherently good thing.
The problem with this thinking is that competition has reduced the purpose of early education into a game of winners and losers, which will reduce most people to the status of “failures” with only the faint hope of future successes to cling onto.
Pressure to perform
In his 2015 book, The Happiness Industry, William Davies said that this leads to a ‘depressive-competitive syndrome’, as the relentless pressure to perform starts at such a young age despite it being developmentally inappropriate. This results in a tsunami of health and wellbeing problems.
Researchers have found that early years ability groups can lead to anxiety and panic attacks and symptoms of emotional distress at an early age. One primary school headteacher commented: “The focus on IQ and academic achievement above emotional wellbeing… has eroded confidence and left our young children without the inner resources to cope.”
child drawing
Children’s mental health
These concerns arrive at time when children’s mental health has been the focus of attention in the press as well as in policy discussions. In 2017, mental health charity YoungMinds estimated that three children in every classroom now have a diagnosable mental health problem. Recent research from UCL discovered that a quarter of girls (24%) and one in 10 boys (9%) are depressed at age 14.
Similar concerns are seen in younger children, with cases of self-harm even reported in children at primary school age. Data from NHS digital, obtained by The Guardian, shows that 107 children aged three- to nine-years-old were admitted to hospital for self-harm in 2016-17. A recent survey of primary school headteachers found that eight out of 10 had seen an increase in the number of children presenting with mental health issues due to assessments and curriculum changes.
Headteachers have also reported that cases of stress, anxiety and panic attacks had increased in more than three-quarters (78%) of primary schools in the past two years, while 76% said that they had seen an increase in the fear of academic failure and 55% had seen an increase in depression.
Ability groups
A study conducted by the National Education Union last year found that 58% of nursery teachers group children for phonics and 35% group children for maths. 81% of teachers at reception level are grouping children for phonics. But teachers were concerned about the impact of these groups on children. 65% of teachers agreed that children are aware of which group they are in and 45% agreed that ability grouping damages children’s self-esteem.
YoungMinds has called on the government to rebalance the education system so that children’s wellbeing is given the same level of priority as their academic progress. This rebalancing needs to start in the early years. Early years teachers responding to the National Education Union survey made the following comments:
“Grouping in a data-driven world seems to be becoming the norm. This sadly takes away from child-led playtime as we are forced into writing and reading constantly rather than appreciating the real heart of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).”
“The realities of resource constraints, for example, a lack of support staff and the constant fixation on data results, means that grouping becomes necessary.”
“There’s so much pressure on children…we’re really worried that our children write themselves off before they’ve started, they see themselves as failing.”
“It’s pressure on teachers that becomes pressure on young children. I really worry about the mental health issues…There’s children’s lives at stake.”
All of the above points towards the recent concerns surrounding increasing poor mental health among children and the relentless pressure for early childhood settings to continuously improve academic attainment. Listening and acting upon early childhood practitioner’s understanding of mental health and wellbeing would send a clear message, that, as YoungMinds argues, a “good education promotes health and happiness, not just good grades.
Child-centred approach
Given the current crisis in children’s mental health, as acknowledged by the Children’s commissioner last year, a child-centred approach to early childhood education that prioritises wellbeing is ethically necessary. We must move away from the constant comparison and competition of high-stakes testing. We should move towards knowledge co-construction, learning complexity and the unexpected. We have reached a point where data and metrics are now sometimes more trusted than the professionalism of teachers and practitioners.
It is imperative that we do not lose sight of the holistic child in our increasingly datafied early education settings. Child-led play contains all the necessary qualities for wellbeing. As Leo Chivers said (2016): “Play is active, participatory and builds perseverance, cooperation and resilience…through their play children see themselves as successful, capable and competent learners all of which are key to wellbeing and mental health.”