February 2024 

A new collaborative paper involving Lisa Formby, Research Lead for Education at Wrexham University, alongside Swansea University, University of Bristol, and Trinity Saint David was published this month in the Journal of Pedagogy, Culture, and Society.  

The paper builds on a Welsh Government report published last year about grouping school children according to their abilities. The team wanted to explore the learners’ views about being grouped according to attainment, and consequently conducted the first research study on the learners’ voice, alongside teaching assistants’ and teachers’. The research questions investigated were: 

1. What were the experiences and perceptions of grouping practices of learners in lower attaining groups and what were their messages to their teachers? 

2. What factors influenced educators’ decisions about the formation and teaching of lower attaining groups? 


The team conducted qualitative fieldwork in seven secondary schools in Wales, ensuring the sample of learners were representative in terms of socio-economic disadvantage, location, and percentage of learners with additional learning needs (ALN). Focus groups were conducted with learners in lower attaining groups, and interviews with individual learners, alongside teaching and support staff interviews.  


The researchers employed a reflexive thematic analysis technique that means they searched for themes across the data individually, and then discussed interpretations within the team. These discussions allowed the data to be explored rigorously. 


Support groups were important for belonging  

Most learners enjoyed being in lower attaining support groups and had favourable teacher-pupil relationships. Learning tasks and environments were described positively, and learners felt they could always ask for support if they needed it. Peer relationships were also good, and some pupils were “really good friends” within these classes. When asked about the future, learners wished for the groups to continue in their current form.  

Attainment groups emphasised learner hierarchies 

Some learners were frustrated within their groups and not being able to move up a set. Although learners liked the support of the lower groups, they did not like the inflexibility of grouping and the lack of consultation about where they were placed. Some learners also felt that the lower groups were slower paced, and this was sometimes a barrier to progress. Lastly, there was evidence to show some learners had developed negative views about themselves, using names like “dull,” “dumb,” and “weirdo.”  

Mixed views on the purpose of attainment groups 

Lower attaining groups and support groups were often described as comfortable and enjoyable, where learners could build confidence and emotional warmth. Some teachers thought that the support groups gave the learner the chance to ‘cool off’ in a setting that was less pressured, especially if they had conflict with their usual teacher or class.  


It was clear from the study that most lower attaining groups and support groups were vital sites for learner belongingness. Learners expressed satisfaction with their experience of activities, instructions, and support available. Teacher-pupil relationships were very important to the learners in these groups. Teachers and teaching assistants emphasised the overlaying of family values onto the work of support groups, which created feelings of togetherness and trust. However, this may also help to maintain the status-quo of the family/attainment group hierarchy, because care relations imply power inequalities. Often, the teachers commented that the individual learners needed care and attention, whereas the learners raised broader issues across the whole school, rejecting the responsibility. The paper highlights the need for further consideration on the ideas of inclusive education, the purpose of attainment grouping, and learner identity. 

Read the full paper.