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Primary School Ability Grouping: Should It Go Or Stay?

By Sibongile Masheedze

Grouping students by ability is one of the most common practices in the Zimbabwean education system. Ability grouping is practiced at all levels and it takes different forms, mostly it involves grouping of pupils according to the capabilities and ability to grasp learning concepts and principles.

The common reason for ability grouping is supposedly, to provide instruction that is appropriate for students and their individual needs.

The issue of ability grouping cannot be separated in education and performance of learners. Educators assert that higher academic performance is top priority and various researchers have sought to identify its determinants, some of which are age, gender, family socio-economic status and pedagogical practices.

However, I believe that there has not been consensus on which elements are the most important in determining whether ability grouping enhances performance.

I think it is important to take a comprehensive look at both the negative and beneficial effects that ability grouping can have besides the last thing any educator wants to do is to be responsible for educational decisions that are harmful to the students.
In Zimbabwe, ability grouping is not mandated by the National Education Department, but it’s a reality in majority of the schools here.

Placing slow learners in a separate group from fast learners allows teachers to adjust their teaching to the learning pace and learning styles of each group, but the reality is that ability grouping places low ability learners at a disadvantage, and encourages social stratification among learners of different abilities.

Ability grouping does not enhance student achievement in primary school but it only benefits high-ability learners who gain from ability grouping at the expense of low achievers. There is no much achievement gains even for high-ability learners; however, ability grouping may reduce achievement levels in average and low-ability groups.

Ability grouping plans may stigmatise low achievers and place them into classes or groups for which teachers have low expectations, or lead to the creation of academic elites. The self-concept of students placed in low-ability groups may be impaired, whereas the self-concept of students in high-ability groups may be artificially inflated.

Students in the low ability grouping may experience social stigmatisation, lowered expectation and decreased motivation whereas students in the high ability group may possess an inflated sense of their self-worth.

It is sad that ability groups also determine the student’s friendship. For example, students are more likely to establish friendship within their own ability groups, thus limiting their experiences with students at different achievement level.


The ability grouping technique does not seem to challenge the students as much to work harder and strive to learn more.
I think that ability grouping does put the lower grouped learners at a disadvantage due to the improper teaching techniques and attitude by the teachers. This problem with ability grouping could be part of the reason why the primary school has some of the lowest Zimbabwe Schools Examinations Council scores for Grade Seven learners especially in Manicaland.


Indeed teachers’ negative or positive attitude towards students during lessons can have negative bearing on student performance. When teachers move at a very slow pace in classes, they may end up behind and rushing through the syllabus which means students will not grasp concepts easily.

Therefore there are high changes that the syllabus will not be completed by the time that exams are due. The teacher therefore has to use the best strategies when they are teaching whether in a high ability or in low ability grouped classes.


It is obvious that ability grouping leds to direct comparisons for learners. Therefore low achievers compare themselves to pupils in high classes to determine their own academic abilities, which resulted in them feeling less accomplished and demotivated.
Negative effects of ability grouping are not solely restricted to the low ability classes. Pupils in high ability classes also have the pressure and the high expectations that they felt from both teachers and parents.


Ability grouping seems to be harmful to low-ability students, but beneficial to their high-ability learners. Low ability students being left without teachers and segregation by both teachers and other students impacted negatively on academic performance.

Although ability grouping is used with the best of intentions, to try to help low ability learners and meet their needs, I think it does not actually improve academic results at primary school level, but it increases the gap between high and low performing students.

Sibongile Masheedze is a post graduate student in counselling psychology with the Great Zimbabwe University and an intern counselling psychologist. She is also a customer relations officer at a local bank. She writes here in his personal capacity.