How To Manage Ability Groupings In The Classroom

Many moons ago when I was a new teacher, the buzz words were ‘differentiation’ and ‘ability groupings’. Fast forward over 10 years and the new buzz words are ‘learning without limits’ and ‘growth mindset’. As a Headteacher, I was always particularly interested in the idea of children learning without limits, and the growth mindset made so  much sense to me.  The question was always, how to manage this as a teacher.  For an NQT or RQT, as much as you want to work out a way to ensure that your children can learn without limits, it can be hard to get your head around how to manage ability groupings in the classroom.  I have heard from several NQT’s who have decided that they can’t manage it, so have decided to just do ability groupings as that is where they feel safe! I completely understand this.  Ability groupings make sense when you are teaching – it’s just that children don’t always fit neatly into ability groupings.  So here are my tips on how to manage ability groupings in the classroom.


When you are planning, make sure you plan for different ability groups – even if you are not sure at the beginning of the week which children will be in each group. Make sure you consider at least three different ability groupings – and perhaps up to five depending on the make up of your class.  Only plan for a maximum of 3 lessons at a time. Don’t plan for the whole week as your lessons will almost definitely change depending on how the children progress.  

Make sure you also plan for a Guided Group in each lesson – one which you will lead.  This will be your flexible group which can change day by day depending on where the gaps are and what the children need.

Know what you want each group to learn and what you want them to do in the lesson. Sometime, for example with very low ability children, you will always know that they will be in a particular group and can plan directly for them.  Otherwise, keep your plan flexible as regards to the children.


This is your key to knowing how to manage ability groupings in the classroom.  When you are doing your whole class teaching, be aware as to which children are struggling and which are fully understanding.  Sometimes a child who is a whizz with numbers will really struggle with shape or time, so be aware and use your formative assessment to decide which children will do which type of work.  When the teaching part is over, then divide the class up into the different groups you have planned for.  

The best thing about this is that the children will be constantly moving into different groupings and working with different children.  To add to this, if you can carry out a Guided Group each lesson, then you will also be using your formative assessment to quickly ascertain which children need to work directly with you.  Sometimes this will be the same children for a week, but other children may come in and out of your Guided Group over a period of a few lessons.  You can also ask the children on the carpet whether they feel they need to be in your group, which will also be great self assessment for them and give you an idea about how they are feeling about their learning.  Sometimes I have had a guided group which is half the class – but it works so well because it is exactly where the children are at!

The benefits here are that you, as the teacher, are able to plan in advance the different groups.  You are then able to show excellent assessment for learning and the children will be learning at the level which is right for them. 

Following on from the lesson, you will then be able to use your formative assessment to adapt and change the following days plans, again with an idea of which child might be in which ability group – but again with the flexibility that this can change depending on the next day’s whole class teaching.

By working in this way, you can guarantee that you are able to successfully manage ability groupings in the classroom, but are giving the flexibility to the children to ensure that they are not being limited based on previous learning! A win win situation.

If you’d like to find out more or to join a supportive group for your NQT or RQT years, join us over at The Primary NQT Tribe Facebook group. We’d love to have you.

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