Skip to content
 

Blog post

Little fish, big streams: Early in-class maths ‘ability’ groups, early teacher judgements & primary schoolchildren’s later maths self-concept

Tammy Campbell, London School of Economics

Maths self-concept is important, not only for children’s experiences within education but because it is strongly related to subject choice, attainment and adult careers (Hansen & Henderson, 2019). Maths self-concept is also gendered: girls are less likely to think they are good at maths than boys, regardless of actual skill-level (Sullivan, 2013).

In the context of a ‘mathematics crisis’ (Carey et al, 2019) in the UK, and where girls and women are less likely to choose maths-related pathways (Codiroli Mcmaster, 2017), what factors might affect self-concept? In new research using the national Millennium Cohort Study, I explore two influences: in-class ‘ability’-grouping in early primary school, and teacher beliefs about children’s ‘ability’ at this young age (Campbell, 2021).

Analysing data for 2,299 boys and 2,164 girls, I find that both ‘ability’ group and teacher beliefs about children at age seven are strongly associated with whether children report themselves as being ‘good at maths’ four years later, at age 11. Children placed in the bottom group at age seven are much less likely to go on to say they are ‘good at maths’ – even when their skills at this age were equal to those of their top-grouped peers. Children whose teachers considered them to be ‘below average’ at maths at age seven were also much more likely to go on to have negative maths self-concept – again, even compared to those who scored equally at maths, but who were judged more favourably.

I control for a variety of child, family, and school-level factors that may explain these relationships. The factors do not account for associations, and nor do ‘ability’ group or teacher belief explain one another. Similar children who are placed in the bottom group or judged negatively by their teacher are much more likely to go on to think they are not ‘good at maths’.

Girls are more likely to report negative maths self-concept (16 per cent) than boys (9 per cent), and girls seem to be affected by ‘ability’ grouping in more complex ways than boys. While all boys who were placed in the top ‘ability’ group had very high chances of saying at age 11 that they were ‘good at maths,’ this was only the case for top-grouped girls who also scored highly on the maths cognitive test at age seven. Low-scoring girls placed in the top group were likely to go on to say they were not ‘good at maths’. This finding inverts the ‘big-fish-little-pond’ phenomenon, which finds that higher-scoring children placed with lower-skilled peers have better self-concept (Marsh et al, 2018). Moreover, girls seemed to be more consistently impacted by teacher judgements than boys: all girls judged ‘below average’ at maths by their teacher at age seven went on to have negative maths self-concept, while high-scoring boys seemed impervious to the effects of their teachers’ beliefs.

‘Girls are more likely to report negative maths self-concept (16 per cent) than boys (9 per cent), and girls seem to be affected by “ability” grouping in more complex ways than boys … Girls seemed to be more consistently impacted by teacher judgements than boys: all girls judged “below average” at maths by their teacher at age seven went on to have negative maths self-concept, while high-scoring boys seemed impervious to the effects of their teachers’ beliefs.’

In a context where teachers’ perceptions of maths ‘ability’ are evidenced to favour boys (Campbell, 2015), this research begs further consideration of the impact of teachers’ perceptions and beliefs about children. Self-fulfilling prophesies and pedagogic practices associated with different judgement patterns and styles appear to play a part in shaping children’s maths self-concept, and so may contribute to later inequalities in subject choices and careers.   

At age seven, children’s skills and self-concepts are rapidly developing. This research adds to the evidence that relegating children to a hierarchy of ‘ability’ groupings at this premature stage can alter and shape their educational trajectories. It supports continued reform away from the use of ‘ability’ grouping in early primary school; reform that could help boost maths progression, and contribute to closing gender gaps.


References

Campbell, T. (2015). Stereotyped at seven? Biases in teacher judgement of pupils’ ability and attainment. Journal of Social Policy, 44(3), 517–547. https://doi:10.1017/S0047279415000227 

Campbell, T. (2021). In-class ‘ability’-grouping, teacher judgements and children’s mathematics self-concept: Evidence from primary-aged girls and boys in the UK Millennium Cohort Study. Cambridge Journal of Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/0305764X.2021.1877619

Carey, E., Devine, A., Hill., F., Dowker., A., McLellan, R., & Szucs, D. (2019). Understanding mathematics anxiety: Investigating the experiences of UK primary and secondary school students. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.

Codiroli Mcmaster, N. (2017). Who studies STEM subjects at A level and degree in England? An investigation into the intersections between students’ family background, gender and ethnicity in determining choice. British Educational Research Journal, 43(3), 528–553. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3270

Hansen, K., & Henderson, M. (2019). Does academic self-concept drive academic achievement? Oxford Review of Education, 45(5), 657–672. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2019.1594748

Marsh, H. W., Pekrun, R., Murayama, K., Arens, K. A., Parker, P. D., Guo, J., & Dicke, T. (2018). An integrated model of academic self-concept development: Academic self-concept, grades, test scores, and tracking over six years. Developmental Psychology, 54(2), 263–280. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000393

Sullivan, A. (2013). Academic self-concept, gender and single-sex schooling. British Educational Research Journal, 35(2), 259–288. https://doi.org/10.1080/01411920802042960