'A fertile functioning or corrosive disadvantage'
: Adult reflections on placement in low 'ability' groups in non-selective post-primary schools in Northern Ireland

  • Patricia McGuckian

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Education


Ability grouping is adopted more frequently m Northern Ireland than in other OECD countries. Drawing on qualitative interview data with eleven adults who were placed in a low ability group.in non-selective post-primary schools in Northern Ireland, this study builds on current literature by exploring the lived experience of placement from an adult perspective.

Three aspects of placement in a low ability group were considered adult recollections of the experience of placement in a low ability group; adult reflections on the practice, and the use of Nussbaum's Capabilities Approach as an evaluative framework to explore the extent to which placement in a low 'ability' group acts as a 'fertile functioning' or a 'corrosive disadvantage'.

A qualitative study was conducted using online face-to-face interviews with a purposively selected sample of eleven adults. An interpretative phenomenological approach (IPA) was adopted in order to focus directly on the lived experience of adults affected by placement in a low ability group.

Four key themes were generated from adult recollections. Firstly, group placement was a practice over which participants had no control, despite the significant consequences accruing from it. Secondly, placement engendered feelings of shame and stigma, hindering the development of positive relationships with others. Thirdly, placement created low teacher expectations and diminished
participants ' opportunity to learn. Lastly, placement created restrictions on both GCSE subject choice and attainment. Participants reflect on the experience of placement with feelings of anger, regret, and a sense of abandonment by a system which they feel treated them unfairly.

Viewed through the lens of Nussbaum's Capabilities Approach, this thesis argues that placement in a low ability group created a 'corrosive disadvantage' which mutilated participants' functionings and stunted capabilities, affecting both self-concept and life chances. The findings suggest that serious educational inequity is created by allocation to allow ability group.

Thesis embargoed until 31 July 2023.
Date of AwardJul 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorLaura Lundy (Supervisor) & Alison MacKenzie (Supervisor)


  • Nussbaum's capabilities approach
  • corrosive disadvantage
  • fertile functioning

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