Class streaming in schools

N’s obviously way off school yet, or at least way off secondary school, but Ofsted have reported that pupils need to be set at 11 to ensure the brightest don’t slip academically.   This kind of announcement always has people kicking off (as proven by some of the comments on the Daily Mail article, unsurprisingly), but it’s one I’m definitely in agreement about.

We weren’t lucky enough to live in a grammar school area, so comprehensive it was, albeit in a nice village school with a good reputation.

Even a school with a good reputation, we were only set for 3 subjects – maths (obvious), science (again pretty obvious) and languages (reasonable enough, but only proper sets from GSCE and even those weren’t really official).  Not for english, which always astounded me.  Some pupils chose to do extra geography (me) or history on top of humanities GCSE and as you’d expect, most of the people who took those extra subjects, were from top sets in other subjects.  Although we didn’t have nominal sets (apart from maths), it was by topical names….science was based on the colours of the rainbow.

To  me, setting (or streaming) makes sense.  Fine, check how the new year 7 pupils are getting on (although surely with national tests at primary schools, there’d be a reasonable idea about abilities from primary schools?) and wait til year 8 to set them, but it seems madness to wait until later on where they might already have got lazy, not worked to their ability or got bored.

It’s all very well to say that teachers can teach to all abilities in a class, but in a class of 30 children, is it really possible for all teachers?

In our GCSE English classes where we weren’t set, we had people who had no interest whatsoever in books (or school), through to voracious readers and were very studious.  We were lucky in that our Year 11 teacher was able to manage a diverse class (the teacher we had in year 10 couldn’t).  He was enthusiastic (a bit scarily so), boomed out everything he said so no one could miss it, and without us really noticing, he had everyone on tables of broadly similar ability.  It always annoyed me that I (being shy at that time) and my table always got asked lots of questions while others might only get asked one…I’d not realised that it was his way of ensuring pupils were challenged to work to the best of their ability.

One half term, we also had a one off focus book to study which we all swapped round classes for and had different teachers.  The books were all different levels in line with the change in classes, so our book was Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White and meant we could discuss at depth a complex book with similar ability people at a speed that worked for the whole class.

To me, if you’re not going to set classes, you need either all teachers to be able to challenge every pupil (and in my experience, that’s never going to happen for all schools and all subjects) or have the ability to provide extra challenges and mix up the classes once in a while.  Again, how feasible is this. Surely it’s more straightforward for teachers and schools to plan one lesson at one level, especially once you’re studying for exams where different abilities sit different levels of papers.

The one downside is that having mixed ability classes potentially brings lower ability pupils up, gives them aspirations of what can be achieved, so streaming could remove that.  But why should brighter pupils lose out from not being challenged enough?  All levels should feel inspired by their teachers and subjects, so it shouldn’t matter what ability class they’re in.

I do think that class size has a lot to do with it.  My 6th form was at private school with my largest class being about 12.  That means there’s less room for pupils to hide and not work in class, therefore more opportunities for their best to be brought out by the teachers.  State schools are never going to achieve small classes, so they need to find a way to challenge all levels of pupils and streaming can provide a means of doing that.

Hopefully by the time N’s in secondary school, he’ll have discovered the subjects he’s keen on and has enough ambition to want to work hard and do his best.  And I’m also hoping that governments will have decided by that stage what they’re doing and stick with it.  The swapping and changing can’t do any good for the schools, teachers or children.

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