Streaming and Setting – good idea or bad one?

Streaming in schools is the separation of cohorts into two or more classes of broadly equal ability thus you typically get a low, middle and high ability class in each year. The alternative to this is mixed ability classes. Setting applies at the level of individual subjects thus a child might be in the middle ability class for most things, but move to either the high or low ability class for maths or English.

The advantages of streaming are that it lets teachers adjust the level of teaching to the ability of those within each ability range. Thus, the complexity of the topics will typically be higher in the high ability class than in the low ability one. Generally, the low ability class will have additional support requirements and these will be concentrated in that class. In the high ability class, lessons will tend to stretch the pupils. One downside of this structure is that the distribution of ability isn’t even and, in general, the high and low ability classes would ideally have about 1/4 of the pupils with the middle class having half of them so, in practice, there would be two middle classes. Unfortunately, schools don’t always have enough pupils to do that and would more generally run with three classes at most. The other notable downside of it is that those in the bottom class can get labelled as the dummies which isn’t fair as there are lots of reasons that they can be in that class and also because it’s not necessarily a permanent position for them. Setting is much the same and is essentially a fine tuning of the streaming structure.

Mixed ability classes avoid that stigmatism in that low, middle and high ability pupils will be in each class. Where it falls down is that the teaching tends to be towards the middle which is too high for those who’d otherwise be in the low ability class and too low (hence boring) for those who’d normally be in the high ability class. It avoids the motivation issue of having teachers constantly teaching the low ability class and often working very hard with no real progress from their pupils to show for it.

The kids primary school has been doing streaming and setting for P4-7 for around four years now, so the first of the kids who’ve worked right through that are at the point of moving to their next school. It was introduced by the previous principal and vice-principal (she’s leaving this year) and seems to have worked quite well. Unfortunately, the new principal is quite opposed to it and so they’re dropping it as from September which is a particularly bad time for our second little guy, so bad in fact that we are considering changing schools.

Why is it so bad? Well, the lower class has a tendency to be quite disruptive and that’s a major downside for teaching. Teaching in the school seems certain to end up teaching for the needs of those at the lower ability levels to the detriment of those of average or higher levels of ability.

Why are they doing it? It seems that the new principal just doesn’t like streaming and setting and the teachers lumbered with the lower classes have a hard time. What it doesn’t address are the needs of those of middle and higher abilities, many of whom will either be put off by the disruption or simply get bored.

It doesn’t even adequately address the needs of those at the lower ability or rather lower attainment levels. In the school, their problems include English as an additional language and general lack of parental support and encouragement. In families with English as an additional language it is both difficult for the pupil in school and for the parents in terms of homework and general interaction with the school – mixed ability classes will not help either. Lack of parental support and encouragement isn’t exclusive to immigrants, of course, and the school really needs to do all it can about that but mixed ability classes just average down the teaching and, if anything, discourage those at the lower end of the ability range who can easily come to see any progress as impossible when they’re surrounded by people miles ahead of them.

What really gets us is that they announced the new policy following a consultation where the majority of parents and teachers said that mixed ability classes would be best for their child. Except, that’s not what even their, highly misleading, statistics said. Taking the very same results, it can be argued that the parents and teachers want streaming and setting. And that’s even after an incredibly poor and biased analysis of the consequences of streaming and setting was distributed with the initial consultation questionnaire. Subtract the bias, add in some valid statistics and the result would have been quite different.


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