Today, Sky News ran a piece claiming that teaching children in sets according to their ability made no difference to their learning. I don’t think this makes sense, but it’s clear that the results of the Department of Education survey will make parents’ groups very happy. A spokesperson from one such group was on Radio 4 last week, claiming that streaming according to ability was bad for children’s self-esteem. Perhaps the truth is that such streaming affects the self-esteem of parents. Nobody wants to be told that their child is not as bright as his/her peers.
However, the full results of the survey don’t appear on the DFES’s website, so they can’t be looked at properly. However, some of the other criticisms of setting, such as having more qualified and talented teachers in the top sets and a higher proportion of behavioural problems or children with English as a second language in the lower ones, should be more correctly levelled at school administration.
From experience I know that the more experienced teachers, who had been at a school for a long time, could “cherry pick” their classes. The now notorious teacher’s diary, published in Private Eye last year, detailed the miserable life of a junior maths teacher whose lessons were reduced to remedial crowd control while his seniors lorded it over the top sets. Anyone who’s spent more than 2 minutes in a staff room could tell you that it should be the other way round. The junior, less experienced teachers should learn their trade with “easy” classes, not endure a trial by fire that leads to many NQTs (newly qualified teachers) dropping out in their first few years.
It seems obvious that teaching a class of children with similar abilities would be more successful than teaching a class where abilities differ wildly. I’m sorry, parents’ groups, but it’s true that children have differing levels of ability. Children are not all the same – some are spectacularly good at maths, others at English. Some are astonishingly bad at PE but outstanding at Geography. Some need one-to-one help to use a ruler, while others amaze with their drawing skills.
Mixed ability teaching inevitably leads to the highest and lowest ability children being ignored. If my little Tarquin wasn’t as bright as the others, I would much prefer him to be in a class with fewer children at a similar level than sitting at the back of a mixed-ability class, dropping further and further behind as the teacher focuses (as they inevitably do) on the majority, middling-ability children. Differentiation, used as a magic bullet when I did my PCGE, was, I was promised, the solution to the problem. Simply devise more and more Byzantine lesson plans to ensure that the kid that got Level 7 on his SATs was stretched while the kid who spent his SATs staring at the ceiling gets something down on paper for once.
While a good idea, differentiation can’t work for every lesson in every subject. In Science, how do you show the lad on Ritalin how to use the Bunsen burner without setting fire to his exercise book when you’re also trying to show the genius in the front row a really cool reaction that you think he’d enjoy? In Maths, there might be three ways to solve them, but there’s only one way to teach a quadratic equation.
Differentiation also doesn’t protect children’s self-esteem. Kids have a pretty good idea of their own abilities, deep down. You’re not fooling anyone when one group in your class gets a different textbook from the others. How do you explain why only Louise is allowed to do puzzles because she’s finished early when Jade has finished early by dint of chucking her book out of the window and gets detention? They know perfectly well that they have a different worksheet from the others because they’re not as bright.
I vastly preferred the extremes on both ends of the scale when I was teaching. The very bright were interesting, naughty when bored but fun to bounce ideas off. It was fun to find things out with them and fascinating to see them assimilate new information. It was a shame that they are passed over in mixed-ability classes because teachers know they will do the work properly and not require additional help.
The lower ability children posed a different kind of challenge. Hobbled with the idea that they would never amount to anything and that being at school was pointless, working with them was painstaking but ultimately rewarding when you could persuade them that the subject *could* be useful to them when they left; that they were worthwhile and could learn something after all. Teaching them to appreciate knowledge for its own sake was an uphill struggle but worth the effort. If they were in a class together, their needs could be met properly.
The kids I liked the least were the middling-ability girls, or triers. With their multicoloured title underlinings and careful, rounded, neat handwriting (often with little circles instead of dots on their letter “i”s), they simply wanted to answer all the questions correctly, have a series of little ticks and a circled score at the bottom of the page. Destined for a life in marketing or a call centre, they never seemed all that interested in reading around the subject or asking unexpected questions. Easy to teach, well-behaved but deadly dull, they belonged in a fair-to-middling ability band where they could plug away, inscribing their books with their big, round handwriting and different coloured inks.
For the record, I am deeply proud of my quite abysmal handwriting. I truly believe that nobody with neat handwriting can be an interesting person. Neat writing shows that one either writes too much (not computer literate) or not enough.