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As we are currently threatened in the UK with a return to SELECTION on ability in education I thought it might be a good time to revisit some of the broader issues in the debate previously published elsewhere:

Working essentially in a small pocket of the 1950’s (Kent where the Tripartite system still prevails), ones views are inevitably somewhat colored by a system that is quite clearly failing all levels of ability in the county. The pattern across the county is for “coasting” grammar schools with very narrow traditionally academic approaches to be glorified as paragons of virtue, and for single sex secondary moderns to struggle along without the resources or money to make a difference. Kent has a disproportionate number of schools that are really struggling and yet the commitment to a discredited selective system remains as strong as ever. Despite Ofsted’s apparent love affair with the county's grammars, it is clear that much more could be done with the able students they cream off.

Labeling in such an environment is very real. My own school (non-selective girls) borders the local girls grammar sharing fences, entrances, and in some cases barbed wire and anti vandal paint! . Girls who pass the 11+ wear green uniforms and girls who fail wear brown. Thus a child’s basic IQ is communicated publicly to all by clothes she wears…. One can only imagine the extent of the negative effect on self-esteem and aspiration such a daily reminder can have and I trust that many will be duly horrified that such practices still exist. Remarkably it is also common practice for secondary modern schools to further set and band their students. The bottom set of the bottom school must be quite a dreadful place to be!

The purpose of this paper however is not to berate Kent for its archaic and discredited approach to education. Rather it is to discuss the issues of selection streaming, banding and setting in our schools and the possible negative or positive effects such practices have on the children we teach. The views of the author are clearly that selection is a wholly negative thing and it is hoped that an interesting and lively debate will ensue on the forum. As this is such a vast area of debate I will merely post a number of introductory discussion points below.

I am treating the broad issue of selection by ability to encompass the continuing tripartite system, and streaming and banding in comprehension schools

Arguments for selection, streaming and banding

1. Certain subjects are “hard” and would be impossible to teach successfully in a mixed ability environment

2. The needs of the majority are met in setted groups – differentiation is easier to achieve and prove.

3. Children are different and require different approaches. Some children are academically gifted and require specialist help; others require a more basic skills approach.

4. Mixed ability grouping holds the best students back

Arguments against selection, streaming and banding

1. Setting is only easier for teachers but has no measurable, provable benefit for students at either end.

2. Teacher “labels” become self fulfilling prophecies. Top sets are expected to perform better and do, bottom sets are expected to perform badly and often to behave badly and do so.

3. There is a predominance of working class children in bottom sets and non-selective schools who therefore do not can access to “higher” academic knowledge and skills. Selection, streaming, banding and setting therefore perpetuate the existing class structure and limit the opportunities of working class children

4. Equal opportunities issues (see point 3)

5. Teacher’s low expectations of bottom sets and secondary modern pupils result in less preparation and effort on the part of the teacher.

6. Mixed ability groups in comprehensive schools are important in the social development of children and the progressive development of society

7. IQ testing is outmoded and discredited and a totally unfair way to determine a child’s future and prospects

8. Selection and streaming is deeply damaging to a child’s self esteem

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I know all about Kent’s education policy. I grew up in Maidstone in the 1940s to early 1960s, passed the eleven-plus and won a place (in 1953) at the then highly selective Maidstone Grammar School (boys only). It was a bit like the school featured in the film “If” – although it was an LEA school and did not have boarders. We did, however, have prefects (spelt “praefects”) who were allowed to give lines and beat children. Every Wednesday afternoon the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) paraded on the school playground and once a year we went off for a field day at Hothfield Common, near Ashford. I didn’t shoot the padre but I did succeed in hitting a particularly nasty “praefect” in the backside with a piece of wadding fired from a blank in a Lee Enfield 303 rifle.

I have mixed feelings about my schooldays. In many respects they were a nightmare. Here I was, a kid from a lower middle class family (both parents were nurses and my father had previously worked in a coalmine in Wales), suddenly thrust into a highly competitive environment in which most of the kids (mainly from professional families) spoke posh and behaved as if they were destined to rule the world. On the other hand, I was a gifted child who had been very unhappy in my last years at primary school, where I was bullied and taunted for being too clever. In this respect Maidstone Grammar School was a relief. Being clever was what it was all about.

I don’t like the idea of selection, but I have yet to see a fully comprehensive system working according to the philosophy of education that I was taught during my PGCE training year, 1964-65. Since 1971 I have lived in an area where there are just five comprehensive schools and no selective schools. There are a couple of minor private schools in the area and another major one a bit further away – namely Eton. Both my daughters went to the local comp in the 1980s. Both did well and went on to higher education. One daughter found it a struggle, however, especially when she drifted down into the lower sets for Maths and English, where she was taught by inexperienced teachers and needed private tuition to pull her back up. The other daughter sailed through, being a gifted child, but - like me - she was bullied and taunted for being too clever.

As for streaming, I firmly believe that some subjects cannot be taught easily to mixed ability groups. These tend to be subjects where there is a strong element of progression, e.g. Maths, and subjects where skills rather than knowledge come into the foreground, e.g. Music and Modern Foreign Languages, where the learner’s lack of ability in singing in tune or pronouncing a sentence correctly are on view to the whole class and can lead to merciless mickey taking by other learners who have mastered the skill. This is not to say that mixed ability classes in Maths, Music and Modern Foreign Languages don’t work. They can work well, but in my experience only in the hands of exceptional teachers. I taught German and French to mixed ability groups in the early stages of my teaching career. It worked OK for the first year, but by the end of the second year the difference between the kids at the top of the class and those at the bottom was so great that it made little sense to attempt whole-class work in listening and speaking. As a result, I tended to concentrate on reading and writing, as I could divide the class up into groups and set them different tasks according to their ability and let them get on with the work quietly. It was possible, however, to differentiate in our language lab sessions (once a week), as it is now possible to differentiate in computer lab sessions.

I guess this looks like I’m sitting on the fence. I guess I am…

Happy New Year!

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My main argument against selection is that it always results in a terrible waste of human potential - wherever you happen to draw the line.

Harrow County School for Boys was a case in point. Before Harrow Council was obliged by central government to go comprehensive in 1970 Harrow County had a very high reputation (getting a couple of pupils into Oxbridge every year).

Immediately after comprehensivisation its reputation slumped … firstly because (as numerous HMI reports had stated) the school had been concentrating its resources on about one-fifth of the pupils and grossly neglecting the other four-fifths (who had already been selected into the supposed top 20% by the eleven-plus exam), and secondly because comprehensivisation allowed all the parents in the borough to apply for a place for their kids at all the schools. The ones who thought that Harrow County had some sort of social cachet fought to get their kids in there … where they discovered that the infrastructure of the school was in appalling shape (apart from the sixth-form science lab … because it was easier to get pupils into Oxbridge if they studied science subjects), and the teachers generally lacked the ability to teach even the top end of the ability range. The school hadn't bought a book for the school library for years, for example.

Abolishing selection (which they did in Sweden in the late 1960s) has some interesting effects. It's a bit like passing a law against smacking children: it doesn't in itself stop the practice, but it changes the social climate where such behaviour is seen to be acceptable … which in turn leads parents and schools to have to look for other alternatives to promote behaviour that we want children to exhibit and discourage the opposite type … which in turn seems to encourage creativity in finding solutions to the basic problem of inequality in society.

This is by no means to claim that everything in the garden is rosy. Social segregation keeps rearing its ugly head - if you've got a position of privilege, you'll fight very hard to hold on to it. However, the notion that social segregation is somehow a natural order is strongly resisted here. Instead it's seen for what it is - the desire by a small group of people in society to perpetuate a system whereby they receive a disproportionate amount of that society's resources.

As you can see, I don't see selection as having anything to do with 'ability' - if we knew any neutral, reliable ways of measuring ability, I'm sure we'd be using them … but I don't think that we do.

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I think the UK (England, especially) is very different from other countries insofar as the public (i.e. private) school system is held in such high esteem. If you abolish selection in the state sector its impact will be lessened due to the fact that well-off parents will continue to send their children to private schools, i.e. selection by wealth. It could be argued that abolishing private education is the answer - but imagine the outcry that this would cause. Another solution is to pour lots more money into state education and improve it to such an extent that the private sector can't compete with it, but I can't imagine this happening.

In some European countries - maybe David can confirm that this is the case in Sweden - it would be considered eccentric to send one's child to a private school.

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The Swedish school system has become more complicated in the last 10 years, but Graham's last point is basically true - private, fee-paying education is an extreme rarity (the only such school I can think of is the one the royal family send their kids to).

There are now schools which are called private, but they receive their funds from the local council (who run the school system here) on more or less the same per capita system as the state schools. They are inspected regularly by state inspectors and have to follow the same basic curriculum as the state schools. There is evidence that these schools are managing to become selective by using policies such as excluding handicapped children and immigrants, but it's happening by stealth. Guess which political bloc thought of the idea … (hint, not the social democrats).

However, these schools haven't been in existence long enough to create much trouble … but it's starting now. In the same way that comprehensive education in the UK began, and became strongest, in the rural counties (because of the financial madness of trying to run three schools where there were only enough pupils for one), it just doesn't make any sense to have lots of unviably-small schools in most of the small towns in Sweden (you can probably guess that the system was thought up by people who live in Stockholm).

In Kalmar there's an interesting situation developing, which mirrors developments all over the UK. The area of town the private schools want to set up in (and thus the type of pupil they want to attract) is the comfortable, middle-class area. So … it's the rather posher state school in this area which is most under threat from the private schools, and is under threat of closure, because it can't attract enough pupils to make it viable. In the meantime, the schools in the poorer areas of town (which are still not poor by any UK definition of 'poor') are going from strength to strength, because they're big enough to be able to use their resources efficiently and effectively.

I remember comparing the range of subjects offered by my sisters' comprehensive school in Harrow with Dartford Technical High School for Boys where I was working in 1979. They had around 20 more subjects to choose from (OK, one of them was Pottery … but everyone who studied Maths also studied Statistics at Park High and there were lots of academic subjects which Dartford couldn't have the teachers to teach because the school was basically too small). It's the same phenomenon here.

As for what you can do about the mess in the UK … well my solution was effectively to emigrate!

Edited by David Richardson
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Graham - I didn't realise you grew up in Maidstone - that's where I spent two years teaching in 91/92, at The Mallings comprehensive in West Malling and at the EBD unit in Harrietsham. Also did various bits of supply in villages around there.

I'm like you, a bit of a fence sitter. Non-selection and non-streaming always sound so wonderful in theory but never seem to work out for everyone in practice. Maybe there is no perfect answer. If I had a mixed ability class of well-behaved and motivated students, then I would certainly be able to teach them. However, that is not the case when in a mixed-ability class you have gifted at one end, average kids in the middle and also some badly behaved, dysfunctional, emotionally mixed-up students along with a couple of included students with impaired intellect and/or physical disabilities and a couple of ADHD students thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately that's what many classes today consist of and not even the best teacher in the world can do their best for each child in those circumstances with the resources available. It's beyond the call of duty.

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Hi, Jean! Small world, eh? My brother lives in Teston, which (as you know) is just a couple of miles from West Malling. I was in the area just before Christmas, visiting him and his family.

Regarding your point on selection/streaming, its effectiveness depends on how broad the the ability band is, how big the group is, the nature of the subject being taught and (above all) the ability of the teacher. It goes without saying that teaching smaller groups in a narrow ability band is easier - so why make life difficult for the teacher? Many teachers simply are not capable of teaching large mixed ability groups, and I'm not convinced that the outcomes are worth the extra effort and stress that this causes. As I said before, skills-based subjects (e.g. Music and Modern Foreign Languages) are difficult to teach to mixed ability groups. I make a comparison between such subjects and sports. When I learned to ski, everyone was carefully graded and placed in a group reflecting their ability. In the course of the six days we spent on the slopes, the instructors were continually watching us, moving the slower learners down to slower groups and the faster learners up. Most of us felt comfortable about this.

I had to learn Hungarian around 15 years ago in connection with a project I was managing in Hungary. I joined a group of four learners (all adults with experience in other languages), but within three weeks there was a marked difference in our progress. This was probably due to the fact that we all had different backgrounds regarding the languages we could already speak. All four of us were native English speakers. Two members of the group knew only French as a foreign language, and the third knew Cantonese (from living in Hong Kong). I am a fluent speaker of German, handle French reasonably well and I had studied Latin at school and Russian as a hobby. I was soon way ahead of the rest of the group - not because I am particularly clever but mainly because the languages I had studied before prepared me for the complex grammar of Hungarian, with its multitude of case endings and unusual word word order. In addition, the phonology of Hungarian is closer to German than to French (or indeed Cantonese). My three colleagues dropped out and I continued with one-to-one tuition, reaching a reasonable "survival" standard in about a year.

The government has got itself in a dreadful mess regarding its policy of making foreign languages an optional subject beyond Key Stage 3 (the third year of secondary education). They did not anticipate the huge drop-out rate - with only a quarter of students in state schools in England now studying languages beyond the age of 14. They have therefore set senior management a target of 50% uptake, but how this is to be achieved is unclear. As for the new policy of "entitling" children in primary education (Key Stage 2) to learn a foreign language, this has also been handled badly. There are not enough properly trained teachers, and it is not clear which language children will learn at primary school. It could be French, German or Spanish - and then the secondary schools could be faced with children coming in with different language backgrounds, so those who have learned French will slot in easily into the French groups in secondary education (which exist in almost all secondary schools), but what happens to those who have learned German (now in danger of disappearing in secondary education) and Spanish (on the increase in secondary education)? We saw something like this before in the 1970s.

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I have very fond memories of that part of Kent and we were there in July last year. I actually lived most of the time near Charing and did my shopping in Ashford and Canterbury as well as Maidstone. It was great for the kids (and the staff) as we regularly took them for day trips to France and also up to London to see Shakespeare etc

I taught English and Social Science for over 30 years and I would claim that it is also verydifficult to teach these subjects to large classes of very mixed ability and achieve optimum results for all, especially as you move into the senior grades. Surely, we would not claim that students of all abilities should be sitting in the same university lecture or tutorial?

One of the main reasons is time constraint. How on earth can any teacher in four or five 40 minute periods a week, provide enough individualised or even small group tuition to a range of kids working at five or six varying levels and believe that they have optimised every child's potential?

I have taught for lengthy periods in both systems and all I know is that I did not develop the top students or remediate those at the lower end, to the same degree that I was able to in a streamed class. I simply did not have enough time to do so.

One of the best solutions I have seen was in a smallish rural high school where classes were loosely streamed - ie two classes had a mixture of good middle and top kids, two had a mixture of middle and lower abilty and one had the least able mixed with some middle ability. This class was smaller than the rest and taken by an experienced, good teacher who was willing to do so. Other teachers were given one of each of the other groups. There was freedom to move students in or out of these groupings if they demonstrated potential capacity. This seemed to me a good compromise.

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One of my main objections to selection by ability and streaming and setting by ability is the subsequent creation of powerful "labels" for students.

A negative label can destroy a child's educational career before it has even started.

Too often also there is a strong correlation between social class and selection/streaming.

A few years ago I got my Year 9 history students to write a comparative essay on working conditions in the 19th century and working conditions today. In the process of doing this they had to interview a family member in full time work. The top set interviewed teachers, bank managers, solicitors etc. whilst the bottom set interviwed lorry drivers, shop assistants, manual workers. We couldn't have streamed them more accurately on parental income if we had tried!

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Andy writes:

One of my main objections to selection by ability and streaming and setting by ability is the subsequent creation of powerful "labels" for students.

True, but in a "performing" subject such as Music, Modern Languages or Sports, an individual's shortcomings are on display to the whole group, not just to the teacher - and this can cause a great deal of embarrassment to the learner. The most embarrassing situation I can recall was when my university language centre put on an intensive 3-week course in Spanish. Two people from the same firm applied - completely independently. One was a senior manager in his early 40s, and one was a secretary, aged around 20. The young secretary was already fluent in another language, but the manager just had a rusty O level from his school days. So you can guess who surged ahead. I recall that the senior manager left the course early. Unfortunately, the group was too small to allow us to divide it into sets.

In my opinion, it is far better for the teacher and for the learner to stream some subjects according to ability. I hated athletics as a child because, having been asthmatic, I was a terrible athlete and could never keep up with the rest of the class. Cross-country running was sheer torture for me, and it was relief for me when I moved further up the school and could choose swimming instead of athletics. I am still a good swimmer.

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In my opinion, it is far better for the teacher and for the learner to stream some subjects according to ability. I hated athletics as a child because, having been asthmatic, I was a terrible athlete and could never keep up with the rest of the class. Cross-country running was sheer torture for me, and it was relief for me when I moved further up the school and could choose swimming instead of athletics. I am still a good swimmer.

Is it possible that with effective mixed ability teaching/coaching you might have been persuaded to run faster? :ph34r:

I do not believe that it is any harder/easier to teach any particular subject in a mixed ability setting. It has become fashionable for mathematicians, linguists et al to assert the impossibility of the mixed ability teaching of their subjects as though it was some self evident truth.

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Andy writes:

It has become fashionable for mathematicians, linguists et al to assert the impossibility of the mixed ability teaching of their subjects as though it was some self evident truth.

It's not impossible. Mixed ability MFL teaching just doesn't work very well in the hands of inexperienced teachers. It's not just "fashion" either. Most teachers of modern languages have been against the idea of mixed ability teaching in the whole of my 40 years as an educator. I couldn't make it work, and most of my colleagues couldn't make it work. A gifted teacher could probably make it work. I managed to achieve some success using technology, namely a language lab in the 1960s/70s and a multimedia computer lab from the late-1980s onwards, which made it possible to differentiate in the setting of tasks for the development of listening and speaking skills. It increased preparation time, however, and made my job more stressful.

See:"Success of mixed ability classes depends on what you teach"


(Institute of Education)

Whether teachers prefer classes of mixed or the same ability depends a lot on the nature of their subject. Mixed ability teaching poses a problem in subjects that require correct answers and a grasp of abstract concepts, and where all pupils have to learn the same things before they can move on.

But in subjects like the arts and humanities, where different pupils can concentrate on different aspects and different outcomes are permissable, mixed ability is favoured.

The demands of examinations and pressures on teachers in subjects like mathematics make setting more desirable, and more maths teachers than any other dislike mixed ability groups (82% as compared to 70% of foreign language teachers).

Research also tends to support the view that gifted and talented children make poorer progress in mixed ability classes for modern languages and are more likely to get bored and misbehave.

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It is certainly easier for the teacher to teach any subject in sets and bands. The key point is surely what the end results are for the students.

I would contend that those students labelled "able" in a setted environment may well internalize the positive label the teacher communicates and do well whereas those labelled "less able" in a setted environment will tend to internalize the negative label the teacher communicates and do badly.

I would also contend that the systems used in education to identify "ability" are flawed and often do little more than measure the level of material deprivation. How else are we to explain the concentrations of deprived kids in non selective schools and the bottom sets of comprehensive schools??

There was some classic sociological research done on the power of teacher labels by Rosenthal and Jacobsen.

In order to test their hypothesis that the behaviour of teachers (in terms of their expectations about their pupils' intellectual ability) was a crucial factor Rosenthal and Jacobson posed as psychologists who could, on the basis of a sophisticated IQ test, identify children who would in the future display "dramatic intellectual growth". They administered their test and identified to the class teacher those pupils who, on the basis of objective IQ testing would subsequently develop greater academic achievements than their peers.

After to gap of a few months, Rosenthal and Jacobson returned and re-tested the children. They found that those who had been identified to teachers as possessing "academic potential" had improved their test scores significantly whereas the "non-achievers" in the class had not. The one significant thing Rosenthal and Jacobson did not tell the teacher was that they had selected the names of "potential achievers" at random, not on the basis of a new and highly sophisticated test.

If in the generality working class children and ethnic minority children disproportionately and unfairly receive and internalize negative labels by the selection and setting process we are doing them a grave disservice.

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Perhaps we being somewhat less class conscious here and having a less diverse population and smaller schools, it isn't such a problem. The school I referred to earlier was in a poor rural area where almost all the children came from similar farming or working class families (the rest were sent off to cheap private schools) but there were certainly differences in their natural abilities. Therefore there were just as many "working class" kids in the top groups as there were in the lower groups - in fact, there was only a small handful of children of teachers or local small business. They certainly didn't see it as being based on their family backgrounds.

I think it also has to do with motivation and willingness to work. If students are normally behaved and reasonably self-motivated then it is very possible to teach a MA class well, but many of our students in the poorer areas are not like that and it is not the fault of the school or the teacher. Many of these kids are emotionally bereft, dysfunctional, on mind altering substances, in poor health and their behaviour is too entrenched and supported by their parents for the last few years of schooling to rectify. In these situations it is nigh impossible for even the most brilliant teacher to achieve optimum results in a MA class and the better ones suffer for it. Not all schools are the same.

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I still contend that foreign languages are a special case. Our main problem in this subject area is motivation. The British are the worst performers in foreign languages in Europe, in spite of all the changes that have taken place in language teaching methodology over the last 50 years, in spite of the National Curriculum, in spite of the introduction of mixed ability teaching, in spite of the application of new technologies such as the language lab and the computer lab. Rather than getting better at foreign languages we are getting worse. As soon as the DfES announced that foreign languages would not be compulsory beyond Key Stage 3 in state schools in England (note: England, NOT Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), senior managers hastened to push foreign languages off the curriculum in order to bump up their performance tables figures - because GCSE results in foreign languages tend to be so poor. Now only 25% of kids in state schools in England are taking a GCSE in a foreign language. In one northern English city there is a school where the figure is just 18%.

I have taught in schools in London and also in rural Devon. Working class city kids have almost no interest in foreign languages. Many of them can barely communicate in English - which is not a good starting point. Rural kids are difficult to motivate. As one poorly performing child (son of a Devon farmer) said to me when I reprimanded him for his dreadful exam performance: "I don't need German to talk to a cow."

On the Continent motivation is less of a problem. In many countries you can't get a job if you don't speak English. In addition, English language pop culture and English language films capture the imagination of young people and encourage them to learn English. Go to any popular holiday resort on the Continent and you are surrounded by signs in English. I don't see much French or German on signs in the UK - maybe "Tenez la gauche" or "Links fahren" on the M20 coming out of Dover. Our local council began to translate some of its signs into French and German. One of them was sign in a multi-storey car park warning drivers against car theft. There were three glaring mistakes in the French version and four in the German version, one of which made the message sound laughable.

I give up!

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