Canker by Any Other Name
The Government seems particularly
insistent that we should not confuse setting with streaming.
the ingenuous it might suggest the existence of some kind of collective conscience,
the Government knowing, as one supposes they do, from the results of much research,
that the latter is ineffective at best, and destructive at worst.
because it should not be forgotten that we live in an era of gloss, spin and snake
oil. The word streaming is to be avoided, not because of any conscience
to do with the way in which so many young lives were blighted by it, but because
there is an awareness out there with the general public, i.e. the voters, who
remember it from personal experience. It should be recalled that only 20%, at
most, of the general public will remember it favourably; the rest by definition
were in lower streams and the sting is still there for many who were placed therein.
No, we are soothed, setting is quite different, perish the thought
it should ever be associated with streaming.
for the Government, their credibility track record is hardly one that inspires
confidence. We were sold a broad and balanced curriculum that sank under its own
unnecessary prescriptiveness like an overloaded barge, and the vaunted revision
exercise was in fact like a preliminary diet preparing the body to adjust to one
of minimum nutrition. So now we have a narrow curriculum, payment by results,
tests that were only supposed to be diagnostic and that increasingly act like
a selection device (Independent, January 26, l999) arbitrary homework,
etc. As far as education is concerned, there is no mystery about the Third Way
it is simply something that goes smartly backwards. How do we know that
the emphasis on setting now is not a preliminary to accepting streaming
in a few years time?
Apart from anything else,
at primary level at any rate, setting can present considerable logistical
problems and the temptation for it to slip into a de facto streaming is only too
evident. Covert setting/streaming has been in evidence in primary schools over
many years, as I have testified from experience in a number of FORUM articles.
Up to now public attitudes though, have meant that any labels that could immediately
identify ones child in the hierarchy were avoided, with the resultant plethora
of Cats, Rabbits, Budgies, Roses, Tulips and Daisies etc. It will be interesting
to see what the new terms will be, given that such groupings have increasingly
official sanction. Will parents now know from four and a half (the suggested age
such setting should begin) exactly where their child stands in the
pecking order? Will they be pacified by the fact that they are only to be set
in the core subjects of English, Maths and Science? (A point to which I will return.)
there are more persuasive arguments for setting in some subjects at some points
in secondary education but the only truthful argument for its existence in primary
schools lies in the insidious poison of league tables. It stands to reason that
those identified as being potential or border-line test-passers will
benefit from extra help, better resources and more experienced teachers and they
will be placed in identifiable sets. It happened in the days of the eleven plus
and the familiar wheel is cranking round once more.
other fact that makes setting such a weasel word is that while streaming
by class is anyway increasingly non-viable in the many schools that have either
small numbers or mixed-age classes, for setting one can now read within-class
The cumulative known and studied effects of
such pedagogical practice, including the recent (1998) NFER survey, leave one
in no doubt about the deleterious effects on children with low self esteem, disadvantaged
backgrounds, summer birthdays and those from ethnic minorities. In other words
those who make up Britains intractable tail of low achievers.
Research evidence, it should also be remembered, has also pointed to the fact
that a childs chance of remaining in its initial grouping for the rest of
its school career are 88-89%.
Maybe we worry unnecessarily;
after all, in the reassuring tones of one who is offering to tarmac your drive
for half price, we are told that setting will actually maximise childrens
chances as they will have better targeted teaching and resources according to
their ability. But forget the evidence for the moment that the lower groups have
always tended to end up with fewer resources and the poorer and/or least experienced
teachers, and concentrate on that artless term ability. What ability?
Who decides? Is it decided at 4½ on the basis of the often unbelievably banal
and frequently trivial base-line assessments? Why English, Maths and Science?
Presumably, or surely we would have been advised otherwise, its not the
same thing that applies to other areas of the curriculum? Is this so because setting
might be held to be inappropriate and therefore damagingly deterministic? Or is
it that maybe theyre held to be simply too unimportant?
are faced with some fundamental assumptions here about the use of the term ability.
Assumptions in the first place about what it actually means, i.e. is it being
perceived as easily delineated and described along the lines of ability
is what ability tests test and admitting of little flexibility, range and
development? The more enlightened in the business world have already taken up
the idea of social and emotional intelligence, a.k.a. ability, and Howard Gardners
notion of multiple intelligences is also taken seriously. While there is little
evidence that either Ofsted and the DfEE do so, more experienced and reflective
teachers are uncomfortable and concerned at what they see as directives to adopt
outdated, prescriptive and limiting methods based on this dubious notion of fixed
ability, or certainly a practice that in its abiding characteristic of being a
self-fulfilling prophecy, ends up by acting as such.
taking the long-term view it may be a passing phase - goading teachers with confrontational
tactics in order to demonstrate control is a, if not the, characteristic of these
times. Evidence for this is demonstrated time and again by the manner in which
research is derided and how questions proper to the fundamental issues of education
are so frequently side-stepped in a manner that betrays an incontestable shallowness.
As skilful navigators know though, while shallows can be dangerous they can also
be negotiated and besides which, they often only show themselves at low tide.