ISSN 0963-8253

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Volume 41 Number 1 1999



Please note: Volumes 1(1) to 47(1) inclusive can only
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Editorial A Canker by Any Other Name
Annabelle Dixon. Preconceptions and Practice in Primary Citizenship Education
Roger Seckington. Leicestershire’s Phase III Development of Community Schooling: the suffocation of a remarkable initiative
Carol Taylor Fitz-Gibbon. Ofsted is Inaccurate and Damaging: how did we let it happen?
Gaby Weiner. The Good News: feminism, equality and teacher education
Rosemary Roberts. ‘Setting a Good Example’: what can we do?
Trevor Kerry. The College of Teachers: a new era for professional self-determination?
John Dunford. The Comprehensive Success Story
Gwyn Webster. The Inclusion of Children with Complex Learning Needs into Mainstream Primary Schools
John Quicke. Skills and the ‘Learning Curriculum’: a way forward – a reply to Ian Duckett
Liz Rance. ‘Teaching by Topics’ Revisited in the National Literacy Strategy
Book Reviews




A Canker by Any Other Name

The Government seems particularly insistent that we should not confuse ‘setting’ with ‘streaming’.

To 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.

Ingenuous, 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.

Unfortunately 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 year’s 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 one’s 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.)

Perhaps 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.

The 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’ streaming.

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 Britain’s intractable ‘tail’ of low achievers. Research evidence, it should also be remembered, has also pointed to the fact that a child’s 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 children’s 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, it’s 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 they’re held to be simply too unimportant?

We 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 Gardner’s 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.

However, 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.

Annabelle Dixon

PO Box 204, Didcot, Oxford OX11 9ZQ, United Kingdom