New research shows that nearly four out of 10 primary heads see value in streamed classes for junior pupils. The findings, which have surprised researchers, will be seen as a boost for the Government's drive to return to traditional teaching methods.
The study of 246 heads in two local authorities showed that while in practice streaming is still virtually non-existent, many heads believe it could be of benefit to pupils.
Streaming (dividing children into seperate classes by ability) was general practice 30 years ago. But it faded away after the demise of the 11-plus, and in the wake of the 1967 Plowden Report which opposed the system.
The findings show that heads are flexible in their thinking, and willing to consider alternatives to current practice, say researchers Professor Paul Croll of Reading University and John Lee of the University of the West of England. There is no need for another centrally directed change, they argue.
Some believe the findings represent a sea change in schools' thinking. Education consultant Bill Laar says: "Five or 10 years ago, the question couldn't even have been aired." At that time, even setting by ability (within the same class) was taboo, he says, while now it is growing in popularity, particularly in English and maths. "The impact of national curriculum tests is growing and growing," he says. "It will lead to certainly more setting and possibly streaming. Schools are highly concerned about the publication of the results and comparisons being made".
The findings come in the wake of calls for primary schools to reconsider their methods in light of the demands of the national curriculum and testing. Last January, Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, criticised the "unquestioning" commitment to progressive orthodoxies in many primary schools.
Of the heads surveyed, 37.8 per cent saw educational value in streaming, while just over half (52.4 per cent) thought it did not have value. However, for various reasons (such as size of the school), most thought it couldn't be done in their school. About a third thought it would be possible. Less than 3 per cent of the schools used streaming.
The research also shows considerable teaching of individual subjects in primary schools, ranging from 32 per cent for geography to nearly 90 per cent for maths. This also represents a change in attitude over recent years. But few used specialist teachers, except for music.
"The results presented here show in an almost entirely non-streamed system there is still a considerable variation in professional views," says the report, in the journal Educational Studies. "It is particularly interesting to note that the proportion of headteachers expressing at least a degree of support for streaming is only 25 per cent lower in the early 1990s than it was in the early 1960s." At that time, just over half the heads in the Plowden inquiry supported streaming for at least some children.
They emphasise that the heads were not asked whether they were actually thinking about bringing in streaming themselves.
While right-wingers have demanded a return to more traditional methods, such as streaming and sitting in rows, calls for change have also come from more moderate sources, such as the 1992 Three Wise Men report, which rejected streaming, but urged more specialist teaching and grouping by ability, and Office for Standards in Education inspectors.
Heads in the survey gave a number of practical reasons why streaming would not work, including small school size .
Heads did not expect much support for streaming from the rest of the school community, particularly teachers. Less than a fifth thought teachers would support streaming, while nearly 30 per cent thought there would be support from governors. More than half said parents would oppose streaming, and the vast majority - more than three-quarters - thought the local authority would oppose it.