A little flexibility can redeem streaming

29th March 2013 at 00:00

Back in the Dark Ages, when I started at my all-girl Catholic secondary school, our year group was divided into two streams: The Bright Young Things, who were "professional" and studied the curriculum plus languages and the arts, and The Others, who had their core subjects topped up by classes in shorthand, typing and domestic science.

This division was deemed practical in New Zealand at a time when women's career options were largely limited to being a nurse, housewife or secretary. Teaching was a lofty aspiration. Indeed, you could argue that the children we fondly called the Dumbos emerged better qualified for what was on offer to women in the workplace.

Since then the world has changed dramatically. Yet in British schools the wheel appears to be turning full circle, with streaming making something of a comeback. In some schools the practice is so extreme it is virtually a return to the grammar school. There are even "schools within schools" where the children wear colour-coded uniforms.

Critics have scoffed. But there is evidence that streaming can be effective in raising educational standards as long as it remains flexible. At the Sydney Russell School in East London, for example, grades improved dramatically after headteacher Roger Leighton introduced a nuanced form of streaming in 2003. Unlike the traditional system, Leighton's version had scope to place students in different sets for different subjects within three broad ability bands - known in the school as "pathways". Leighton regards the streaming as such a success that he is using the same system at Riverside School in Barking, a new temporary foundation trust school he opened in 2012.

Critics will point to other evidence showing that children thrive in mixed-ability classes. They will say streaming is a relic of - well, of the Dark Ages. And the debate shows no signs of becoming less fierce. But maybe it is true, as Leighton argues, that we should structure education in the same way as real life - where, he says, we choose to mix with people of comparable intellect and ability. If so, perhaps there is a place for streaming. As long as there's room for a little "slipstreaming" and jumping from ship to ship along the way.

Jo Knowsley is acting editor of TESpro

jo.knowsley@tes.co.uk @tes.

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