Drawback of streaming

26th August 2005 at 01:00
I do not in any way wish to disparage the achievements of pupils and staff at St Paul's High in Pollok, but it hasn't half provoked a degree of over-excitement in some Scottish journalists.

What seems to have got their knees a-tremble is the 19 per cent increase in Standard grade Credit and General "passes" as a result of streaming.

Setting aside considerations such as whether streaming was the only influence at work (a new headteacher can often effect improvement merely by freshening up a hidebound establishment), or the fact that most innovations tend to work in their first year because they are driven by the excitement of change, we have to ask the question, unanswered in the media, of what a 19 per cent improvement actually means.

If it means that the percentage of pupils achieving at least a grade 4 went up by 19 straight points, say from 40 per cent to 59 per cent, then this is pretty impressive. But it could also mean that the percentage of such pupils went up by 19 per cent of itself: say from 40 per cent to 47.6 per cent. This is less impressive.

Or it could mean that the number of pupils at grade 4 or better increased by 19 per cent. What this signifies depends entirely upon the prior number of pupils achieving such levels.

For example, between 1989 and 1990, the English department in which I work achieved a 100 per cent increase in the number of grade 1 awards: pretty good, until you realise we went from three to six top grades. This year, we again managed a 100 per cent increase in top grades, but this was from 21 to 43 pupils. Same percentage increase, hugely different achievement - and we don't stream.

The major drawback of streaming is that it assumes a parity of achievement across subjects and disciplines which does not always exist. In my school a couple of years ago, we had a student from the Middle East who got an A pass in Advanced Higher mathematics at the same time as he was resitting, and refailing, Intermediate 1 English. What stream would he have gone into?

Although very few schools have adopted streaming, similarly very few have retained complete mixed ability. Almost all the schools I have knowledge of carry out setting, which is the formation of ability groups on a subject-by-subject basis, a much more precise way of promoting progress.

George Forfar. Principal teacher of English. Shawlands Academy, Glasgow

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