Future decided aged four

13th April 2007 at 01:00
It has been suggested that primary pupils be taught in ability-based sets.

One academic says this fails working class children

streaming, or setting, pupils at an early age condemns them to academic mediocrity and social stagnation, according to the latest study.

Jo Boaler, of Sussex University, claims that 88 per cent of children placed into sets or streams at the age of four remain in the same groupings until they leave school. "This is one of the most chilling statistics I have read," Professor Boaler said. "The fact that our children's future is decided for them by the time they are four years old derides the work of schools and contravenes basic knowledge about child development and learning."

She said children's intelligence needs to be nurtured, and this cannot be done if they are placed in a low group and told that they will achieve less than other pupils.

Last year, the Social Market Foundation, a right-leaning think-tank, called for primary pupils to be taught in small, ability-based sets. This has been supported by the Government on both sides of the border.

But Professor Boaler claims this policy consistently fails working class children. To prove this, she returned to two cohorts of young people whom she had originally observed for three years in the mid-1990s.

In one affluent comprehensive, pupils were placed in ability groups at the age of 13. By contrast, pupils at another, a comprehensive in one of the poorest areas in the country, were taught in mixed-ability groups until a few months before their GCSEs.

At the age of 13, the two groups of pupils had the same ability. But the pupils from the more disadvantaged community scored significantly higher in their GCSEs.

Nine years later, Professor Boaler observed how the pupils had fared in adulthood. She spoke to 63 former pupils, now aged 24.

She found that those adults who had been taught in mixed ability groups in the school serving the less well-off area are now working in significantly better jobs than the alumni from the other school.

Sixty-five per cent of those who had been taught in mixed-ability groups had moved up the social scale, as defined by their job, while 51 per cent of those who had been in ability groups moved down the social scale, and 26 per cent remained at the same social level.

The contrasting fortunes of adults who had been at the two schools was reinforced during interviews with those in ability groups. Many said their experience of school could not be separated from their experience of setting by ability.

One interviewee said: "You're putting this psychological prison around them... If it's being reinforced in the classroom that 'yes, you're going to be a labourer for the whole of your life', then it means they can't break out of that box."

Professor Boaler concluded: "If the Labour Party really cares about promoting social justice, then an important part of their agenda for the future must be... effective grouping policies that promote high achievement for all and reduce, rather than reproduce, social inequalities."

Research and opinions

No significant benefits from setting in English, maths or science, and socially disadvantaged pupils achieved significantly lower grades - 2006 London University study of 6,000 year 9 (S3) pupils in England Setting was preferred by 62 per cent of pupils with 24 per cent opting for mixed ability, but setting was preferred by more than 70 per cent of pupils in schools that set or partially set and by 47 per cent of those in schools organised by mixed ability - the above study "A substantial number of P7 children achieve level E, something we didn't even consider attempting before setting. Children of lower ability benefit too. Their small class, usually around seven or eight, means that many make noticeable progress. The problem is that, once they transfer to a larger class and less support, they tend to sink" - Brian Toner, former teacher of St John's Primary, Perth (TESS August 4, 2006) "Perhaps the strongest argument against setting is that it is irrelevant.

Formative assessment and learning and teaching approaches that stress co-operation, creativity and pupil understanding should make setting a thing of the past" - Professor Brian Boyd of Strathclyde University (TESS August 4, 2006) "Teachers teach better when they have a group with similar abilities" - 2006 report, Fade or Flourish, by the pro-market Social Market Foundation think-tank There is "no one universally best method of organising pupils into classes"

- 1996 inspectorate report, Achievement for All How other countries organise classes

Sweden grouping by ability is illegal, because it is believed to produce inequalities.

United States no setting in elementary schools. Parents have brought law suits against school districts that have denied high-level work to high school pupils.

Japan pupils are believed to have equal potential, and the aim of schools is to encourage them to attain equally high levels.

Finland committed to mixed-ability.

Italy: no setting until pupils reach 10th grade, aged 15 or 16.

Canada 16-year-olds are given the option of three maths courses, depending on ability: pure maths for university, applied maths for technical institutes and the work-place, and consumer maths, for those who have not been successful at previous maths courses.

Australia no official policy, decision to set varies from teacher to teacher.

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