Have a good fiddle with streaming

26th August 2005 at 01:00
Being a strong supporter of strategies to improve academic achievement, I am very interested in the exam results of St Paul's High in Glasgow's Pollok area. As reported in this newspaper, Standard grade results at the school rose from 9.3 per cent of pupils gaining five or more Credit passes last year to 17.2 per cent this year.

These results apply to a cohort of kids who have been streamed since their first year in secondary school by taking account of their abilities in English and mathematics. They are therefore worthy of scrutiny, especially in light of the fact that this school is in a very deprived area of Scotland, with 47 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals.

So-called experts lined up to deliver fairly lightweight commentary on the improvement in grades along with predictably politically correct musings on the evils of streaming. As is often observed, we are not good in Scotland at acknowledging and celebrating success. Critics of the selective system point to it is as an example of unfairness and blatant discrimination. The present all-singing, all-dancing "hey-guys-we're-all-equal" fiasco (especially now that we have inclusion as a compulsory policy) is talked up as an example of egalitarianism at its best.

Well? Every Tom, Dick and Harry who scrapes together a few Higher grade C passes over a couple of years can matriculate at an institution which declares itself a university (I dread to speculate on what criteria constitutes a university). Some years later, you see their grinning graduation photos looking out from local newspapers, and you wonder how it was that such a barely literate individual managed to get a degree.

No offence intended, but this doesn't quite square with the blossoming pass rates at Standard grade. I won't again rehearse the complaints made by university lecturers that too many students are illiterate and have to be taught how to write essays after 12 or 13 years of schooling.

So Rod O'Donnell, the headteacher at St Paul's, understands that, to achieve the potential of all his students, he must stream. OK, I might take issue over using just English and maths as yardsticks for streaming but, essentially, I agree that pupils will achieve more when expectations are high and when they are placed in a class commensurate with their abilities.

This idea we promulgate that we should no longer be categorised as bright, middling and below average is what is undermining the Scottish education system and preventing the best pupils from achieving their potential. Why do you think the Scottish state system has more or less killed off Latin? Because we must all appear equal and, if your level of ability doesn't permit you to study the classics, then I mustn't embarrass you by doing it either - especially not tucked away in an elitist little class of my own.

Of course, if you are level A in English and in a secondary first-year class, you are not going to manage Latin for instance. But why should a level F pupil be denied this option as a result of schools becoming dispensing machines for the lowest common denominator of curricular content?

Ardent supporters of the comprehensive system should come out of their burrows, take time to blink in the dazzling light and tell us what is good about the status quo. Instead of making vaguely patronising comments about the achievements of St Paul's, they should consider the journey we are on and our ultimate destination.

Recently, a friend said to me that one of the joys of going to a fiddle music concert (she plays the fiddle) is to learn from experts in that particular art. But we don't do masterclass any more in Scottish schools. A matter of huge regret as, outside school, masterclass sets the standard in every area of life. For that reason alone, I congratulate St Paul's.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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