If you're so smart, you teach the class

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Despite his letter to The TES Scotland (September 2), Brian Boyd must know that the evidence that matters about streaming and setting comes from resourceful teachers who understandably struggle to accommodate the diverse needs of their pupils. In many S1 secondary classes, reading ages vary from six years to adult. Throw in inclusion and you are juggling so many balls that it becomes impossible.

Yes, if you have concentrated support for learning provision and one-to-one learning, some pupils might achieve their potential. But which local authority is able to provide the necessary levels of support to facilitate and maximise the learning of all pupils? It's not happening anywhere.

What is so gloomy about the "streaming versus comprehensive" controversy is the confusion between equal opportunity and equal achievement. Just because there is equality of access doesn't mean that all pupils should necessarily have the same experiences. In supporting streaming, I am not advocating a return to the 11-plus.

Performance should always be linked to moving on to a more challenging level. Placing pupils in streams or sets appropriate to their needs is not (as Brian Boyd asserts) trying to homogenise them but is indeed about recognising and celebrating difference. The present comprehensive system fails here.

Evidence? An average first-year pupil is driven insane by his English class, with the teacher spending hours going over the days of the week and the months of the year for the lowest achievers. This is the pattern for the year.

More evidence? A second-year pupil with exceptional talent in science is given problems to solve by her hard-pressed teacher whose attention is entirely absorbed by the lower ability pupils in the class. Eventually, this bright cookie makes up problems which her science teacher can't solve.

I would not go as far as Andrew Neil, who stated recently in the Spectator that the Scottish education system is so dumbed down that Gordon Brown will be the last educated Scottish Prime Minister. It is true that we are turning out many kids with university entrance qualifications who are often under-educated. My daughter (a Glasgow University student) was incredulous when one of her tutors had to teach some of her tutorial group how to write essays. The universities are not fooled, and they will do the sifting out that should have been tackled much earlier.

However much the supporters of comprehensive education promulgate its successes, they have yet to show that it works for the brightest pupils.

It's a shame Professor Boyd was told he was "tone deaf" in a 1960s school, but what exactly is this evidence of? He can hardly blame the selective system. I recall my Higher English class - almost 30 pupils who nearly all achieved an A grade in the final exam and an inspiring teacher who taught us to undergraduate level. My experience could not be repeated in modern comprehensive schools.

Teachers constantly strive to find new strategies to promote positive behaviour and high-quality learning. We are in-serviced to the hilt, but no expert can demonstrate how to manage the S1 class with one pupil asking "what are colouring pencils?" and another talking comfortably about "astral projection".

Colin Weatherley states in his letter in the same issue that "streaming and setting are entirely peripheral to the fundamental issue of improving the quality of children's educational experiences". Peripheral? Few teachers will agree with him.

One final thought. Why do the non-teaching experts in education not parachute out of their ivory towers and teach a lesson? That would be far more meaningful to teachers than a day of theory dressed up in wearisome jokes we have all heard before. Plenty of teachers would be delighted to select a class for them. They can do the business and we can observe.

Better still, why don't we video it and then we'll have the evidence that their strategies work.

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

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