To mix or not to mix;Letter

15th January 1999 at 00:00
WHETHER or not I am anti-intellectual, as Brian Boyd suggests (TESS, December 25), I am curious as to why research should suggest that the way classes are organised has so little effect in educational outcome. Are schools really so different from all those political, commercial and sporting institutions which regard their structure and organisation as vital to their success? Or is the research questionable?

I am also curious as to why anyone, let alone researchers, should think that mixed ability classes are a good way to distribute pupils. Dr Boyd offers two: that setting demoralises pupils in the lower sets and the teachers who teach them; and that it is unfair to differentiate between courses.

The first argument implies that the teaching profession is not egalitarian at all but actually elitist, believing that only the brightest pupils have any status and that only those who teach them have any chance of professional satisfaction. Classes are apparently only tolerable if the lump is leavened with the presence of one or two clever children.

The second argument is woolly sentimentality and undermines the value of the whole educational process. Indeed the reluctance to differentiate between levels of courses and to set qualifications for entry into them is the root cause of what has been called the educational limbo of S1-S2.

Dr Boyd says there is no answer to the questions: "How do you know I can't do Shakespeare if you don't let me try?" and "Will my child get the same experience on a FoundationGeneral course as on a GeneralCredit course?" The answer to the second question should be: "No, it won't, but that is the level for which your child's previous performance has qualified him." I do not know what qualifies a child to do Shakespeare in a drama course, but those devising the course should certainly know and be able to give an answer along the same lines: "Your child's previous performance does not qualify him."

Those at any rate are the answers given in the real world to people who ask: "How do you know I can't be a judge or a plumber unless you let me try a case or install your central heating?" or "Will playing in the premier division be the same experience as playing in the amateur league?" Without better arguments than these, I will remain persuaded that mixed-ability classes are a device for giving teachers extra work and lower job satisfaction and for telling pupils that it does not matter whether they work hard or learn nothing because they will all end up doing the same thing.

David Hill Relugas Road, Edinburgh

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