Pigeonholed at four

6th April 2007 at 01:00
The trouble with streaming, says an academic, is that it hits the working classes hardest. Adi Bloom reports

Streaming, or setting, pupils at an early age, condemns them to academic mediocrity and social stagnation, according to an academic. 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 ever read," Professor Boaler says. "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 says that 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. But Professor Boaler claims that this policy consistently fails working-class children. To prove this, she returned to two cohorts of young people she had originally observed at schools for three years in the mid-1990s. The two schools have been given pseudonyms. Those from Amber Hill, an affluent comprehensive, were placed in ability groups at the age of 13. By contrast, pupils at Phoenix Park, 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 13, the two cohorts had the same ability. But the Phoenix Park pupils scored significantly higher in their GCSEs.

Nine years later, Professor Boaler spoke to 63 former pupils, who were by then 24 years old. They included relatively high-achievers from Amber Hill, so that the two sets of former pupils had roughly comparable GCSE results.

She found that the Phoenix Park adults were working in significantly better jobs than those from Amber Hill: 65 per cent of them had moved up the social scale, as defined by their job, while 51 per cent of the Amber Hill pupils moved down.

Only 26 per cent from Amber Hill remained at the same social level. This was reinforced during interviews with the Amber Hill alumni. Many said that 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 I If it's being reinforced in the classroom, 'Yes, you're going to be a labourer for your whole 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 I effective grouping policies that promote high achievement for all and reduce, rather than reproduce, social inequalities."

Jo Boaler is Marie Curie professor of education at Sussex University

* jo.boaler@sussex.ac.uk

How other countries organise classes

Sweden Grouping by ability is illegal, as it is believed to produce inequalities.

USA No setting in elementary schools. Parents have brought law-suits against school districts (equivalent of education authorities) 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. One Japanese teacher said: "We want students to help each other, to get along and grow together."

Finland Committed to mixed-ability teaching.

Italy No setting until pupils reach 10th grade, when they are 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. Decisions vary from teacher to teacher.

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