Reality bites in mixed-ability class

15th December 2000 at 00:00
THE press hasn't helped. In suggesting that teachers have "low expectations", we scribblers have sometimes failed to differentiate between the outmoded and superimposed ideology which still bedevils lower secondary education, and the poor bloody infantry who face the daily reality.

The teaching profession could be kinder to itself. There's a sink-or-swim atmosphere: a lack of empathy for the powerless and unpromoted chalkface, while the I'm-all-right brigade can include directorates, members of senior management, even school union reps.

Teacher-bashing hasn't helped. Helen Liddell as minister was not the only culprit, but she certainly left the grassroots feeling bruised and browbeaten.

Current Government policies don't help. Exhortations and guidance on exclusion (don't) and "social inclusion" (do, even at impossible cost in S1S2 classes) are half-baked and ill-thought-through.

It is a brave teacher who would dare to voice unfashionable views particularly if that person has the slightest ambition for personal promotion.

Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of real problems faced by a real teacher in a real Scottish school this session. Set in a mining community in west central Scotland, it has a wide ability intake, becoming typically thin at the upper end. Gaining five Highers is a rare achievement.

Five-14 scores at S1 entry showed around half of one class to be at level C or lower in reading andor writing. This translates as 24 out of a class of 29 for whom it is possible to devise and teach some sort of common English course: plus five with big problems. There are one or two still at pre-level A, and others so damaged that their disruptive behaviour ripples outwards and infects the whole class. Is the scenario familiar?

What of learning support? The class has five scheduled English lessons a week. But such are the demands on learning support that average provision works out t one session a week. One's heart bleeds for beginner-teachers in such a set-up.

Do their superiors care? The problem is not just cash for learning support. The mixed-ability structure militates against excellence for any, or even opportunity for all, and makes a teacher's life a misery.

What of the children who entered S1 in this school with an E grade or beyond? The brightest can quickly learn either to fold in on themselves and become invisible; or they join the fool-around brigade. The perception among Scottish third-year pupils that they marked time in S1S2 has been well documented in this newspaper. Hard-pressed S1 teachers face the reality of several different class levels within a group of 30. Different levels of worksheet go only part way to meet the problems of teaching individual children.

One unfashionable but interesting view in the staffroom was that it is actually "more cruel" to "set" by ability in third year, when kids finally have to face up to their status as members of the GeneralFoundation group, than it would be in S1.

Henry McLeish, when still Minister for Lifelong Learning, announced a pound;22.5 million bid to end adult illiteracy within 10 years. Now he has the top job, some of this policy thinking should forthwith go into reforms further down the educational chain, to meet the needs of real children and real teachers.

Here are some suggestions, not all costly, especially considering the alternatives:

Introduce a repeat year in primary - widely used on the continent.

Set in core subjects as national policy for S1S2.

Reform primary assessment in accordance with the Executive's own consultation exercise of a year ago.

Create real and attractive technical choices in early secondary.

Teachers could help themselves and their colleagues if they face the root causes of job dissatisfaction and consider what really would make a difference.

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