Sense in streams

25th December 1998 at 00:00
THE PAUCITY of David Hill's arguments (Letters, December 18) against mixed ability teaching and educational research and his continual reliance on "commonsense", display an anti-intellectualism which the teachers on whose behalf he claims to speak, should reject.

The study by the National Foundation for Educational Research, (TESS, December 4), is one of a long line of such reports, including the publication, Setting and Streaming (1996), by the Scottish Council for Research in Education, which show that there is no conclusive evidence about the relative merits of mixed ability or streaming.

While it appears that the more able may benefit slightly from setting, the less able do not. However, the most important finding is that no matter what criteria are used to set pupils, homogeneity is never possible. Thus, if it is assumed that all the pupils in a set are "the same" and can be taught as one, then there is clearly a problem.

Mr Hill's suggestion that over the past 30 years comprehensive schools have failed "to find an ethos that embraces all pupils" simply flies in the face of the evidence. Scottish comprehensive schools have been very successful in creating an ethos of achievement, and standards - as measured by examination success - continue to rise year by year. Not only that, these same schools are caring places, nurturing the whole child and celebrating success in a wide range of aspects of human behaviour.

But I would imagine that Mr Hill might be unconvinced by these claims since he seems adamant that research can tell teachers nothing. Researchers, to my knowledge, have never claimed to have all the answers. What their work can do is to illuminate issues, feed results into the educational debate and try to help teachers form a rationale for what they do.

The paradox of Mr Hill's stance is that the very orthodoxies which he rails against are more likely to flourish in a climate where research is vilified. The OFSTED review of educational research was an example of just such an attempt to rubbish ideas which Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead found uncomfortable.

The problem about setting is that it is a demotivator for many "less able" pupils and for the teachers who have them. Assumptions are made about what the pupils can do which may not be borne out by evidence.

The question once asked of me by a pupil who was about to be put in a lower set for a drama block, "How do you know I can't do Shakespeare if you don't let me try?" remains unanswered. So too does the question posed by a parents of a General level maths pupils going into a FoundationGeneral class - "Will she get the same experience as her friend who is in a GeneralCredit class?" When we set pupils by attainment, we need to be clear why we are doing it and its effects need to be monitored closely. In fact, no doubt to Mr Hill's chagrin, I would like to see more research on the subject in Scotland. Those schools which are setting pupils on entry into S1 using 5-14 levels and those which still believe that mixed ability is the best form of organisation would only benefit from participating in such research. The search for what promotes more effective learning and teaching cannot be a bad thing.

But Mr Hill and I agree about one essential thing. Perhaps Maya Angelou summed up this most important "variable" of all - the teacher, "in classrooms, loving children to understanding". Arid ideological posturing and polemical outbursts against mixed ability teaching do not take the debate forward.

What we need is to stop trying to find organisational answers to learning and teaching problems, and examine what helps children become successful learners.

Brian Boyd, Glen Derry, East Kilbride.

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