Sheep and goats in primary 1;Leading Article

8th October 1999 at 01:00
EDUCATION MINISTERS have been assiduously trawling opinion up and down the country. They have set up mechanisms for gauging teacher opinion, and, probably with less reliability, pupils' views, too. Sam Galbraith, as keen an exponent of social inclusion as the First Minister, learnt a home truth when he took his final roadshow to Edinburgh. He was told by a primary supply teacher (page four) that early in primary 1 pupils could identify the disadvantaged among their peers.

Young children have always been unnervingly good at separating the sheep from the goats. At age five they began to do what the old 12-plus tests did formally and brutally. But even with differentiated learning and close attention to individual children's needs, divisiveness survives.

Early curricular intervention is not the answer. Research shows that extra support for children's learning encourages the able to move ahead faster. The less adept make improvements, and that is solid enough justification for the Government's programme, which is aimed at preventing some children being condemned to early floundering and lifelong failure, rather than at narrowing differences in a mixed-ability grouping. But the badging which comes naturally to pupils and depends as much on family background as on their crude normative assessment will continue unaffected.

The answer lies beyond education, education, education. Mr Galbraith as minister for children recognises the importance of all services - and the ability of families by their own devices to avoid or rise above the problems which mark down children for early handicap. As ever, schools cannot be expected to do more than alleviate society's problems, under the cruel, discriminating eye of five-year-olds.

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