Stream of conscience

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Grouping higher-ability pupils together can produce spectacular results, but at what cost to their less able peers? asks Gordon Cairns

he most interesting story to arise from the recent exam results is the remarkable performance of Standard grade pupils at St Paul's High in Glasgow. The school, which serves the deprived area of Pollok, has shown an incredible improvement in Standard grade results, with a 19 per cent rise in General and Credit level passes and a 7 per cent rise in the number of Credit level passes in only a year.

This amazing turnaround has pushed St Paul's from the bottom-third performing schools at Standard grade in Glasgow to the second-best performing school. According to headteacher Rod O'Donnell, the improvement is down to one thing - the introduction of streaming four years ago when the current high achievers entered the school as first years.

Of course, this has opened up a can of worms as the idea of streaming children is still anathema to most in the education establishment, as it smacks of the creation of a two-tier system in one school.

However, it is difficult to argue against statistics which show such an incredible improvement. And for the mainly working-class clientele of St Paul's to be performing as well in exams as their middle-class counterparts across the city has to be applauded, especially if the performance can be maintained through Highers, university and beyond.

But there are still many questions left unanswered. One wonders whether there was scope for children to move up and down between sections if their performance merited it. It would be interesting to discover what effect the new system had on discipline in the year group. It would also be interesting to find out to what degree the concept of inclusion is met at the school: at first glance, at least, streaming for success surely runs counter to it.

It was also reported that the pupils were allocated classes through their performance in the English and maths national tests at primary school. I have never felt completely confident relying on the grades pupils bring with them from primary school, as I feel children's levels could be artificially raised, especially in the English reading papers.

As anyone who has marked one of these papers knows, there is a degree of interpretation allowed. For primary schools, which are being judged on their results, a good set of national test results can only be a good thing. I came across level E pupils coming up from primary who had not reached that level by the end of second year. On the other hand, this may only have happened because of the "lag" in S1 and S2, causing them to regress.

But the biggest weakness of streaming is that we are consigning a group of pupils to failure. Generally, the children with behaviour problems would be placed in the classes of poorer ability. This creates an extra barrier to learning for the pupils in these classes who are well-behaved and want to learn but can't because of the disruption caused by their badly-behaved peers, not just in one or two classes but in every class for five years.

Admittedly, the school's number of Foundation passes increased, but how many of these level Fs could have been converted into General passes if the students had been in a mixed-ability class?

Another problem with streaming is that children could be good at science, modern languages or social subjects but, because of weaknesses in maths and English, have been put into lower sections. Setting classes where pupils are split into ability groups subject by subject makes a lot more sense to me, and this method of organising classes is becoming more and more popular in schools across Scotland.

My unease over streaming does not only stem from my experiences as a teacher, but also as a pupil. In secondary schools in Glasgow in the 1980s, first and second-year classes were resolutely mixed-ability, which was lucky for me as, at primary school, I never reached higher than the dizzy heights of 18th position in my class of about 25 children. Our teacher had us sit in order of ability based on the class tests of the day.

Although I never exactly set the heather on fire at secondary school, I did leave with Highers in English and history, which I don't think I would have if the classes had been streamed from first year.

Gordon Cairns is a supply teacher.

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