Tweaking the tail

16th August 1996 at 01:00
The pendulum of change is swinging ever more rapidly. No longer does it take a generation for ideas to be propelled in and out of fashion. Now they're out before they're even in. Take "differentiation". For the past few years, teachers have been told that they are not doing enough of it, that they need to target the work better to children's abilities. Many, according to reports from the Office for Standards in Education, have still not got the hang of it. One solution that followed was to have more setting by ability. This would enable the bright to soar ahead, and the slower to concentrate on work geared to them.

Now come a raft of international comparison studies which raise the heretical thought that dividing young schoolchildren according to their supposed abilities may not be doing them or the nation any favours. In successful Pacific Rim countries, such as Taiwan and Japan, children lagging behind are helped to catch up, and everyone moves on together.

It is true that there are difficulties with international comparisons. The cultures are different, the systems are different, it is hard to equate like with like. But as the latest study from the National Foundation for Educational Research, Reading Performance at Nine, shows (page 3), countries higher up the reading (and economic) league table do not have England and Wales's persistent "long tail" of low achievers. As the report says: "The stability of the long tail over time and across curriculum areas would seem to betoken a stubborn underlying tendency, namely that the British educational system pays too little attention to low performers."

In his forthcoming book, The Learning Game, Michael Barber urges Britain to look abroad more for ideas, and to try to match or surpass the literacy and numeracy goals set by more ambitious countries. It is easy to find problems with this attitude but would it not be more productive to open our minds? One reason the long tail of underachievement has been tolerated for so long is an underlying belief in fixed intelligence and ability. The Japanese, and others on the Pacific Rim, think children can be taught to be smarter.

Perhaps it is time to think of "differentiation" a bit differently. Instead of being a way merely to challenge children to progress at their own level, it should be seen as a way to fill in the gaps. Michael Barber takes one approach to this with his proposal for vouchers for four million poor children to buy books and software for their schoolwork. He also wants more community involvement in out-of-school education for young and old.

Reading Performance at Nine calls for extra help for pre-school children from "families with a history of low literacy" so that potential reading failure can be nipped in the bud. There are already several projects throughout the country working with such families. This could be seen as a way of teaching them to be smarter, before they even get to school. The report also wants pupils at risk of reading failure to be identified by six, and given extra help then.

Its pleas for an objective search for solutions without apportioning blame, for different approaches to suit each school and for the Government to provide consistent and long-term support to effective initiatives seem almost naive in the present climate where short-term schemes are regularly swapped and methodology is pronounced upon from on high.

But it is impossible to disagree with its main conclusion: "It is time to start treating reading failure as preventable, and to commit the determination and the resources to prevent it."

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