Untie the mixed class straitjacket

18th December 1998 at 00:00
My heart sank when I read (TESS December 4) of another piece of research purporting to show that sets or streams had no advantage over mixed ability classes.

Another nail hammered into the coffin of children's right to receive an education that takes account of their level of attainment and aptitude for learning. I cannot understand why teachers are so blind to the welfare of pupils and their own chances of professional satisfaction. Perhaps one reason is the consistency of research, no matter that its conclusions fly in the face of common sense and undermine the academic purpose of schools.

I suggest, however, that this research can be disregarded. First, an independent study reported that two-thirds of educational research in England was worthless. Second, research in classroom management is next to impossible to carry out because of the variable presented by the personal chemistry between teacher and pupils. Third, the history of educational practice is littered with disastrous initiatives that flowered in the enthusiasm of an individual teacher but wilted when exposed to normal conditions. Fourth, it is a great mistake to build policies out of notions that defy common sense.

Common sense in the area of class organisation dictates that pupils should be grouped in as nearly homogenous classes as is practicable. Only in these circumstances can a teacher's attention be wholly focussed on the pupils' needs. If teaching is aimed at one sector of a disparate group, the other sectors will lose out. If the group is divided, the teacher' attention is divided.

That should be the end of the matter and the cruel system of forcing children of different abilities into the same straitjacket, exacerbating frustration and resentment at both extremes, should be outlawed with other forms of abuse.

If the top classes are complacent and arrogant, or the weakest classes despondent and demotivated, that is the fault of the school ethos that encourages such attitudes. In 30 years comprehensive schools have failed to find an ethos that embraces all pupils.

I suggest that the adoption of an ethos in which individual progress was recognised and rewarded at all levels and fostered in ability groupings would promote the personal, social and academic development of children far more effectively than the present ethos in which differences are denied or suppressed in a system which breeds only resentment and contempt for those who run it.

David Hill Relugas Road, Edinburgh

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