The wrong sort

20th July 2012 at 01:00

People love sorting things. The desire to sort is genetic; it stems from the same biological impulse that drives us to pick a mate, have a baby and add fabric conditioner to the final rinse. We first begin sorting at an early age. Our parents encourage us to post brightly coloured geometric shapes through complementary holes, then pretty soon we're independently shoving round pegs into round holes, pentagonal shapes into pentagonal holes and Lego bricks up our noses. We are conditioned to believe that, if we search long and hard enough, we'll find an appositely shaped slot for everything that exists.

We spend the rest of our lives sifting and sorting. We separate our weekly washing into four piles - whites, brights, delicates, and things lying near the door that were used to dry the dog - while our menfolk sort their pocket detritus (small changeplectrumswashers) into empty mugs. Men are obsessive sorters. If I ask my husband to fix a leaking gutter, he'll buy 36 packs of masonry screws from BQ, then spend hours painstakingly arranging his purchases in the teeny-weeny chests of drawers he keeps on a shelf in his shed. By which time the roof is leaking so badly that I've called an emergency builder.

But the people who sort the most are teachers. Every year, we sacrifice swathes of healthy woodland to create cards for "sorting activities". These kinaesthetic tasks are designed to prompt our pupils to divvy up the world into paired yet mutually exclusive camps. Solutions are either acid or alkali; nouns are masculine or feminine; verbs are regular or irregular; numbers are prime or composite. By reducing the universe into paired binary opposites, we can avoid any tricky ambiguities, any blurry liminal states that would challenge the classification system that gives such meaning to our lives. In this polarised world, even people are presented as antithetical pairs: Catholic or Protestant; gay or straight; left wing or a twat.

But when we start to classify our pupils so prescriptively, it is time to surrender our board markers. Last month, two Californian schools were banned from giving pupils ID cards and planners that were colour coded to reflect their test scores: platinumblack for the highest attainers; plain old white for the strugglers. The schools genuinely believed that this public airing of success and failure would incentivise pupils' future learning. They even allowed those with premium ID cards to access shorter lunch queues and receive special discounts. It's a chilling development. There's probably another American school out there that believes introducing a pointy hat with a "D" on it will improve children's spelling.

Labels are dangerous things. Years ago, I took the Belbin personality test. It profiled me as someone with strong ideas but poor completingfinishing skills. Since then, I've devoted my entire career to fulfilling that expectation. At every departmental meeting, I launch my ideas like clay pigeons, then sit back and finish the crisps.

In English schools, too, we sort and label children with the same callous indifference as our Californian cousins. My school has just set the classes for next year using the Sorting Hat of Prior Attainment. It ranks kids according to test results and whether their mum will kick up a fuss. But no matter what affirmation we give them by way of a target, the fact that we moved them down two sets is what will scar them forever.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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