The radical new solution for an age-old problem

9th November 2018 at 00:00
In an era of decreasing resources and increasing upheaval, our model of progressing through school based on birthdate is woefully anachronistic – so let’s create a truly personalised system instead

Despite what our prime minister has said, the age of austerity is not yet over. Indeed, according to some leading economists, it will continue until at least 2025. And it is unlikely that the world we are left with will ever be the same as it was before.

Amid decreasing funding for public services, our current systems are no longer fit for purpose. Increasingly, we need to do more with less and, within education, we need to prepare our pupils for an uncertain future. Despite all this, we continue to cling to some of our centuries-old structures, certain that they are the best way to run our schools.

Ken Robinson’s TED Talk – which has had upwards of 53 million viewers, plus many more who will have seen it in other formats – envisages an alternative future, and he questions why schools persist in teaching in the style of the Victorian era (bit.ly/KRobinson). However, while there is much innovation in the system and there are many forward-thinking teachers, creativity is still stifled by the end-point exam system, which, despite continual tinkering, remains as it has for decades.

There is another long-lived aspect of the system that may be due for some radical change: despite all we know about our children and the way they learn, the main selection criteria for creating a set of learners in a class is the day on which they were born. Could there be opportunities for pupils to advance based on their interests and abilities rather than their age? In many schools, we now have a common senior phase, through different levels of maturity, from S4 to S6. Could the idea behind this be applied to the broad general education as well?

Progression by age is a common feature of most education systems. Long gone are the days when – in Zimbabwe, for instance – school entry depended on a pupil’s ability to touch their left ear by stretching their right arm over their head. But there are still examples of pupils having to pass an end-of-primary-school exam before matriculation. In Kenya, South Africa and other countries, a standard level of numeracy and literacy is required before access is granted to secondary education. The result is a two-, three- or even four-year age range of pupils in the first year of secondary.

Valiant efforts fall short

While it is unlikely that parents in Scotland would agree to the introduction of such a system when it might be their child being “held back”, we undoubtedly have issues with pupils progressing through their school years. One of the problems is non-completion of levels, as primaries work through an age-based curriculum.

Pupils entering P1 with a low level of numeracy will try their best but, if they have not mastered the basics by the end of the year, will still move on to a new course in P2. Lacking the bare minimum for success in the new course, their behaviour will start to deteriorate, as they find disruption strategies to cope with their lack of knowledge and skill.

By the time these pupils enter secondary school, many are way behind some of their peers, and the result is a huge range of abilities in the same class. Teachers, lacking the time and in-class support they would have had even five years ago, struggle to differentiate for 30 pupils – some at level 1, some at level 3 and many more in between. Some pupils cope and continue to perform well, while some who struggled at primary continue to have difficulties, misbehave and disrupt the others. Across the country, valiant efforts are being made to ensure all pupils perform to the best of their ability, but it is an almost impossible task. Perhaps there are ways we could make the process easier.

If, by some chance, we could aim for a more integrated broad general education from P1 through to S3 (or perhaps S2), then maybe that would be a way forward. Pupils could join classes according to their strengths and weaknesses, and get the teaching they needed at the level they needed.

There may be instances where children excel at English and work in a class above their previously expected level but, needing extra support in maths, they join a different set of pupils for more directed tuition.

For classes involving project work (in, for instance, social subjects or sciences) and classes such as art, music and tech (which have a greater degree of ability-based differentiation), they could be taught with their age-related peers. Then again, there may be very good reasons why these subjects should also have some change in structure. Substantial thought would need to go into the initial make-up of these classes and the schools in which they operated. There is also the question of how, while we are dominated by exam-based outcomes, it all comes together with the senior phase.

A big change would be needed in how parents (and politicians) viewed education, and great care would need to be taken to ensure no such solution would increase the attainment gap between the more and less socio-economically deprived. It is no quick fix and would require years of planning, but could ultimately lead to an education system for our pupils based on true personalisation.

There would undoubtedly be problems with the idea of non-age-specific classes, but we live in rapidly changing times, and the old systems – while they still work to some extent – may not be suitable for a bright new future. It’s time to start a debate about the radical solutions we really need in education.

John Rutter is head of Inverness High School

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