Streaming, the wholesale allocation of children to groups on the basis of a fixed, single ability label, is making a big comeback, part of the retro traditionalism sweeping our education system, writes Melissa Benn at the Guardian.
"According to a recent study from the Institute of Education, one in six primary-age children within the UK is now streamed by the age of sevenâ¦ Educationally speaking, this is pure disaster."
Researching the recent history of UK schooling, I was fascinated to discover how much of the 1944 Education Act was based on the IQ work of educational psychologist Sir Cyril Burt, whose research was later discredited, writes Benn.
In the words of one skeptical civil servant of the time, Burt believed "that children were divided into three kinds. It was sort of Platonic. There were golden children, silver children and iron children." Each was to be assigned to different institutions – grammar, secondary modern or the technical schools – according to these rigidly, unimaginative descriptors.
"We've come a long way since then – or have we? Certainly, all the current international evidence points powerfully in the opposite direction. The highest-performing and fairest school systems in the world delay specialization and setting – the grouping of children into different classes for different subjects – until much later in adolescence."
Academic Jo Boaler followed two groups of young adolescents in the mid-90s, one separated into rigid ability groups, the other taught in mixed-ability groupings. Not only did the mixed-ability students outperform those who had been put into separate groups in national examinations, but when Boaler tracked down a representative sample from both schools, she found the mixed-ability group had achieved more social mobility, in relation to their parents, than their streamed peers.
"Escaping early labeling had clearly expanded their sense of confidence into young adult life while those who had been streamed talked, famously, of "psychological prisons" from which they never escaped."
Something vital is at stake, not just about the quality of learning in our schools, but the kind of school system, and society, we ultimately want to foster, Benn writes. For all its rhetoric about improving the education of poorer children, many of the coalition government's reforms risk returning us to rigid, know-your-place, limiting hierarchies. Now, more than ever, we need to keep alive the theory and practice of rich, alternative visions.