Thursday, February 09, 2006

Setting or Streaming?

The BBC today reports that despite Tony Blair's promises that setting would become the norm in classes in Britain's schools, the number of classes being setted has actually diminished. Once again, it seems, Blair is prepared to give the image of change without actually doing anything that will make a material difference (this is particularly characteristic of his schools policies).

I'm going to leave the question of grammar schools aside here. As far as I'm concerned, they would be a great improvement on the system we currently have in this country whichever way you look at it; they would certainly help prevent a system where middle-class parents are almost guaranteed a monopoly of good schools on account of their wealth. Nevertheless, that's a somewhat different debate.

If comprehensive schooling is to work at all, then setting must be absolutely vital to the principle. The most common complaint about grammar schools that I hear is that it does nothing for children good in one subject but bad in others; they just get lumped into a block according to general abilities - which means that children with certain specific skills get left behind. They will be left behind even more if they are left in mixed-ability classes.

This goes for all subjects, not just ones where abilities may be more obviously measured than others, such as languages, sciences or maths. The subject of history is valuable for what it does for your thinking skills as much as what facts it actually teaches you. But the depth of analysis achievable is quite obviously dependent upon different factors, such as how easy you find the concept of the passing of time, or the change of institutions over time.

More theoretically, placing all students in mixed ability classes doesn't help the teacher, and it doesn't help the pupils. Rather than being able to target learning to the majority of the class, a hypothetical middle ground has to be found - and then much effort must be expended on helping the lower achievers in the class get up to a speed they may not really be capable of. Far better to allow children to be taught to their abilities.

This is totally separate from the other argument against grammar schools, which is that of social mixing and the role of a school in a community. When talking with Richard, he tells me he wants a good school in every community. I normally reply that I'd like some fairy dust, too, but I'm not so optimistic. There are practical steps that can be made even within the existing system to improve the general quality of education. If having a social mix at each school is desirable (I don't think we should take target quotas that far anyway - the purpose of a school is to teach children, not fit government quotas), the socialising takes a different priority and place to that of learning.

After all, the justification for such great expenditure on an education system is, rightly, that knowledge is the means through which humans can better themselves and the communities that they live in. Learning has to be at the heart of the school experience. And if we are not setting our classes, they we are preventing people from being taught in the manner which is most relevant to their skills and abilities. That is not just a shame; it undermines any arguments in favour of the comprehensive system.