Streaming and selection can boost performance of poorer children

Streaming and selection can boost performance of poorer children

It’s been revealed that poorer children in the UK are lagging far behind their peers from across the world.

The findings from the Education Policy Institute found that at the GCSE level, students from deprived backgrounds in this country fell far behind children from similar backgrounds in other countries – and no more so than in maths.

This comes as no shock to me as our current GCSE students were the product of a progressive primary curriculum that had little emphasis on rigorous teaching of methodology and basic numeracy skills.

Many of today’s GCSE students would have started secondary school not having grasped the basics and by then it is too late.

The new primary maths curriculum, which was introduced in 2014, should see our standings improve as the children come to take their GCSEs in the next few years.

That curriculum, which I was an advisor to the government for, concentrates more on the four main operations and the need for children to know their times tables by Year 4.

However, we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. We should expand our way of teaching to give a real boost to children from deprived backgrounds.

Predictably, the General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Dr Mary Bousted, has blamed our international standing on selection and streaming.

However, there have been no new grammar schools for decades and only one extension of an existing grammar has been authorised by the government. The 164 grammar schools that exist have been allowed some modest expansion, but this is hardly likely to have had any real impact on the nation’s standings in education results when there are over three thousand comprehensives.

The progressive years – which are still very much influencing today’s results – also did away with streaming in many schools and introduced mixed ability teaching. I agree that old fashioned forms of streaming can be divisive in that they place children in one class for every subject though their abilities may vary in different subject areas. However, ‘setting’ means that children can be placed in different ability groups by subject. This is preferable and with careful organisation schools can achieve this.

In my view ‘full-blooded’ mixed ability teaching actually hits students who are struggling the most, closely followed by the most able students.

I firmly believe that careful ‘setting’ and more selective schooling could form part of the solution of boosting the levels of poorer students.

If students are grouped by ability in particular subject areas it allows the teacher to focus on the needs of the individuals in the group rather than just teaching to the middle.

In my teaching experience, mixed-ability classes just result in the more able students used as a resource to help the less able.

This leaves the more able children so bored waiting for the others, and the less able struggling even more as they are not given as much attention and cannot keep up with their peers.

It is essential that every student of all abilities is stretched to their limit. Ability grouping allows for more able students to be taught in larger groups and less able in smaller groups, receiving more individual help too.

The pushing of the mixed ability message is more about the political correctness of inclusion and giving every student the same opportunity.

But the reality is that some students will go further than others and need to be given every chance to do this. It is not good enough to simply ensure that everybody is achieving the average because it seems fairer.

Talented students can be just as disadvantaged if they are not given the opportunity to advance to their potential. And let’s not forget, there are many talented children from deprived backgrounds whose potential are not being realised.

Selection can have a positive impact if new grammar schools are allowed to be built and targeted in deprived areas. A previous Conservative policy was to build a grammar school in every town. Such a policy could focus on more deprived areas first to ensure that academically bright children from poorer homes are given more life chances.

Currently, we have selection by the back door with ‘Good and Outstanding Schools’ situated in the affluent leafy suburbs and a higher proportion of failing schools in poorer areas.

We also need more technical and vocational offerings to suit the students who are not academic but have abilities in other areas. This should be seen as just as important and valued as these skills are essential for the economy.

Where I do agree with Dr Mary Bousted is that the lack of maths teachers is a real concern.

It is essential to attract more people into the profession. The general rule is that when the economy is doing well many talented people leave the teaching profession for higher paid work elsewhere. I am in favour of paying higher wages to subject specialists in maths, science and English as these are the core subjects. This will attract more people into these fields and strengthen the profession.

I’m confident that we will see improvements in time but there is still so much more we could do to ensure poorer children fulfil their potential.