Research shows students from mixed-ability schools perform better academically and achieve more social mobility, says Melissa Benn. This piece was published
in the Guardian site on Tuesday 9th August 2011.
Long ago, when I started at my shiny new comprehensive, our year group was divided into 12 classes, comprising four ability streams. Most of the white, middle-class children were placed in the top bands while the poor, black or transient pupils were largely put in the bottom streams. By our third year in secondary school, streaming had been abolished in favour of a mixed-ability approach. But the damaging labels endured, throughout our school lives and beyond.
Several decades on, and the wheel has apparently turned full circle. 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. 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 seven.
In some schools
, the practice is so extreme as to amount to a return of the grammar-school principle. Crown Woods school in south London
has caused a furore for its decision to house children in "schools within schools", according to ability, each with its own colour-coded uniform. Fighting has already been reported between students located in different blocks.
But there's a twisted logic behind the Crown Woods scenario. Surrounded by selective or partially selective schools, and struggling to stay atop the league tables, the school is merely responding to the market. In today's competitive climate, more and more schools are caught up in local turf wars, trying to win their share of high-achieving pupils.
Educationally speaking, however, 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.
In the words of one sceptical 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 specialisation 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 labelling 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.
Wroxham primary school in Hertfordshire has outlawed all ability labelling, including reference to the all-pervasive national curriculum levels. The headteacher, Alison Peacock, has taken the school from special measures to outstanding status in a few years, and produced cohorts of confident, inquiring learners.
Wroxham is part of an exciting project called Learning Without Limits, which promotes a more open-ended and progressive view of human potential. Such work is particularly vital in the current climate, with so many siren voices declaring "mixed-ability teaching
" a complete failure.
The irony, as Learning Without Limits understands, is that even to talk of "mixed ability" is to constrain and categorise, in unimaginative fashion, what we believe the child is capable of learning.
Something vital is at stake in all these arguments, not just about the quality of learning in our schools, but the kind of school system, and society, we ultimately want to foster.
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.
• Melissa Benn's latest book, School Wars: the Battle for Britain's Education, will be published by Verso on 5 September