Is streaming good for every child?

Thursday, 28th September 2017

Ability based learning is a concept that attracts attention due to the polarising nature of it. Some politicians may favour dividing children according to ability because it helps them gain a deeper learning experience. But this question can split schools down the middle in more ways than one.

In every school there will be more able pupils. These are children who show a particular skill or aptitude in one or more curriculum subject. As a school leader one way in which I have extended and stretched the most able is to stream every pupil within all year groups, particularly for English, Maths and Science. This allows us to implement more challenge for the high able and more support for those who need it. The objective is to allow like for like pupils to move ahead at a pace that matches their abilities. However, it should be noted that even with setting and streaming a range of abilities still exist, even within top sets.

Nevertheless, whilst creating an environment where the whole class is at the same level seems attractive, research does suggest that streaming will benefit pupils who are of a higher ability, but it is not an effective strategy for raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. This is because disadvantaged pupils are more likely to be assigned to lower ability groups. Therefore, the key to success for schools is to ensure that streaming is not detrimental to the learning of mid-range and lower attaining learners. Streaming can lead to exclusion and anxiety, with some pupils experiencing discomfort with being placed into a group that is considered a lower or higher learning level. It is about creating a balance and this is something that is vital to embed within a culture.

It is a fact that pupils do benefit from having a wide range of abilities around them and one classroom genius can act as a “shining star” and inspire everyone. Similarly, if you are looking to improve at a sport, you would typically seek to play against people who are a little better than you, because you would rise to their level. The same can be said about the classroom. Enrichment activities are of course another way of ensuring that all pupils meet their full potential. It is with great pride I have been able to focus on a career that developed and initiated new and innovative enrichment programmes, whilst maximising the number of pupils who take part in it.

Nevertheless, engagement at all levels, regardless of streaming, is imperative. The key to success is high quality teachers who have the experience and skills to ensure that each individual child is intellectually challenged in any class, whether it be mixed, streamed or a discreet set.  Children who work hard and are not bored, whilst establishing a culture of good discipline and one that has peer pressure to do well will succeed. As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts”. This can happen in streamed and non-streamed environments and should always be the focus to our children’s education.

Dean Thomas-Lowde
Partner – Castles Education