It’s time for schools to embrace “learning without limits”

This morning I greeted fellow mums in the playground after an absence of 6 weeks and when asked about how our summer holidays went gave the obligatory “great thanks” when really the truth is slightly more nuanced than that. Yes we did have some fun days out (the most bizarre yet successful was going plane spotting at Heathrow – how much more small budget can you get?) and yes we did have an exciting trip abroad. Spending so much time with my son was overwhelmingly a joy although this was tempered by having to accept the loss of my freedom for six weeks, something that got harder to bear towards the latter parts of the holiday. However, there was also another aspect to the holiday which was not quite so pleasant.

Having learnt to my cost that children get assessed during the first week of school and then sorted into three ability bands, I knew how vital it was that my son start school well prepared for this assessment. Our previous summer holiday had been spent carefree and academia free but it meant that my son started school with very poor reading and writing skills. I knew what a quick and able learner he is, so I assumed that once he started school he would quickly get back into his groove. Unfortunately, that is not how schools operate nowadays. He was judged on the level he presented rather than on his potential for learning and consequently sorted into the “middle” ability stream. This meant he was given work which he often found too easy while he watched his friends being given more challenging tasks than him. I cannot begin to explain how crushing and stigmatising it is for a child to feel less worthy than others in his class, especially when both he and I knew he was capable of a lot more than the teacher gave him credit for.

There ensued for us a stressful year in which we struggled to get the school and his teacher to move him up to the higher level stream, which eventually happened in the summer term and then only because vacancies had been created by two children in the class leaving the school. Earlier in the year we had put in some effort at home to improve my son’s reading and writing, which it did very quickly giving truth to my own assessment of his ability to learn. If the class was based on meritocracy, then surely this would have been the point at which the teacher took note of this significant improvement and rewarded it. Nothing of the sort happened. While in theory there ought to be fluidity between each ability band, with children moving up or down easily from week to week or month to month, in practice the children mostly remain in the same ability group they start with.

This is not just my own observation of the workings of my son’s classroom. The lack of movement between ability streams has been documented in various studies, notably one by Brian Jackson (“Streaming: An Education System in Miniature”, 1964). Examining patterns of achievement in reading as they evolved up to age 11, Jackson found that the Bs never caught up with the As, or the Cs with the Bs and that indeed, the gaps between them widened over time. Although transfer between streams remained a theoretical possibility, it rarely occurred in practice. For most, the original placement (usually around the age of 7) was final.

You can understand then why I felt galvanised into making sure my son, who will soon turn 7, does well in the first week’s assessment. At the start of the holiday, I purchased various literacy and maths exercise books and promised myself that we would devote 10 minutes each day to maintaining and improving his levels of learning. This was easier said than done. My son naturally rebelled against this regimen. He would much rather play Minecraft or build intricate railways or go outside to play than to sit and do “boring” work. There were days when I literally pulled my hair out trying to get him to sit and concentrate for a few minutes. I often had to bribe him with money or treats in order to get him to co-operate. The holidays ended with a mixed bag of results. His reading is very fluent now, his vocabulary is excellent and his writing is hit and miss depending on his mood. With maths I hit a brick wall of resistance from him. I hope and pray that I have done enough to save him from “relegation”.

Walking home from the school run, I got chatting to another mum. I confessed to her that I had tried to get my son to work in the holidays to improve his chances at school and she replied that she too had tried to get her older son in particular to do some work in the holidays. She told me how last year, he had caught chicken pox in the first week of school and had missed the “assessment”. As a result he was placed in the same ability group as he had been in the previous year. Her protests to the school about this were to no avail. He was not even given the chance to “prove himself”. Consequently, she had spent precious money on Kumon lessons to help him with his maths. She told me her son, who is summer born and thus around 10 months younger than the older children in the class, has always had a struggle to catch up because of the streaming system. She too hoped that the confidence he had gained from the Kumon classes would help him start year 5 on a better footing.

By now you will have guessed that our experience during the last school year has prompted me to read up a lot on the subject of streaming in education. You would be right. On a gut level I knew the system was wrong but I did not have viable alternatives to present. I remember distinctly a conversation I had with the deputy headmistress of the school in which she said to me that they had to group by ability because there were children in that class who could still barely write their own names. I had no answer for that. Now I do. It’s called “learning without limits” and it is a simple yet powerful concept. Let me hasten to add that this is not a pie in the sky theory but a method of teaching that is being used in certain schools around the country to great success. These schools do not stream by ability and yet many are judged by Ofsted to be “outstanding” and do well in the academic league tables. This gives lie to the charge often made that mixed ability teaching results in a dumbing down of standards. Not so. Instead, the approach is characterised by a recognition that our children’s ability to learn is limitless and that no ceiling should be put on a child’s attainments through the arbitrariness of ability banding.

So how does it work? It is not within my scope here to give the details but I will give a flavour of what this kind of teaching is about. For more depth on the subject, please do read Dame Alison Peocock’s book “Creating Learning without Limits”. I heartily recommend it. Here’s a fabulous quote from it:

By offering a choice of work at different levels, it became possible to challenge and extend the learning of all children, without predetermining what any individual in the class might be capable of achieving and without communicating messages of differential worth or undermining children’s belief in their own capabilities.”

The teachers at Alison’s school routinely presented the children with a range of tasks at different levels of difficulty. The children were trusted to choose their own level of work and to change their minds if they discovered that their original choice of work was either too easy or too difficult. To my mind, this is what I would call equal opportunity teaching. Each child has the same opportunity as the next to learn at the level they feel is right for them in contrast to a system where the teacher is all powerful and her judgement, often fallible, can make or break the child’s opportunities for learning.

I know there are others, like me, who believe that streaming in schools, particularly primary schools, is wrong. I hope enough of us can get together to effect change in our schools so that children are not unfairly stigmatised from an early age.

A school trip to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra

Yesterday I accompanied my six year old son on a school trip to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. It was an experience. Let me share some of the highlights.

Five mums, including myself, had volunteered to join the class on this trip. Having gone on a school trip the previous year, I was not keen to volunteer again. My son, however, was rather persistent in his nagging. His burning wish to have his mum be one of the grown ups on the trip finally wore me down, together with a memory of something similar that happened to me when I was a child.

I remember that we were going on a school outing to Hyde Park and the teacher had asked for some parents to volunteer to come with us. Without my mother’s knowledge I put her name down as one of the volunteer parents. It had irked me for a long time that my parents did not conform to the norms of parenthood as exhibited by the others in my class. For starters, they never attended parents meetings. “Why should we?”, my dad would ask. “We know you are doing well”. It seemed to them that parents should only get involved if there were a problem and since end of term reports consistently showed me getting good grades and positive comments, they felt there was no need for them to traipse all the way over from Acton, where we lived, to South Kensington only be told what they already knew.

So when the teacher asked for parents to join us on the trip, something in me could not resist volunteering my own mother. But how to convince her to actually do it? I decided I would tell her that the teacher urgently needed to meet with her to discuss a problem I was having at school. “Problem? What kind of problem?” asked my mum. I would not say but kept insisting it was very important and urgent. My mum dutifully turned up at the appointed day for this urgent meeting. Being of diminutive stature, she was wearing high heels and looking smart, as she would for a meeting. Imagine her surprise when she realised she had been roped in to a school trip in wet and muddy weather! She gamely trooped along with her high heels in the mud, trying to ignore the bemused looks from others at her lack of sensible footwear. Poor mum!

Fast forward to this week and of course I gave in to my son and said I would go. Yesterday morning, we all trooped into the classroom and each parent was given a sheet with the names of the children assigned to their group. I was considered a novice (not having volunteered for previous expeditions this year) and was thus given an easy group of children including my son. That was a relief! There was a slight hiccup when the teacher realised that one extra parent had turned up and she had to diplomatically tell him that he couldn’t accompany us as there were not enough tickets. She escorted him out of the classroom and shortly after that, the school secretary came in and called the name of the boy whose father had just been ejected. It seemed the child would not be allowed to go on the trip if the father could not go too. What a shame, I thought, poor boy to be taken out of the class like that. Fortunately, someone must have spoken to the parents and convinced them to change their minds as the boy was returned to the classroom at the very last minute.

We had a quick briefing from the teacher. We would be going shortly, she explained, taking the train to Clapham Junction and then Waterloo. We would be having lunch as soon as we arrived at the Festival Hall, which seemed a bit early in my view. But I had underestimated how challenging it is to shepherd thirty children all the way to Waterloo.

We had barely got round the corner from the school before we stopped. A young girl at the front of our convoy was crying and saying she had hurt herself on her face though I could not see a single scratch on her. It took five minutes to get the Teaching Assistant (who was also the designated first aider) to come to the front and check her out. As I suspected, there was nothing wrong with her and, once she had calmed down a bit, we got going again. Stopping and starting, stopping and starting, we eventually made it to the Royal Festival Hall, by which time it was nearly midday. It really does take all morning to herd a classroom of children from West Norwood to Waterloo!

We sat down on the floor in a corner of the Royal Festival Hall and had our lunch. Having learned from previous experience, I had packed our own lunch rather than eat the school one. Who in their right minds thinks that six year old children, with their wobbly teeth, would enjoy eating baguette sandwiches? Crusty bread is quite a challenge for children of that age. One of my son’s friends lost a tooth biting into the baguette and then dropped the tooth over the banister down to the lower level. There followed a fruitless search for the missing tooth. Then of course, we had to do the various toilet expeditions in a theatre teeming with hundreds of other small children. Finally, after what seemed an age, we went into the auditorium and took our seats.

The performance, specially designed for Key Stage 1 children, was the story of Stan and Mabel, with a lovely score composed for it and easy songs for the children to participate in. I thought it was great. Well done to all who produced this show. Things have changed a lot since I was a child. Nothing like this was ever on offer in my day. All I remember is being trouped along to the French Institute to watch “Le Ballon Rouge” every year. But do these lucky children know how lucky they are? In the midst of the performance, I looked around to see how everyone else was enjoying it. Some children seemed to be happily singing along but quite a few looked distinctively bored and sleepy. The child in the row in front had fallen fast asleep and the mum whose group he was in was wondering whether or not to nudge him awake. I looked behind me to check on my friend’s daughter and found that she too was looking rather fatigued. On my right the TA was struggling to keep awake too. Perhaps the first day after half term was not the best day for a theatre trip. As for my son, he alternated between singing along and snuggling up to me, telling me I was the best mummy in the world and generally basking in my presence. What more could I ask for?

Not even the arduous journey back to school could dim my glow at having made my child happy. And then home, to put my feet up and have nice cup of tea.

When did school become so divisive?

Yesterday we braced ourselves for parents evening at our 6 year old son’s school. What should have been a straightforward, breezy discussion about what a good boy he is, how well he is doing, what small areas of improvement there might be for us to assist him with was marred by the big issue that has been concerning us all year: ability banding, otherwise known as streaming.

What happens is this. The children are divided into three ability groups (for convenience I will call them higher, middle and lower levels). In a classroom of 30 children they are divided into five tables, two at the higher ability level, two at the lower and one middle one. The children sit at their assigned table and are given work according to the ability level of their table. Their homework is also different according to their assigned ability level.

The idea behind this system is that it helps teachers to work more effectively with the children by tailoring lesson content to their ability. The children, supposedly, are not aware of this system as the tables they sit on tend to have cheery names of animals, flowers or trees. In reality, most children are well aware that there are tables for the clever ones and tables for the not so clever ones. According to recent research by the Institute of Education at the University of London, one in six primary school children in England are now “streamed” and this is a trend that is set to grow in the coming years as the streaming orthodoxy gains traction within decision making circles.

Yet the research by the Institute of Education found that while children placed in the top stream enjoyed significant positive benefit compared to those who had not been streamed, those in the middle and lower streams tended to do worse compared to children who were not streamed. In other words, this system benefits roughly a third of pupils but disadvantages the other two thirds. If you add to this equation the findings of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) which indicate that children from poorer backgrounds are found to be disproportionately placed in lower streams, then you begin to see that this educational system not only favours the brighter students, it also strongly favours children from wealthier households. Hardly a recipe for social cohesion! More importantly, this shows that it is not actual ability of the child that makes the difference at this stage but the parents’ ability to coach them.

Our son’s experience in the classroom mirrors these findings. The children who sit in the two lower ability tables in his class tend to be from poorer, more disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and the children in the two higher tables mostly have well educated parents. My son is stuck in limbo in the middle. He is a bright, inquisitive and quick-witted boy. He is also very reserved in front of people he is not familiar with. In the critical first few weeks of school, when the teacher gets to know the children and assesses them, he failed to make much of an impression.

I was blithely unaware of the situation as of course, the school does not make it a policy to inform parents that their children are being streamed. One day, walking home from school, he happened to mention that the work he got given in class was too easy for him and that the children sitting at two other tables were doing harder work. He had also noticed that there were other tables doing super easy work. He wanted to be on the tables where the more interesting and challenging work was being given. My first reaction was to tell him that he needed to work harder on his reading, which was a bit of a struggle, so that he could impress his teacher with his improvement and get moved up to the harder work table. To be honest, up until then, I had not been one of those parents that spent long hours hot-housing their child. I read him stories at night but that was about it. I assumed, wrongly, that a bright boy would thrive in an Ofsted Outstanding school, regardless of whether I spent hours coaching him at home or not. The mistake was quickly rectified and we upped our game, practising reading and writing at home whenever possible. Within a short space of time I detected a massive improvement but this didn’t translate into a “promotion” at school.

There seems to be a lack of fluidity in the way streaming works in British primary schools. Once placed in that middle ability table, my son has not been able to move up despite our many talks with the teacher and head. To promote him would mean the “demotion” of another child. There lies the problem. The system by its very nature puts children in competition with one another. The status afforded to the children on the “clever” tables means they will resist being moved down. My son tells me that this did in fact happen to one of the children who was struggling with the higher ability work and needed to be moved down. He cried and cried and refused to change table. I don’t blame him! In the great British tradition of things, the streaming system seems to be a first past the post system.

In our case, we were told there were no “vacancies” in the higher tables but as a palliative they promised to give my son the same hard work as the top streamed children while still sitting on the middle table. It came as no surprise to us that he quickly adapted to the harder work. We have also been assured that next year all children will start again on an even playing field. Needless to say, we will be more prepared and make sure he isn’t unfairly placed in the middle again. I do wonder what effect streaming at such a young age has on the self esteem of children and on the way they perceive themselves. I noticed my son saying on more than one occasion that he wasn’t clever. This may have been an excuse for not making enough of an effort on his homework but it worried me enough that I now make it a point everyday to praise his cleverness.

My son is one of the lucky ones. He has us fighting his corner. Not all children are so fortunate. How many primary school children are being left behind because of the socio-economic backgrounds of their parents not their lack of ability?