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.

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