An End to Ability Streaming in Schools

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Imagine an education system where mandatory teaching does not begin until the age of 7, where there are no standardised exams until the age of 18, no tuition fees, no school uniforms, no Ofsted and no school league tables. Students call their teachers by their first names, while homework is spurned until students reach their teenage years.

This is the system that has been in place in Finland for the past few decades, a student nirvana that has won international acclaim since regularly appearing either at or near the top of global league tables for science, maths and literacy[1]. The Finnish system is by no means readily exportable to the UK; several critical differences exist between the two. Finland, a much more equal society, has far fewer social divisions, characterised as it is by a homogenous population (only 5% are foreign-born), a low poverty rate, a small economy and a complete lack of private schools[2]. Nonetheless, Britain can learn a thing or two from its success, in particular the Finns’ refusal to stream students.

The streaming system divides pupils into hierarchical groups that stay together for all subjects. The issue is becoming increasingly pressing, with more and more children being streamed at a younger and younger age: in 2011, 1 in 6 children were being streamed by ability by the age of 7[3].

There is strong evidence against streaming. For one, it is extremely difficult to assess a child’s ability in all subjects through assessing a single criterion in a single exam. How can one verbal and non-verbal reasoning test accurately assess a child’s ability in art, drama, science and English, all at the same time, particularly when you take into account that some children are more susceptible to exam stress than others? Moreover, learning is not a linear process; some children learn faster than others at different stages of their development. It is unfair to penalise late bloomers, thereby hindering the rest of their education.

Perhaps it is the long-term impact of streaming that provides the strongest counter-argument. Telling a child their overall ability puts them into the ‘lower’ or ‘middle’ streams can be a terrible blow to their self-esteem. It can erode their motivation and self-confidence with a potentially lasting impact; these two traits are crucial for any high achiever not just in education, but in employment too. Recognition of the importance of self-belief is at the heart of the Finnish success story. To battle the stigma around ‘support learning,’ they make it available to everyone, while 37% of first graders get additional help[4]. This has helped combat the idea that only extremely limited children need extra support.

The list goes on: when educators decide to stream, they tend to entrench racial, ethnic and social divides[5], reflecting inequality in the wider society. All too often streaming involves dividing students along these lines, with a high concentration of majority-race, privileged children in the top streams and minority and poor children at the bottom. As interaction is limited, cultural barriers remain intact and integration is restricted[6]. As societal divisions are deepened, so the inequality gap is widened. More experienced and better-qualified teachers take the top streams, which go at a faster pace and involve more discussion. Correspondingly, the low-level classes, often slowed down by disruptive behaviour, cover less ground and involve more deskwork, restricting stimulation and achievement. [7]

Mixed-ability classes are not without fault, however. In the UK, over the last 30 years mixed-ability teaching has fallen out of favour as streaming has become more and more fashionable. This trend has been fuelled by support for streaming from both Ofsted and the leading parties, who have both provided convincing arguments. In 2012, the former’s chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw lamented the ‘curse of mixed-ability classes without mixed-ability teaching,’ potentially leaving slower children behind while boring more able children[8]. Meanwhile, in a schools Green Paper in 2007, Michael Gove stated ‘each pupil should be given the opportunity to learn in accordance with their particular aptitude and ability.’[9]

Indeed, these are legitimate criticisms of mixed-ability classes, which can lead teachers to lower their expectations and dilute the curriculum to meet everyone’s needs, resulting in a less challenging experience for more able students[10]. Streaming, however, is not the only alternative. Setting is a system whereby students are placed in different classes for different subjects based on their ability in that particular subject. While it maintains all the pitfalls of a system that categorises based on ability, it rejects the restrictive single assessment strategy, allows for the fact that some children may be better at some subjects than others, and proposes a less divisive categorising system.

Both setting and mixed-ability classes have their pros and cons. The debate remains inconclusive and, thus, the government should refrain from siding with either for now.  Streaming, however, is simply a harsher, more severe and more divisive form of setting. It is exceptionally difficult to accurately judge a child’s intelligence when they are only 7 years old. To do so, rather than ensuring that every child goes at the right pace for them, serves only to entrench social divisions, erode self-esteem and exacerbate inequality. The government should start to provide strong disincentives against streaming, at least for children as young as 7. A world-class education system delivers for every child, not just the chosen few.

Written by Finlay Green, edited by Chris Olewicz











  • Mayan Kurdi

    Couldn’t have said it better. My son is just finishing year 1 in an Ofsted Outstanding school where the classroom is divided into 3 ability streams. My son is a very bright boy but we have not hot housed him at home. You can imagine my surprise and horror when he was placed in the middle stream. A very unfair system that has caused us a lot of heartache this year.