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hmmm_tea gets annoyed with the British Education system once again

Model school where a third of pupils can't get a place at a state secondary

Found a copy of the observer on the tube yesterday and was interested by this article. Seems strange that the education system has come to this.

Given that the tripartite system proved only to strengthen class divides, why are we taking so many steps back towards selective schooling? Ok, the postcode lottery wasn't a good thing, but in some ways its so much better to this.

Children need to intermingle regardless of their academic abilities. Learning is a social process and their is so much more to learn through discussing and explaining things to each other across the ability range than could ever be portrayed by a teacher alone.

Given that most of the research I've seen finds against setting within schools, why are we pushing towards a system where your not just set or streamed within your school, but you are being set on a per-school basis?

By labelling children as being suitable for the "best" or "worst" schools we are only setting expectations of what we think they should grow into and then we're somehow surprised that some of those from the so called worst schools meet our stereotypes.

All children have massive levels of potential no matter what their ability level is. They can understand immensely complex concepts as long as you explain them in terms that they understand and the best people to do this are their peers. A process that is beneficial to both participants, after all, a good way of understanding something is to explain it to someone else. Why, in that case, do we go to so much lengths to stop this from happening?


( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
24th Mar, 2009 07:49 (UTC)
I'm sorry, most research finds against setting in schools?!? I find this as plausible as 'most research finds being decapitated is good for your health'. What on earth was the basis they found against it on? It clearly wasn't the educational benefit of the children in the class.

I've been in an unset maths class. I learnt nothing for a year, it was a complete waste of time.
24th Mar, 2009 07:57 (UTC)
There were only two unset classes in my school- the bright ones sat at the front feeling bored, the least able sat at the back not understanding a word which was said and misbehaving so they distracted the middle range children who ended up not learning anything either.

If we're going to have selection then let's at least have it based on a fair criteria- academic ability. Not where Mummy and Daddy can afford to live, what religion you are or how good Mummy is at filling in forms.
24th Mar, 2009 08:22 (UTC)
That was true for the set classes at my school though.

Whatever you do, you will get an ability range. The solution should be to broaden the suitability of your tasks, differentiating to allow students of all abilities to explore them as fully as they are able.

As I said, I don't think the postcode lottery was a good thing, but somehow this seems the wrong solution.
24th Mar, 2009 09:40 (UTC)
I just don't see how that is possible- take maths, for example; how can you teach one child quadratic equations whilst simultanously trying to teach a child who cannot adequately grasp the concept of zero? That does both children a disservice.

As for setting and the children at the bottom of the set- well I was that child. Somehow I ended up in the top set for maths. The teacher might as well ahve been speaking Serbo-Croat for all I could understand her- in fact I'd probably have found Serbo-Croat a lot easier. She wasn't a bad teacher- my more mathematically minded brother described her as the best maths teacher he ever had.

The solution was perfectly simple- they asked me if I wanted to move down a set and I said yes. I found myself being given work which I could understand, and to my amazement even enjoyed. Without that flexibility in the system, I don't know how things would have worked out.

I just don't see how mixed ability teaching can be made to work, given the sheer range of abilities in a typical secondary school. Surely not setting children would be just as disadvantageous to the less academically inclined children as those who find learning easy?
24th Mar, 2009 12:25 (UTC)
The point is that however much you limit your ability range you are always going to get a situation like that. The point is that tasks need to be open to a variety of ability ranges.

This is achievable in maths through investigative tasks for example, which itself is something far more mathematical than just working through a sheet of sums (which unfortunately was what most of my school maths education consisted of and seems to be quite normal across the country).

A suitably open ended task can teach children all manner of different things depending on their ability.

The method by which you were taught maths may not be suitable for a mixed ability group, but that doesn't necessarily mean mixed ability groups do not work. In fact the point you make about this teacher who taught both you and your brother with differing results, just goes to demonstrate how the classes range of abilities hadn't been taken into account.

I'll have to have a dig around the internet when I get a moment and find an example of the research I'm talking about (most of it was about maths in fact, as that was the subject I was training to teach - it's times like this that I regret throwing out all my old PGCE notes).
27th Mar, 2009 19:35 (UTC)
You cannot just teach Maths by investigation. You might have just picked everything up alone, but people who didn't get into Cambridge to do Maths get a huge benefit from actually having things properly taught to them - not just given a book and told to read it as they're too far ahead of everyone else. I'd agree about a good way of learning to be explaining things to others - but by having sets of people of a similar ability level helping each other out on the same level, NOT by holding up the bright kids education by having them used as free teaching assistants.

It comes down to whether you think schools are there to give the best education possible or are tools for social engineering. The former seems obvious to me - if the head of languages at my school hadn't insisted on not setting because of their political beliefs I might have been able to pick up *some* French, rather then wasting years literally not understanding a word she was saying.
27th Mar, 2009 20:05 (UTC)
The point is that you can teach a lot of maths through investigation and it engages students a lot more then giving them a book a telling them to read it (which isn't mathematical investigation, is an appalling way to teach maths and is all too common!)

Research shows mixed ability teaching is a good form of education for all ability levels.
31st Mar, 2009 17:27 (UTC)
And actually *teaching* students is better than either telling them to go off and investigate or giving them a book and sitting them in a corner.

Given your obvious dislike of setting you'll forgive me if I'm skeptical of your ability to neutrally assess all the research and be able to definitely say that "Research Shows!".
31st Mar, 2009 19:49 (UTC)
Who said anything about telling them to go off and investigate by themselves. You do need to teach, but the learning process should be an active one rather than passive.

Anyway, skepticism understood (I did actually believe the opposite before I did my PGCE). Will try and dig out some research to back it up at some point.

But the point is where is the research to back up the opposite point of view, there isn't a lot of it? Just a lot of government spin.
1st Apr, 2009 21:11 (UTC)
But the point is where is the research to back up the opposite point of view, there isn't a lot of it?.....
That's exactly my point. I could say exactly the same back to you. And oh, I don't have the time to look up references either.

Just about every qualified teacher I've known has said that to learn to teach you have to get past the exams by regurgitating whatever political spin they're teaching for PGCE this year and actually start a job. Certainly seemed true for all the fresh out-of-teacher-training teachers I had.

1st Apr, 2009 21:46 (UTC)
However, the whole British Education system is based upon the opposite point of view.

Therefore, if there is any doubt as to the validity of that point of view, which I believe there is, this should be questioned.

That's what democracy is all about after all.
24th Mar, 2009 08:18 (UTC)
With all due respect, any individuals personal experience of the education system is very limited. I would guess that you were generally comfortably in the top sets for most subjects where you were set and have no experience of being towards the bottom?

Research generally shows that where setting occurs students towards the lower ends of the sets feel they have been set too high and become disengaged as a result and similarly for those towards the top of the set, add to that the points I make about labelling above and you end up disadvantaging a large proportion of the number of students.

Out of interest, how was your maths class taught? I would guess that the main issue was that it wasn't differentiated enough to motivate and drive you.
2nd Apr, 2009 09:09 (UTC)
I am enough of a scientist to know the difference between anecdote and solid evidence, enough of a statistician to know the difference between an individual experience and the 18 years which form an individual's experience, and enough of a mathematician to know that the exception does quite the reverse of proving the rule.

Curiously I have far less experience of being decapitated than being educated (set and unset), and somehow this didn't call into question my claim about its health implications.

It's very flattering of you to assume I was in the top of the top set for everything, but somewhat distant from the truth. In languages and music I was at the bottom of the top set. In games I was in the bottom set (and my hatred of mixed ability maths is as nothing to my hatred of mixed ability games).

So it will not do to dismiss my view on the grounds of 'limited experience' - it is limited, all samples are limited, that's sort of the point, but if you don't think conclusions can be made from samples you shouldn't have bothered to read that research to start with.

Over and above that I have a theory of education - it's the same one you have. That to learn you must be presented with new ideas but ideas which are within reach of your present understanding. Like you I believe in many subjects it's hard to find approaches which sit in the overlap even in streamed classes. Astonishingly, in your discussion above, you think the solution to this is to create a larger spread in the class, and a smaller overlap! With all due respect, that's bonkers.

Your research argument above seems to sidestep this issue by redefining the purpose of education - it no longer cares about imparting understanding to the intelligent or industrious, but instead about imparting self esteem to the stupid and lazy.

The problem with my maths class was that to keep the bottom and middle of the group they taught only things I already knew.

Hold on a minute ... you're against setting, but in favour of differentiating?!?

I may have a solution for you, it's this great way of differentiating classes ...
2nd Apr, 2009 21:25 (UTC)
you're against setting, but in favour of differentiating?!?

Yes, they are entirely different things.

Many activities set to a set class are not differentiated. All students need to attempt a closed activity (i.e. problems with only one possible outcome).

Instead you could set an open ended activity such as an investigative task (doesn't need to entirely be a "go away and do this thing" can be done through class discussion, etc) to help children discover things for themselves and open the topic up for children to discover a variety of facts depending on their ability. At which point you can cater for a broad range of abilities, so you can mix them and have the benefit of getting the children to share their thoughts.

On a similar matter, what are your thoughts on streaming (i.e. where children are set in the same ability groups for all subjects, so the sets are based on performance in all subjects rather than just individual subjects)? A lot of people seem against this on the grounds that ability in English may differ from ability in Maths. Couldn't the same be true of different topics within a subject though, just because someone is good at creative writing wouldn't mean they would be good at analysising literature for example.

Personally, I have a fairly good degree in maths and yet I still can't remember my multiplication tables (although I would argue that that was mathematical, as I believe maths is about the skills rather than the facts - another reason I'm pro-investigational teaching, but that's beside the point), given that what set should I be put in if I were to go back to school and do more maths?

Edited at 2009-04-02 21:26 (UTC)
2nd Apr, 2009 09:15 (UTC)
To add a little nuance, some subjects lend themselves better to mixed ability classes than others.

For example, subjects where much of the teaching time is taken up with individual projects (such as many technologies) are by their nature taught on a more individual level, and who else is in the class doesn't matter very much - this isn't an argument against setting, just not one for it.
2nd Apr, 2009 21:12 (UTC)
But is this a inherent property of these subjects or just the way we traditionally view them? Can other subjects not take the form of individual projects as well?
24th Mar, 2009 08:25 (UTC)
Explaining something to somebody else only helps you understand it if they are actually interested enough to ask questions - if they are only sitting there because the teacher told them to, you might as well explain it to a brick wall with a vested interest in beating you up as soon as nobody's looking.
24th Mar, 2009 12:31 (UTC)
A lot of this can happen informally between pupils rather than formally telling one student to explain to another.

The main thing is to motivate a discussion on the topics and encourage participation from all the pupils.
24th Mar, 2009 20:17 (UTC)

This may be a bit tangential but it is I think germane.

Peter Hyman points out that a key problem with the comprehensive system (as implemented) is that comprehensive schools aren't comprehensive in the important sense of mixing up children of all backgrounds; the good ones end up with the children of well-off parents and everyone else has to put up with what's left.

Along similar lines I remember an article (which I can probably find if you want a better cite) about a study into house prices and schools; they calculated the cost of buying a house near a good school and compared it to private school fees. The conclusion was that the parents paying a premium for their house to be in a 'good' area were getting a good deal compared to going private.

The conclusion I draw is that if the well off can game the system then (even if not every individual does so) as class they will. People will effectively buy their kids' way into good schools.

This is a serious problem because having done this, or thinking you can do this, you have no incentive to see the less good schools improved; so tough luck for the poorer kids. (Well, we might say that right-thinking people have a moral incentive, but as we can see that turns out not to pay the bills in practice...)

So you need to either prevent them doing this; or exploit it to improve the system; or render it irrelevant.

I wouldn't pretend to have an answer that will definitely work!

(This is completely independent of the reason that any given school gets less good outcomes than any other. When I talk about people having an incentive to improve schools that might best translate into some kind of local action, or more central funding, or whatever. Without the incentive the means are irrelevant.)

25th Mar, 2009 00:55 (UTC)
Interesting point, but as you say tangential, as I don't see that this actually solves that problem.

Would be interested in reading the article though if you can pass on the link.
25th Mar, 2009 09:19 (UTC)
This one looks like it but I thought it was more recent than that. May require a login.
27th Mar, 2009 20:08 (UTC)
My grammar school had millionaire's kids right through to kids from council estates. The catchment area was half a county and the entry exam was a no-previous-knowledge IQ based test that tuition made little difference to (not that it stopped people trying). Our sister school got fantastic results allowing for its intake and was considered much better than the nearest comp, even though parents who could afford it whos daughters failed the 11 plus tended to send them to private school instead.

I've never got why people blame bad schools on parents trying to get their kids the best education they can. I did read a similar article somewhere suggesting middle class kids should be forced to go to the bad schools so their parents would get the standards raised. If parents can make such a difference, then if the parents of the kids at the bad schools either don't show an interest in improving the school standards or aren't listened to when they do surely this is a separate problem that needs addressing? Surely the government should be ensuring a good level of education for all without parents needing to apply pressure anyway?
28th Mar, 2009 11:02 (UTC)

if the parents of the kids at the bad schools either don't show an interest in improving the school standards or aren't listened to when they do surely this is a separate problem that needs addressing

Absolutely it does, the basic problem is that richer people are better able to influence the way society is run. But this is a very tough nut to crack (not that education isn't).

Edited at 2009-03-28 11:02 (UTC)
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )

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