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General Rant About The Education System

Reading something recently has got me thinking about "labelling" within the education system. This was one of the major issues I had with the education system while I was teaching and went a long way towards me deciding it wasn't the right career.

For some bizarre reason we have an amazing urge to label people from a young age and to try and predict what they will turn into in the future. Why should it matter what you're going to get in your GCSEs for example when you're only 14?! Education seems to be more about passing tests and achieving qualifications then gaining knowledge and skills.

Predicting a child's grades using something like YELLIS seems just plain dangerous to me. As soon as you start labelling like that, you start promoting segregation of these children into different social classes. An obvious example is that of poor achievers, who end up getting put in low sets (the UK government have this strange idea that setting within schools should be the standard, despite the fact that there's actually quite a lot of research out there suggesting this might actually be a BAD IDEA!) and having been put there where is the incentive to try and achieve. You've told them you're not expecting them to do so by putting them there!

This is taken even further by the examination bodies, who create exam papers targetted at different ability ranges. Surely the only advantage to this is that it makes their life easier in that they don't have to find open questions for the assessment that could accept a variety of answers depending on the ability level. (a) This creates problems for so called borderline students who may be uneasy about taking a risk about going for a higher paper (b) limits students performance preventing them from surprising you on the day an achieving better than expected (ok, this isn't likely to happen, but the fact that it's a vague possibility may help encourage children).

Soham really opened my eyes to this. The groups there were streamed (like setting but you're put in the same ability group for all your subjects, so going on overall ability rather than that in a particular subject), I've heard a lot of people agree with setting, but say that this is wrong because it doesn't take into account that students may be particularly good at one subject, but particularly weak at another. However, in the same way, can't a student be particularly good at a particular part of one subject and particularly weak at another meaning the same arguement is true for setting?

Anywho, back to Soham. I had the delight of teaching a bottom set year 7 class there. There were about 7 boys in the group (no girls). OK, the staff there were keen for them to do well, as any school is for any group of people (gets you higher up in the league tables and all that...), but people didn't seem to really care about them getting anything out of it. It wasn't about "how can I help these children develop their skills", but more "this is a group of naughty boys, get them to behave and with a bit of luck we may get them to pass a few exams and we'll look better in the league tables as a result".

The education system doesn't accomodate people who don't fit the mould.

I strongly disagree with the class segregation within the old Tripartite System, but it did in a way admit that people are different and some may be more practical and some more academic, etc. It clearly doesn't work as you're still fitting people into moulds, you've just got 3 of them instead of one and as I've already said it promoted class segregation.

Surely education should be more about opening children up to the whole variety of skills there are out there so they can explore and see which way they can develop. Everyones got talents, it's up to the education system to help people find these and get the most out of them.

Although I'm not keen on public schools because they promote the segregation of the classes further, by separating children into paid and unpaid education sectors. I can see the advantage of them, in that they don't have the tight government rules to abide by and as a result you end up with schools like Summerhill. I have a lot of respect for Summerhill, because of the amount of freedom it provides for children to explore knowledge in their own way. It strikes me as one of the few schools in this country that concentrates on learning rather than acheiving qualifications.

Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
the_gwenzilliad
12th Jan, 2006 23:21 (UTC)
We're currently going through the appeals process to get my son into a school, any school that doesn't look like the sort of place where he's more likely to come out with broken bones than an education, in southeast London. While I appreciate what you say about the streaming system and how kids in lower sets aren't expected to make much of themselves academically so are put into the position where nobody expects them to excel and no one's ever going to push them to improve, that kind of thing-- one thing the UK system has over the American system, hands-down is allowing secondary school kids to focus on what they are good at and want to learn more about.

I'm sure there are plenty of arguments against this philosophy, which enables students to specialise earlier, but the alternative as seen in the American education system is the reality of dealing with a straight line of study subjects with very little variation. Then, students are expected to repeat most of it in the first two years of university as part of an academic core curriculum, because educational accreditation agencies want to turn out "well-rounded" students. In effect, the US Bachelor of Arts is about as valuable as a high school diploma, with all real specialisation (except for things like nursing schools) taking place in post-undergraduate study.

One thing trying to put my son into school as a new resident of the UK has done is made me a vocal opponant of "school choice," since here it really does mean that the school has all the choice, and parents and students have very little. But that's a whole 'nother rant. ;-)
hmmm_tea
13th Jan, 2006 09:08 (UTC)
Must admit I don't know a lot about the American system.

allowing secondary school kids to focus on what they are good at and want to learn more about.

Yes, that's a good thing, but it all depends on what they are good at and whether it's in the National Curriculum.

I'm sure there are plenty of arguments against this philosophy, which enables students to specialise earlier

I must admit I like the Baccalaureate idea, which seems to allow specialisation, whilst promoting breadth. It also looks to tie things together better.

The partitioning of knowledge into separate subjects is very artificial, even if it is necessary to allow children to explore all it's different aspects. There is definitely a need to tie it all together so that Children can see how the jigsaw fits together. The numeracy and literacy across the curriculum seems to follow this idea, but why limit it to just numeracy and literacy. And now I'm getting onto another separate rant...
atreic
13th Jan, 2006 13:48 (UTC)
I honestly think that by secondary school level the range of children's abilities is too wide for useful teaching to occur in a non-set environment. I will talk about maths, because I think this is most blindingly true in maths (I can see that in a more arts-subject you can ask an open-ended question and receive a range of responses at different depths, and although I still feel setting is a good thing there it definitely seems a less clear cut case) By yr 7, you will have children who have not mastered basic arithmatic, and children who are perfectly capable of learning algebra. What are you supposed to teach them if they are all in the same class? Teach over the heads of the less able kids so they never get anywhere? Not streach the brighter kids by only teaching stuff everyone can do? Or have the whole class doing different stuff from worksheets, and use the teacher as a 1-1 resource that everyone gets to spend 2 minutes a lesson with?

hmmm_tea
13th Jan, 2006 20:56 (UTC)
I will talk about maths

That's interesting, because having trained as a maths teacher most of the research I was refering to was for maths...

Maths is very much open to investigation through open ended tasks and in my opinion this isn't used enough. Setting encourages teachers to set tasks aimed at one particular level rather than tasks which can be attempted at a variety of abilities, which is one of the big problems!

you will have children who have not mastered basic arithmatic

...and yet I am also crap at arithmatic and have a (fairly good) cambridge maths degree, so can this really be a meaningful assessment of mathematical ability?
chess
14th Jan, 2006 11:41 (UTC)
I'm confused at why you don't like setting. It appears to be a generally held opinion amongst 'intelligent' people (i.e. those who did well at school) that setting is a good thing. I certainly think it is. Anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly shows that non-set subjects provide a middle-of-the-road education.

That means high achievers are bored and misbehave and sometimes lose their love of learning altogether because they are made to do several hundred really boring problems that they already know how to do and are told off when they try and do something more advanced because the teacher hadn't prepared for that (because they had an awful lot to prepare for the majority of the class).

Low-achievers are bored and misbehave and can't even start attempting the problems set and give up in disgust because they can't make a little progress to feel better about themselves.

Whereas classes catering for the ends of the bell curve mean that you have a good solid education for everyone - the teacher of the high set can concentrate on making sure that they have enough high-end material and are prepared to answer questions, the teacher of the low set can make sure they provide enough small victories that their class doesn't get upset and give up, and the teacher of the middle set doesn't have to spend disproportionate amounts of time with those who their lesson doesn't really fit.

People don't do 'open-ended investigative tasks' because in general it seems teachers don't have *time* to prepare complicated multi-layered problems and work out what the answers at various levels should be.

Also, people compare themselves against other people in their class. If you're in a mixed ability class, low achievers get discouraged because they feel they can't ever catch up with their classmates (sometimes manifesting jealousy in the form of misbehaviour) and high achievers get complacent because they are way better than everyone else and hence obviously don't need to listen or do any work (and get bored and act up).

Um. I might be rambling, but I feel quite strongly that heavily setted classes are absolutely the correct solution in education, and I would like to hear a coherant argument about why they aren't so I can refine my viewpoint.
hmmm_tea
14th Jan, 2006 12:06 (UTC)
Setting by it's very nature encourages the view that all people in a particular set are of the same ability level, which is wrong.

Research in fact shows the problems you highlight as occuring more in setted classes.

because they are made to do several hundred really boring problems that they already know how to do

That's just fundamentally bad teaching practice and can and does happen in any environment mixed ability or otherwise. Lesson plans have to be flexible and you have to accept in any situation that students may get to the point where they are happy with the concept you're covering and can start considering how to develop it further. This has to be allowed for in your planning no matter what the range of ability may be.

Low-achievers are bored and misbehave and can't even start attempting the problems set

See above

Also, people compare themselves against other people in their class.

This happens in a setted situation too, in fact it's even worse there, because you get the interset comparisons. ie he's brighter than me because he's in a higher set or I'm in the bottom set so am never going to be good at anything.

coherant argument about why they aren't so I can refine my viewpoint.

There's a large number of papers on it in the education faculty library.

Actually, I should have the essay I wrote on it somewhere.
chess
14th Jan, 2006 16:52 (UTC)
That confuses me, because I would have thought that being a teacher would be easier if I only had to set problems in one ability range per lesson. (Maths seems to be heavily taught from textbooks, making it mostly a matter of 'all these people are working from this textbook, those people are working from that textbook, so wouldn't it be easier if they were in different lessons to minimise context-switching?' in my experience (as a student and as a teaching assistant with the Stimulus screen).
hmmm_tea
14th Jan, 2006 16:55 (UTC)
Maths seems to be heavily taught from textbooks

Another thing I have serious issues with...

It doesn't need to be and how do you expect to enthuse children with maths by just giving them a book and telling them to get on with it.

There's a lot more to maths than repetative exercises...
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