Life Learning

Thursday 21 August 2014

Why streaming doesn't work

Separating students along purely academic lines means that our children are not achieving their full potential

Conor Feehan

Published 31/10/2007 | 00:00

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Weaker students don't want to be seen as bottom-of-the-class and therefore push harder in mixed-ability classes

If your child finds it difficult to keep up in the classroom you might think that a separate stream, which takes things at a slower and more focused pace, would help them learn more and improve their grades.

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Similarly, if your child is really bright you may want a separate class away from the slower guys so they can learn faster.

Wrong on both counts!

A recent study into the effects of this 'streaming' has shown that students left in a mixed-ability environment actually do better than those who have been grouped according to the hierarchy of test results.

The new study, commissioned by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), shows that if you take a student out of mixed-ability education and put them in a 'slow' stream they tend to reach the level of underachievement they feel is expected of them, rather than strive to grasp the topic and rejoin the mainstream.

And having a 'fast' stream for quicker learners doesn't guarantee greater exam success either.

Putting the elite into the fast stream means students might reach the level of achievement expected of them, but it is also possible that they will settle into a sort of comfort zone and fail to challenge themselves by striving to go further.

While on paper the idea of separating students into different streams in order to better meet the learning needs of particular students might seem like a practical one, the research carried out on behalf of NCCA indicates that the natural human factors of competition and motivation play a big part in how far we push ourselves.

The practice of streaming is becoming more common in disadvantaged schools, especially with immigrant children who are struggling to navigate the choppy waters of a new language and culture.

And while anyone would be reluctant to adopt a 'throw them in at the deep end and hope they swim' mentality, there certainly seems to be a lot of good in exposing challenged students to the entire spectrum of ability, rather than putting them into a smaller pigeonhole that stunts the ambition to grow, and where they feel don't ever have to outgrow that box.

The study shows that students in lower streams perform poorly in the Junior Cert exams, and one factor in this is that students in lower-stream classes become progressively more negative about school, act-up and get given out to more, and end up drifting or becoming disengaged.

The report is no surprise to Rose Tully of the National Parent's Council. "Mixed education challenges the average and weaker students," she says. "The best system is to have a mix, because the high achievers challenge each other and others. People strive to keep up, it's just healthy competition."

Rose feels this healthy competition prevents the higher achievers from going slack because they can sense the competition from the average achievers striving to join the ranks of the elite.

And the weaker students don't want to be seen as bottom-of-the-class and therefore push that bit harder to escape being at the lower end of the scale.

"Parents increasingly want results for and from their children, and everyone ends up caught in a points race," Rose explains, talking about the negative aspects of ability-segregation.

"Then you have young people turning to grind schools, which is okay if somebody has missed out a section of education due to illness or something, but if it is for the sake of beating the points race I don't think it achieves much and only adds pressure," she adds.

Mixed-ability mobility

“The issue of streaming in schools is one with which parents have a right to be concerned. International research has indicated that it is one of the factors which influence pupil outcomes – not just academic outcomes but also personal and social development, and rates of absenteeism and drop-out,” says Dr Deirdre Raftery, Deputy Head at the School of Education and Lifelong Learning in UCD.

“Mixed-ability teaching is popular at school entry, even where schools later use streaming in preparation for the Junior Certificate examination. However, where schools use streaming from first year, it can contribute to lower educational aspirations, and can cause pupils to become disaffected with school.”

Dr Raftery, co-author of Choosing a School: Second Level Education in Ireland, also says that pupils believe that there is little mobility between streams.

“In particular, there is little upward mobility. The really disheartening situation is that some pupils who are grouped into lower streams at the start of first year may find that they will never get access to any higher-level courses throughout their junior and senior cycle education.”

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