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Conference 2018: To stream or not to stream? That is the question

Samantha Lane, Joint NUT Rep at WQE1 6th Form College
11th April 2018

One aspect of going to conference is the opportunity to discuss and debate issues. One of these was Motion 21 on 'A National Education Service'. The motion calls upon the JEC of the NEU to consult and campaign for a National Education Service ensuring a fully comprehensive system that encourages collaboration and democratic control.

One amendment suggested the motion goes further, opposing selective education, setting and streaming in state schools. Some speakers suggested that we cannot accept this amendment because setting and streaming is an integral part of our education system, and as yet we have not had this discussion. This is despite the fact that setting and streaming have been discussed for decades. The NUT's own website from 2014 states the negative impacts of setting and streaming.

The idea that children have a mainly fixed and inherited intelligence was based upon research by Cyril Burt, which led to the development of grammar schools and selective education via the 11-plus. The findings have long since been found out to be falsified, yet the principal on which education is based is still in force.

We now know that environmental experiences and education has just as much impact on intelligence and success.

We also know that our brains have high plasticity, especially in childhood, which means every child should have equal opportunities in education.

Both setting and streaming leads to labelling of children, who are acutely aware of this implicit or even explicit segregation, whether overall or subject-specific. There are many articles highlighting the issues of psychological effects of labelling, on confidence and social mobility.

A Guardian article by Melissa Benn Streaming primary school pupils labels them for life highlighted these issues in 2008.

There are also examples of schools who have fostered a Learning Without Limits, rejecting the labelling of ability and exploring the positive consequences of a more progressive view of human potential.

An NFER publication from 1998 by Laura Sukhnanden highlights (on page 60) the mixed evidence and the implications of the review of research on setting and streaming.

An EEF review in 2018 of research indicates that only certain subgroups may benefit from setting, but even then there are issues with the validity of the evidence that suggests this. One of these issues is that often more experienced teachers are assigned the higher level groups in setting or streaming, thus leaving less experienced or less specialised teachers educating the lower attainers. Where setting occurs, it often results in a lack of flexibility -- students can't change sets as ability changes; or the problem of incorrect identification of ability occurs.

Using high-stakes summative testing data may be considered to give objective measurements but this does not mean valid identification of ability in any one subject area. Even if there are benefits for the fewer high achievers, they are at the cost of the majority. When comparing the outcomes from setting in particular subject areas e.g. Maths, English and Science, there was no significant effect.

It is suggested that both setting and streaming can in fact increase the SES effect in education and causes further social segregation. They also create artificial limits on student outcomes and progress. This in turn creates self-fulfilling prophecies and may lead to greater dissatisfaction with education, says a PsychBrief article (Ability grouping of students doesn't work).

I am highly opposed to selection, setting and streaming in education. Perhaps we should be revisiting this discussion and take action to shape the future of education?


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