Education! Education! Education!

By Liam Quinn

The education system in the UK is clearly not perfect. The evidence of this is abundantly clear, we have over 1m young people unemployed, many with no or little qualifications or real skills for the working world. So how do we change this?

One radical idea would be to overhaul how we place students in classes. Currently classes are essentially determined by what year you were born in. Anybody born between September 2002 to July 2003 are placed in a Year group. For some reason, it has only just dawned on me how bizarre this notion is. Here’s what Shadow Secretary for Education, Stephen Twigg said on the matter earlier this year:

“On a conceptual level, many schools are still organised like factories. The workers down tools when they hear the bell ring, and are strictly separated into production lines, focused on building the constituent parts of knowledge, maths, science etc. At the same time, students are rigidly separated. Taught in batches, not by ability or interest, but by their own date of manufacture.”

“Taught in batches” seems to ring very true. Why do we teach people based on their age? In what part of the working world are people separated by age, not ability?

It is high time that we change this structure and begin classing people by ability. In my own education I was moved into “Year 6” classes when I was in “Year 4” to help keep me interested, and it worked, so why doesn’t every school do it?

Classes based on ability would help everybody. More intelligent students could be placed in classes with students on their intellectual level and pushed further than they are now, without the distractions of students who either a) don’t want to be there b) don’t understand the topics, and therefore act as a distraction. This could really help our brightest students and stop their progress from being stunted which occurs far too often in our current system.

It also works towards helping students who are “less intelligent.” They are no longer in classes with students who find subjects easy, which can be demoralising for students (I’m sure everybody can understand that feeling, when you are struggling and the person next to you finds the task a breeze.) They would also be given more attention by teachers who can help them progress. “Less intelligent” students also suffer from distractions from other students, I admit that when I was in school I was a distraction for many, when I finished work I’d mess around, because I didn’t have anything else to do. We need to keep students of all abilities fully engaged with education.

The only drawback would be the social side of things, which is why I would suggest that this idea would be for secondary schools only. There should be no stigma in being in higher/lower classes, it is a harsh reality, that some students are brighter than others. That doesn’t mean they are better than other students. Not everybody can get an A*, but everybody should be able to aspire to achieve the best they can.

It would also be tailored for individual subjects, so just because a student is good at Maths, doesn’t mean they should be placed in higher classes in English.

We already have “sets” within Year groups, and I believe it is high time to open the education system up. Classes by ability, not age.

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4 thoughts on “Education! Education! Education!

  1. Why doesn’t every school do it? Because most schools can’t. Its an interesting idea but doesn’t strike me as particularly feasible.

  2. Stephen Twigg’s quote is suspiciously similar to this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U) at around the 6.45. The video is really worth watching and brings up a lot of thought provoking ideas about how to completely shake up the eduction system.

    “It would also be tailored for individual subjects, so just because a student is good at Maths, doesn’t mean they should be placed in higher classes in English.”

    I totally agree but is it really a problem at the minute? That’s exactly how it did work at my school.

  3. Asides the impracticalities, the main issue is social cohesion. The risk of a system like this is that for those at the very bottom, there’s not even a hint of structural “progression” or the ability to establish relationships with people the same age as you. What’s more demoralising; being in a class with smart people your age who you know you’re not as clever as, but who can at least help you out from time to time, or in a class of (mostly) much younger pupils at the same “level” as you?

    As someone who agrees with streaming, even I have to acknowledge that the limits of a heavily stratified system at the primary and secondary levels of education on the basis of ability.

    The answer for the ability differential problem is to have, dare I say it, tiered qualifications. We do this in Scotland. In our equivalent of GCSEs, you start out with a course, and if you’re strong at it you’ll take the “Intermediate 2” (one level below our Highers) but if you really struggle you might sit the Intermediate 1 instead later on, and take the Intermediate 2 a year later when you would otherwise have done Higher. Michael Gove’s suggestion to bring back an O-level type system is, ironically given the criticism he’s received, exactly the sort of thing being done by the Scottish education system, typified by its obsession with comprehensive schooling!

    The reality is that schools do stratify whether you structure it or not, and kids tend to do better in environments with people of similar age, both socially and academically. Where you make the difference is in changing the attitudes to the way we do education so that, whilst the best and brightest are given their chance to shine without being unduly held back, the support mechanisms for those who aren’t academically gifted are there so they can still make something from what they have.

  4. It is quite feasible. I taught in a large primary school where children were grouped by ability for English. At 9 o’clock every morning, everyone went to their appointed class and did 90 minutes of English. Every eight weeks everyone was re-assessed, and moved up or down. So yes – there were six-year-olds and ten-year-olds working together (in some cases because the younger ones were very bright, in some cases because the older ones were not so bright). Not a problem. Technically, we could have followed the same plan for maths, science, etc.

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