Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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The Quandary - 15 Jan 2009

Should you stream children or have mixed-ability classes? The schools near us all do it differently.

Hillary's Advice

Research from around the world shows there is no clear-cut answer to this, no matter what education hardliners -- on both sides Ė would like us to think. When children are divided up by their ability the achievement gap between the different groups tends to get bigger over time. Bright children do well out of it, but the less able suffer.

In contrast, mixed-ability classes are better for more students, although the higher-ability ones do not do as well as they would if they were separated off.

However the disadvantages of grouping by ability can be moderated if pupils are not separated out into broad overall ability bands but only grouped by ability for specific subjects, or within a mixed-ability classroom, and these looser kinds of divisions are, in fact, what most schools now opt for.

Itís also vital that all ability groups have the same teachers, and that those teachers have the same high expectations for all the students they teach. In a fully streamed school the best teachers often teach the top sets, while the lowest band of pupils only gets the staffroom dregs.

For parents like you, who are looking around for a good secondary school for your child, it is as important to try and get a feeling for whether teachers are committed to getting the best out of all their pupils, as it is to look at the schoolís formal setting and streaming policies. It is also important that the school can explain to you exactly why it has chosen the policies that is has.