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To stream or not to stream

Choosing between secondary schools

Every so often we all make decisions that keep us awake at night.  For me, last month, it was the decision on which secondary school our second child should go to.  And the choice was one I never thought I'd find difficult.  It was between the excellent school that my eldest attends (School A) which sets pupils for maths, and another school (B)  that doesn't.

School A gets great results, is over-subscribed, and pupils there seem happy.  School B is only a year old and hasn't even been built yet.  For the moment it has only rudimentary facilities on a temporary site, and no science lab.  We went on the tour of it just to find out what school options were on offer. 

The Head Teacher of School B was impressive but during questions one thing made me uncomfortable: he said that he did not believe in putting children into ability groups, not even in maths. Most research, he said, points to the fact that streaming and setting leads to worse results for most pupils, and the reason why it is the norm in UK schools is because that is what teachers are used to and what parents expect.

I was sceptical.  In my head all I could picture was being in a class where some children already 'get' quadratic equations while others are still struggling with decimal points.  With the wrong teacher I can imagine this resulting in dull, compromise lessons. And there's my own history - I went to a highly selective school, which then streamed further according to how we did in the exams at the end of what is now called Year 7 (the first year of secondary school).  I did well in that system.

I started doing lots of research.  This included asking a friend who knows a lot about maths education for his view on streaming: "I very much believe in mixed ability classes - but what I'd do for my own child...I'm not sure".  Thanks a bunch!!

And yet when it came to deciding which school to put at the top of our list we have put School B. Our child felt it was a better fit (that's my word not theirs) - and so did we.


A lot of it was based on hunches.  Parents of the first year's intake say their children are loving it.  The Head Teacher is passionate and has high expectations of pupils.  And then there are the teachers. These are teachers who have chosen to work at a school where they have to create a department from scratch.  They - and the early intake years that they teach - are pioneering.  It's both exciting and a little scary.

Maybe the fact that there are only rudimentary science facilities isn't a bad thing - for the time being, anyway.  Sometimes being deprived of props and equipment forces you to be more imaginative in the way you do things.  (And when the school is built, in a couple of years time, no doubt there will be lots of excitement at all the new toys that they suddenly have at their disposal). 

And setting/not-setting? I'm still convinced it depends a lot (like so many things) on the teacher, but I can imagine how, in maths, my particular child could thrive in a mixed ability environment.  In any case in terms of choosing schools, among the many factors to take into account, setting/not-setting in maths is not the most critical one.

There's no particular ideology driving me here.  I can imagine situations where we might have felt that a selective grammar or an independent school was the best option.  This exercise has made me realise that deciding on schools depends so much on the school and on the child in question.  

I want my children to have a good, rounded education, to be challenged and stimulated, to leave school with lots of doors still open, and to be happy along the way.  The same as most parents.

Have we made the right decision? Time will tell.