The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

3 September 2005

Form follows functionality

A British secondary school is taking the radical step of grouping students by ability instead of by age, reports the Guardian:

The 1,100 pupils starting the new academic year at Bridgemary community school in Gosport, Hampshire — still regarded by some as the local sink school — were for the first time being taught in mixed-age classes for every subject.

Pupils have been assessed through a series of internal and externally validated tests to determine their entry to one of five levels of ability which match a government-agreed framework, and will be subjected to monitoring.

In some cases extremely able 12-year-olds are beginning GCSE courses alongside pupils two years older — at level two. Each child has been given an individual learning programme attached to a timetable, with the new arrangements designed to cater for different abilities.

"GCSE" expands to "General Certificate of Secondary Education," formerly known familiarly as "O-levels". The student must take a GCSE exam in each core subject, usually after the 11th year of school, before further progress can be made.

Bridgemary has been on the British equivalent of a Needs Improvement list, and the new regimen seems to be helping somewhat:

Four years ago, just four months after Mrs [Cheryl] Heron took over, the school was declared by Ofsted to have serious weaknesses. This year 33% of its youngsters got five or more GCSEs at the top grades of A-C — an 8% improvement on last year's figure of 25% — but below the national average.

And there will be more of this, says Mrs Heron:

Age differences within individual classes — at this stage involving a margin of up to two years — are likely to become more pronounced as the new system becomes more established, Mrs Heron said. GCSEs are typically taken by year 11 pupils at age 16 but at Bridgemary last year they were passed with flying colours by year 9s (in PE) and year 10s (in [Information and Communication Technology]). The school is also keen to encourage youngsters to take the wide range of modular exams now available at any time of year when they are ready for them.

The association for secondary-school heads seems to approve:

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "Our education system is too age-related and this is reflected in the way the league tables are about the peformance of 16-year-olds and fail to reflect good results by pupils a year later. Moving away from an age-related system can have benefits. Colleges commonly have mixed age classes and I think more and more schools will be experimenting with with mixed age classes."

Of course, somebody had to object to this sort of thing:

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "There are dangers that social difficulties can arise when you mix 11-year-olds with 15-year-olds. For example, if a 15-year-old was sent down to work with 11-year-olds that could lead to a serious loss of self-esteem and would be seen by peers as a sign of failure."

To which Erin O'Connor replies:

The Guardian does not mention whether Sinnott had anything to say about the damage — not only to one's self-esteem, but also to one's prospects in life — of not placing struggling students in level-appropriate classes where they can acquire the skills and knowledge that they lack.

Aside to Bob Moore, superintendent, Oklahoma City Public Schools: You ban the word "self-esteem" from all school correspondence from this day forward, and I promise faithfully to support any and all millage increases for the district, now and forever, so long as the ban remains in effect.

Posted at 1:00 PM to Almost Yogurt

I'm with you on the self-esteem issue. The Cleveland School System has done such a good job of inculcating self-esteem in the students that they confidently drop out at a 50 percent rate. They've got oogats of self-esteem, but not a whit of knowledge.

Posted by: Mike at 4:45 PM on 3 September 2005