Andrew Dickens: Streaming telling kids they're not good enough

I'm telling you this story after a top educator has said that streaming is dragging our education system down. Photo / Jason Oxenham
I'm telling you this story after a top educator has said that streaming is dragging our education system down. Photo / Jason Oxenham

You start off in 3B and end up in 3E - that's the Grammar School slide.

I started at Auckland Grammar School in 1976. In those days DJ Graham was the Head and we did things the hard way. In the first week as a third former - or a turd as the rest of the school knew us - we all sat exams. Basic Maths, English and Comprehension.

Based on those results we got put into classes, the process called streaming. So I must have done quite well because I was put into 3B, the second to top class. We all knew exactly where we stood. 3A were the smartest. 3E were the average, and then there were the boys in 3K. We all knew just how smart they were and they knew just how smart we thought they were too. It's fair to say that the lads in 3K weren't to be trifled with.

At the end of the first term we all sat exams again. In fact at Grammar you had exams at the end of every term so by the time you hit School C you were a hardened veteran.

After those results the teachers ranked every boy and drew a line after every 30th lad and put you into a new class. That's when my Grammar School slide started. I went down a class to 3C. Mum and Dad weren't very pleased. Dad called it the Grammar School slide because he knew all about it. It had happened to him too.

Now all of this didn't worry me a bit until I got to School C where it was revealed that only the top 2 classes could do 6 subjects, and everyone else could only do 5. Only 60 kids out of nearly 400 could do 6 subjects. It upset me greatly because I knew I could do 6 - as it was I passed all 5 with an average in the 80s.

But the school had decided I was only good for 5 and that was that. It made the school average look great too by the way.

When it came to the 7th form only the top 2 classes were allowed to do Scholarship exams. That's when it came home to roost, because not having a chance to try for the higher honours actually ruled me out of some tertiary study.

I'm telling you this story after a top educator has said that streaming is dragging our education system down. Professor John Hattie was commenting in the NZ Herald after an international survey of education showed our 15 year old's maths scores have dropped by more than any other developed nation over the past 17 years. There's a similar story in reading and science scores.

He says New Zealand has more streaming than anywhere else in the world. The problem he says is that teachers are arbitrarily deciding who has the goods to make it or not. He's bang on, and it's wrong.

Here we have top, middle and bottom streams. The top students are pushed, but in many schools those in the middle are not exposed to the hard stuff. They cruise through a course that's too easy for them and they become complacent.

Meanwhile those at the bottom have been written off as soon as they're streamed. The evidence is in our declining averages and yet our smartest are amongst the smartest in the world. Streaming fails the middle and bottom kids, who should be able to see for themselves how much a smart kid does to be smart and be given a chance to pull themselves up.

It's not right. We complain about helicopter parents but this is helicopter education. It's educators hiding kids from challenge.

Sure, have some classes for the exceptionally gifted and classes for those that need more help. But to stream us is to say give up on aiming for the stars mate, we've already decided you're not good enough, and that's not good enough.

- NZ Herald

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