‘I felt my school wrote me off at five’

Image copyright Sean Macnamara
Image caption Now a deputy head, Sean Macnamara says his education had been damaged by streaming

Sean Macnamara was put on “the oblong table” for low-ability pupils when this individual was still in reception.

No-one told Sean and his friend Billy what getting “an oblong” meant – however they knew.

Sensible lads like Matthew and John (Sean still remembers their names) were on higher-ability tables.

Sean believes the particular oblong-table pupils were set up in order to fail from the outset.

“We just used to fool around and be really juvenile and we did not achieve anywhere near our possible.

“And I don’t believe that’s because we were of lower ability.

“Lots of us are now successful in different locations but in school it was almost like i was written off. ”

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Sean is now Mister Macnamara, deputy head of a major school in Lewisham, south eastern London.

He admits that he got there almost by chance and certainly not because of his earlier experiences in school.

Struggling in the bottom set, Sean hated reading, and when a instructor asked him if he loved taking a book home to read every week, he said: “No”.

Rather than force it, the lady decided to stop the books till Sean was ready – however the effect was to reinforce his detrimental view of himself.

“Even at that age you’re aware of what’s going on around you.

“Every week everybody else would change their reading textbooks but I didn’t need to alter mine because I didn’t have one main.

“I think it is extremely much like a snowball.

“It starts small. It shouldn’t have much of an impact but as time passes it grows and perpetuates before you find yourself in Year 10, in the bottom level set, with a predicted grade of the D for English. ”

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Sean failed to get good grades at GCSE but excelled at creative topics and did a degree in item design.

Soon after he decided not to go into industry, choosing instead for a postgraduate certificate within primary education.

Following a couple of years he decided teaching might be a lifelong career.

“So I might as well try and understand as much about the craft as I may and be the best that I can be. inch

He proceeded to go part-time and embarked on an postgraduate degree in education at University or college College London’s Institute of Training but he was plagued by low self-esteem about his own abilities.

“I felt I did not fit in. I didn’t belong. inch

Looking back again, he says he can trace it all to the oblong table.

In his dissertation he discovered the impact of ability collection on pupils’ wellbeing and achievement and his research shed new lighting on his own story.

“It opened a whole world We didn’t know existed. ”

The bottom team

The previous academic documents he read to research his dissertation suggested that his own bad encounters of ability grouping were not even close to unusual.

Research after study suggested that in the bottom group actually deters understanding.

And when this individual came to do his own research along with pupils in the school he had been then teaching in, their reactions left him “devastated”.

“Children spoke of being pressurized. One boy told me that when this individual was moved down a group, this individual couldn’t speak to his mum ‘for a couple of weeks’.

“Another boy spoke about sensation trapped – and it was throughout the spectrum.

“Before I carried out the research I would possess assumed that children who were around the top-ability tables would be having the situations of their lives and it was simply us oblongs who didn’t enjoy it… but what I found was, whether or not children were on the top tables, the center tables or the bottom tables, there was clearly this universal feeling of stress… related to that there was a fear of failing. ”

A few children even rejected extra assistance because they feared it showed these people couldn’t do the work and so will be moved down a group, ” states Mr Macnamara.

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Disturbed by what he discovered, he tried to get senior administration at the school to agree to allow him to trial mixed-ability teaching in his course – but the head vetoed the concept.

Dr Eleanore Hargreaves, who supervised his dissertation, herself an expert in the effects of capability grouping, says the vast majority of primary students in England are categorised according to their particular attainment in maths and composing and labelled by their schools appropriately.

In England, the girl says, streaming became widespread using the introduction of national assessment testing in the 1990s.

Supporters of ability grouping, like John Blake, head of schooling at the Policy Exchange think container, believe grouping children who need additional help “to provide such support” is perfectly sensible.

He says that, provided it really is clear to teachers why the particular division has been made and the additional assistance required is given, there is no cause such grouping should be bad for kids.

But Dr Hargreaves warns that whenever pupils are dubbed low capability, it’s tempting for them to give up plus decide that schooling and understanding are not for them.

She argues that the concept of “innate” ability is highly disputable.

“‘Talent’ is often the result solely of intensive hard work and others’ encouragement, ” she says.

“Certain children have more encouragement at school than other people; and certain subjects get more focus.

“For instance, teachers can tailor their training better to pupils from homes such as their own and may not be able to associate so well to children through poorer families or those through different cultural backgrounds.

‘Teaching to the top’

Last September, Mister Macnamara took a promotion as a mouthpiece head at a school which will not use ability grouping.

Instead, he says, they “teach to the top” with all children within a class given the same tasks and people who struggle offered extra assistance to access the same work.

Ability grouping, where several children are given different or simpler tasks risks them never knowing key parts of the curriculum and not reaching the required standard, he states.

The school’s latest Ofsted report backed this tactic but Mr Macnamara says he or she finds it frustrating that so many major schools are still wedded to capability grouping.

“It is just so endemic. It’s therefore entrenched that even to query it is heresy, ” he says.

“It’s almost as though people don’t know what to do other than the simplistic, ‘Well, let’s teach within ability groups. ‘”

Dr Hargreaves lately began a five-year study associated with pupils put in low ability groupings aged seven. She will present information to UCL’s Festival of Lifestyle on Tuesday.

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