Streaming in schools: being a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big one

“Luckily my child is in all the top sets.” Are you a beneficiary of streaming? Is your child an elite student? All good then? Sure. But what happens to those in the lower sets, or low and behold, the bottom sets? When you realise your child’s education may have some holes in it?

The top academic set in any year group of any school will not exceed 20-30% of the total cohort, leaving 70% to 80% in the proverbial lurch. Not least because often the best available teachers are allocated to the top sets (and they prefer to be). This makes the top academic sets the de-facto elite group of any school, a status that is mostly maintained by pupils and teachers as it does become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Not being in the top 20%, leaves the majority of the cohort to find a way to lift their non-elite status by working hard (er) and trying to make it to the top. But that is, say some educators, “next to impossible” as – once they are allocated to their sets - pupils start defining themselves as either ‘smart’, ‘average’ or, worse, ‘dumb’ - descriptions that they will carry with them into the future and which can have a detrimental effect on self-esteem and confidence. But not all is lost, as was made evident in the controversial 2020 A-level algorithm results: a pupil at the bottom of the top set in Math was potentially allocated an A, whereas the top person in the next set down was allocated an A*. A typical case of artificial intelligence taking a computerised approach of awarding only top grades to the top performers in each set.

Of course, not all pupils aim for the top academic groups and some, especially those with many other interests, could possibly be content with being where they are as they derive ‘status’ from doing well in their other – non-academic – activities. However, being in the bottom set at any school is, not surprisingly, demotivating for most pupils.

Multiple studies into streaming have shown that streaming only really benefits pupils in the top groups. But should not all pupils get the same level of education and not get stuck in the lower echelons with less demanding teachers who typically, have lower expectations of them? A continued research project into streaming and teachers’ expectations conducted between 2008 and 2018 demonstrates that “when teachers set high expectations, their students follow suit. Students can also follow suit when teachers set low expectations.” This is not hard to believe as we all know how difficult, if not impossible, it is to change someone’s opinion of us, even more so if this person is a teacher. However, a school worth its weight should actually allocate the best teacher to the bottom set. This is a certainly a question for parents to ask their (prospective) school.

Not being part of the top 20% elite group in any school is even more acute in fee-paying schools - where those in the bottom academic groups, although they pay the exact same tuition fees, perhaps are unable to benefit from the overall academic excellence of their school. Problems for example arise in VERY academically selective schools where the school wants or can only present their very top tier to Oxbridge and/or US Ivy League colleges, taking the possibility to apply to top universities away from other, perfectly able, pupils in the lower sets.

Prospective parents are therefore advised to carefully consider their child’s ability and personality when selecting a school, as one would ideally want – as least in schools where academic streaming is applied – to make it into the top of the cohort, because you will get much more bang for your buck. At times therefore a smaller, less academically competitive school could result in a much better educational outcome: rather than being a small fish in big pond, and have a below par experience, your child could be a big fish in a small pond. And the latter is quite a happy place to be. Expectations, expectations….

Recommended links:

Alvidrez & Weinstein, 1999; Weinstein, 2002, 2008