In its 1960 Primary and secondary schools in England and Wales the Ministry of Education said this: ‘So far as possible children of the same age are assigned to the same class but, where numbers in an age-group are big enough to make up two or more classes, it is often found in junior schools (but rarely infant schools) that children are classified according to their ability in English and arithmetic. This makes possible the more rapid progress of abler children, and a more encouraging pace (sic) for slower learners.’

This is just dishonest. First of all it suggests logical links, which simply do not exist, between numbers in an age-group and organizational structure. It could be re-written thus: in small primary schools, children of the same age are taught in the same class; the shortage of teachers and of modern school buildings are factors which do indeed see to it that ‘as far as possible children of the same age are assigned to the same class’, but pressure from both teachers and public opinion imposes a maximum of some kind on the size of classes. Where the numbers of children in an age-group exceeds this maximum, they have to be divided into two or more classes.

Secondly it simply ignores the controversies raging over streaming, erects myth into doctrine, and complacently accepts the status quo. It begs every single important question: Does streaming really make possible the more rapid progress of abler children? What kind of progress? Abler in what ways? Are ability or lack of ability in certain skills at the age of seven (demonstrably conditioned by a wide variety of environmental and ‘accidental’ factors) a justifiable criterion for more or less irrevocable selection for different kinds of education, which in turn determine and limit choice of job and career? Is this educational stratification socially acceptable? What is encouraging about the education of lower streams and who is encouraged by it? Certainly not the children.

A full-scale inquiry into streaming in primary schools is now being carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research, but until its results are published and reveal as they must, finally and officially, the educationally deleterious effect of streaming, only the critics of the system can be relied on to give any kind of accurate description of the structure of the primary school. This has now been done more comprehensively than ever before, though with still inadequate resources, by Brian Jackson.footnote1

Since 1931 primary schools have been encouraged where possible to separate out children according to ‘ability’. Jackson sent questionnaires to a 1 in 3 sample of the 2,892 primary schools with more than 300 pupils (that is to say, those which faced the choice of streaming or not streaming). Of the 660 which completed these questionnaires, 96 per cent streamed; in these, 74 per cent of the children were streamed at the age of seven: 50 per cent had already been streamed in the infants’ department. Ignorance of the extent of streaming can be seen as a structural element of the system. Jackson found that experienced teachers, following a special course on streaming, under-estimated its extent by an average 20 per cent, and that their estimates ranged from the belief that all seven-year-old children were streamed to a belief that none of them were. A sample test of 81 teachers in training by Jeremy Mulford showed an average under-estimate of 40–50 per cent. A further crucial ignorance concerned the rate of transfer between streams. Actual transfers have been found by J. C. Danielsfootnote2 to occur at a rate of 6.78 per cent in the first year, 5.67 per cent in second and third years. J. W. B. Douglasfootnote3 found an average transfer rate of 2.3 per cent. On the other hand Daniels found an average estimate of transfer across streams by 173 teachers to be almost 18 per cent a year, and the parents of the top-flight primary school investigated in depth by Jackson estimated an almost 30 per cent transfer rate. (Professor Vernon has calculated that 40 per cent of primary school children ought to transfer streams.) A third of the parents of seven-year-olds in this school did not know what streaming was at all.

Streaming was supported by 85 per cent of all teachers in the 660 schools investigated, and by 91 per cent of those teaching c streams. Their reasons are sometimes thoughtful and sincere, but often terrifying: ‘Throughout industry, it is necessary to grade products’—c stream teacher, London.

The assumption behind the system is twofold. ‘Ability’ is innate; and teaching is more effective at all levels if children are separated into different ‘ability’ levels. Brian Jackson shows conclusively that both of these assumptions are irrational, and false. He correctly attacks the attempt ‘to play off’ environment against heredity. Hereditary ability is impossible to quantify. Environmental variables can be fairly accurately measured. In Jackson’s survey the ‘accidental’ factors which determine ‘ability’ include social class—in a survey of the father’s occupation of 11-year-old children in 252 three-stream schools, 58 per cent of the children of men with professional and managerial jobs went into the ‘a’ stream, 14 per cent into the c stream; 21 per cent of the children of unskilled manual workers were in the a stream; 46 per cent in the c stream, others include month of birth (d streams had twice as many summer-born as winter-born children, since the latter had profited by a longer period of infant education before the selection was made), and stability of family (Douglas shows that children of unemployed fathers can have their chances of passing 11-plus cut by 50 per cent).