Streaming in schools decides futures at age five

Opinion: Ability streaming makes it impossible for those in lower groups to ever catch up and strips them of motivation and self-belief, writes Christine Rubie-Davies.

New Zealand has one of the highest ability-grouping rates in the OECD. Photo: iStock

Ability grouping is a pernicious and persistent factor of the New Zealand education system. It ensures that the social structure is maintained and by default jeopardises the future of much of our population. We are long overdue for a change to a system of mixed ability grouping that has proven efficacy internationally. So, what do we know about ability grouping and why does ability grouping, which is so ingrained in New Zealand education, not work?

In New Zealand, we have one of the highest ability-grouping rates in the OECD (only Ireland is ahead of us) and we have one of the largest disparities between our highest and lowest achievers. Further, as we are often informed, New Zealand continues to slip down the international achievement tables. None of this is a coincidence, nor a surprise.

In countries that only use mixed ability grouping, the differences in performance between their highest and lowest achievers are very small – and these countries score much higher than us in the international comparisons. A recent OECD report stated that the two factors that most predicted high levels of achievement were the degree to which students were taught in mixed ability groupings and the opportunity they were given to learn.

The opportunity to learn is the crux of the ability-grouping debate. In New Zealand, when students arrive at primary school, at five years of age, within a very short time they are assigned to an ability group for reading, mathematics, writing, and sometimes other subjects as well. The ability group that students are placed into at age six predicts the stream that students end up in when they move to secondary school, and the stream that students are in at secondary school plays a large part in the future direction of students when they leave school. Many students currently have no opportunity to move into university or to have their dream fulfilled of pursuing a profession. Much of this is down to opportunity to learn.

As soon as students are put into different ability groups, they are taught different things. What students learn in the top stream at secondary school is very different from what students in the bottom stream are taught. Similarly, the various reading, mathematics or writing groups that students are in at primary school will each be taught different things. We should not be surprised then that if students are taught different things, they learn different things.

Over time, these differences become exacerbated so that, as time goes by, it becomes more and more impossible for the students in the lowest groups to ever catch up. On the other hand, in overseas studies, when students have been taken from the bottom groups and placed in higher streams, by the end of the year, they are achieving at the same level as, and often out-performing, their peers.

Further, although many parents of high achievers are in favour of ability grouping, there is actually no conclusive evidence that the best performers do any worse when they are taught in mixed ability groupings. In contrast, I remember Professor John Hattie (director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute, University of Melbourne) about a decade ago now, finding that no matter what the decile of the school, Māori and Pasifika were always largely located in the lowest ability groups. A secondary teacher once put that very succinctly, “As you go down the streams, the students get browner.” Is this the kind of future we want for New Zealand?

I am certainly not saying that all students should go to university, but what I am saying is that all students should have the opportunity to go to university. They should be able to have a choice in their future.

Currently, many students, despite their dreams, are advised to take low-level maths or science courses at secondary school because the NCEA courses that would lead them to university are much too hard. They then find that they cannot go on to university from school. Their future has been largely pre-determined by well-meaning teachers also caught in a system that, by secondary school, has created large disparities in achievement among students.

In addition, when primary school students are put into an ability group for, let’s say, reading, it doesn’t matter if we call the groups bananas, apricots, pears or apples, the students know where they are in the hierarchy. Just imagine at five years of age, you are in the bottom group; you are still there when you are nine and then move into the bottom stream again in secondary school. Is it any wonder that students with this experience give up on school and leave early? Where is their future? It’s no surprise that they lose self-belief and motivation. Wouldn’t you?

Professor Christine Rubie-Davies is from the School of Learning, Development and Professional Practice in the Faculty of Education. She is recognised around the world for her research into the role of teacher expectations in student learning.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Streaming in schools decides futures at age five 27 June 2021.

Media queries

Alison Sims | Research Communications Editor
09 923 4953
Mob 021 249 0089