Personally Speaking

If mixed-ability teaching groups are such a good thing, why are our children - the `Keenoboffs' and the `Psychos' - losing out?
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The Independent Online
"So how's school?" I asked Laura. She shrugged. "All right. Except we've a group of psychos in our class, so most of the lesson time is wasted while the teacher tries to keep them quiet. And when the teachers ask us questions, if we put our hands up, the psychos start yelling at us and calling us keenoboffs."

"Keenoboffs?"

"Keen boffins, you know."

"What about the teachers?" I inquired, "Do you like them?"

"I don't know. They're all so stressed at dealing with the psychos that it's difficult to see what they're really like." Laura smiled. "I wish they'd dump all the psychos together in one class so we could get on with our work."

So do I. For years we've been told that mixed-ability teaching is best because the bright ones benefit from helping the less able, and the less able don't feel the stigma of belonging to the bottom division. This is rubbish. Children are unnervingly shrewd at sizing up the academic pecking order and don't need to be streamed to know how well they're doing.

In a class of widely differing abilities, the less able feel even LESS able when they sit next to their brighter peers. Subsequently they display frustration and anger. Result: no one learns anything.

If a child can't believe that he is capable of improvement, he won't improve. If, around him, he sees children of his age performing apparently impossible tasks with consummate ease he'll designate himself a thicko and act accordingly.

Laura's school happens to be a large and well-respected comprehensive. It boasts excellent facilities and a bullish headmaster who talks with impressive charisma about his determination to eradicate bad behaviour. I know Laura's mother has complained about the rampant indiscipline in her daughter's class. I also know that nothing appears to have been done.

If I sound unduly alarmed it's because I am. My own daughter is due to go to this school in September. She and I already know more than we wish to about the problem of children who don't want to learn. A new boy arrived in her class last term. He swears at all the teachers, he hits children without provocation, he talks loudly and incessantly during lessons. The class has been asked to show patience to the child on the grounds that he has behavioural difficulties.

I can't help thinking that it's asking an awful lot of 12-year-old children to watch with sage detachment while the boy treats all and sundry with utter disdain and without apparent retribution. I know the class well. They're a likeable bunch of children. It is sad to see some of the more impressionable children begin to follow the newcomer's lead.

I never fail to be impressed by the patience and enduring humanity shown by my daughter's teachers to some of the more confused and unhappy children in their care. But I just wonder whether, in their determination to help such children remain in the system - a laudable goal, certainly - they are not being rather too cavalier with the aspirations and education of the many pupils who do behave well and who DO wish to learn.

There is a solution. Every school, both primary and comprehensive, could employ an experienced teacher as a full-time discipline troubleshooter. Whenever a child, despite repeated warnings, continued to behave in a disruptive manner, he or she would be sent down to a discipline room where he (or she) would be given extra work under the supervision of the troubleshooter.

In such a system, teachers would not have to spend their time trying to instruct ill-behaved children in basic social skills. They would be able to do what they are trained to do: teach.

The troubleshooters would need to be well-paid for their expertise. No problem. Vast sums of money are currently spent on employing supply teachers to take over from members of staff who are collapsing under the stresses and strains of their work. If you take the hell out of teaching you give teachers back their sanity, their health, and their enthusiasm.

It doesn't surprise me at all that a recent study of students attending a leading British university showed that many of them were poor at basic arithmetic, grammar and general knowledge. In schools throughout the land the Keenoboffs are generally quiet, polite and patient while the Psychos are loud, aggressive and manipulative.

Is it any wonder then that, all too often, the Keenoboffs are simply reduced to trying to educate themselves amid the general mayhem? Our young - ALL our young - deserve better than this.

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