Streaming is the grouping of pupils by academic ability. They are assessed, either before or just after their arrival in the school and their performance in that assessment test decides the class they will be in. However, most schools do not stream that rigidly in first year and many postpone any such decision until the following year. Mixed ability teaching is often used in first year with incoming pupils being assigned to a class randomly, in alphabetical order of surnames for instance.
Many schools use the assessment test results, not to segregate pupils into different levels of academic ability, but in order to ensure an appropriate mix in every class group. Banding is the system most used in the larger schools. This system is essentially a mix of the previous two, without being as extreme as either. It uses test results to divide pupils into broad ability bands.
So, in a typical year group of one hundred and fifty pupils, there would be three bands divided on the basis of academic ability. Then, within those bands, pupils would be subdivided into class groups on the basis of mixed ability. Setting means grouping pupils by ability in certain subjects. Most usually the ‘set’ subjects in schools are mathematics, English and Irish. The pupils are then in mixed ability groupings for their other subjects.
Most schools use a mixture of these systems. Mixed-ability grouping is the most popular practice at school entry, even where streaming or banding is introduced in preparation for the Junior Certificate examination. As Drudy and Lynch have noted, ‘It is usually asserted that schools stream because they believe strongly that it is in the interests of the students to do so'.
For example, those who support the use of streaming tend to argue that it leads to better outcomes for most pupils. They believe that, in a mixed-ability class, highly able pupils may be ‘held back by being grouped with slow learners’ while less able pupils may suffer because of ‘constant comparisons with higher-performing pupils’ . Schools make parents aware of their class allocation system and their reasons for adopting that system.
In our research, we asked principals whether they felt there was an optimum school size. One indicated that once the systems were in place the school either worked or it did not and this was not related to its size. On the other hand, several principals suggested that the optimum size was around six hundred pupils. The reason for this response is related to resource allocation by the Department of Education and Science.
They reckoned that, with six hundred pupils, a school can make good curricular provision, have sufficient teachers eligible for management roles and still be sufficiently small that the school community is experienced as a cohesive one by all those involved and that there is a feeling among its members that they know one another. It might be of interest to parents to know that, in terms of pupil performance in the Junior Certificate Examination, school size was found to have no significant impact. However, in terms of their child’s happiness and sense of self, school size could be important. There is no doubt that certain personality types, who might feel stifled in the small school atmosphere, would thrive in the less intimate but perhaps more varied surroundings of a large school. Other children might feel lost or even alienated in a large school and these might be happier in a smaller school.