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28.03.2019 Opinion

Should Schools Set by Ability?

By Nana Kwaku M Asamoah
Should Schools Set by Ability?
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Students moving ahead at a pace that matches their abilities while motivating each other because they possess similar abilities. In fact, students offer each other friendly competition which is, in itself, motivational. Teachers are able to set a suitable pace for the class and maintain that pace. Hardly any risk of leaving anyone behind. Entire class is challenged at a level gauged to be appropriate for the whole group. Is this a model school? Yes. Is this a school in Ghana? Yes. Is it a private Primary and Junior school? Yes. Does this encourage better results among students? Yes. But is this model a new approach to education in the Primary and Junior High schools? No. Do public Primary and Junior High schools employ this approach? Doubtful.

Forget the questions - let's first muse on what is happening in most public primary and junior high schools. For years, these schools have been caricatured as “set up to fail” institutions, which explains why parents including trained teachers in public schools who can afford to, decide to send their children to private basic schools. Students in public primary and junior high schools massively perform poorly at the Basic Education Certificate Examinations (BECE). These students, more often than not, can neither read nor write nor add up properly. Basic literacy and numeracy, reading skills, good writing skills, logic, rhetoric, eloquence, interpersonal and communication skills are disappointedly amiss for these students in the public primary and junior high schools. Teachers in JHS1-3 are constantly complaining that children brought through the primary section are not fittingly trained to read nor write nor add up, hence, their inability to help them before the Basic Education Certificate Examinations (BECE). And prior to the final exams, students together with their teachers are gripped with panic and desperately resort to rampant cheating techniques such as mass examination question leakages, mass cheating in exams, influencing the issuance of exam results, forged exam results and other vices in an attempt to pass the exams.

And all too often, the reasons given for the mass failure of students in the public primary and junior high schools includes lack of commitment by teachers and pupils, the inadequacy of instructional materials, lack of support from PTAs and communities, late release of Government Capitation Grants to schools, problems emanating from improper diet, students' inability to do their homework or concentrate on their studies due to frequent power outages, outdated school curriculums, bad education policies etc... Sometimes, it's even suggested that the poor results of public school students in the final exams is attributable to the poorly trained or qualified teachers who teach these students forgetting that the Government of Ghana employs more qualified graduate teachers comparatively to the private education employers. Also, problems like dilapidated school buildings, inadequate school furniture, inadequate teachers, overworked and relatively poorly remunerated teachers which are essentially associated with public primary and junior high schools clearly hasn't helped either.

But in my view, I believe one of the greatest failure of the public primary and junior high schools lies in its treatment of students. The public schools determined to provide equality in education work on the assumption that all children learn at the same pace and therefore children with mixed learning and attainment abilities are placed in the same class. This means a class will certainly almost comprise of students with a range of different skill-sets, where some students are gifted and bright with good memories, great practical skills and impressive learning skills who attain better grades whereas others are not so bright and invariably attain lower grades. And it is expected that, these gifted students in the class will serve as an inspiration to the other students and as role models for how to get perform academically. But while this method is somewhat conventional in our country, it does a big disservice to both the gifted (high attaining) students and the challenged (low attaining) students who are all left feeling academically inadequate. If gifted students are in a class where other students are not as bright as them, the lesson can plod along at a very slow pace to accommodate the challenged students amongst them and they will inevitably lose interest. This loss of interest is noticeable through disruptive behaviour, careless attitude towards work, or rebelliousness. They react because they are grossly under-challenged; they want to move ahead; instead they are forced to stand still or perhaps even regress to match the pace of the challenged students in the class who would probably need twice as much time to grasp what is taught by the teacher. Conversely, when gifted students are much faster in grasping what is taught in class and the challenged students are still floundering with what it is they need in order to grasp concepts and adequately tackle questions, confidence can dissolve and these students can fall further behind making their inabilities stand out in stark contrast to those of their peers. This may cause a reaction in a number of ways such as withdrawal, rebellion, indiscipline and even truancy. Withdrawal, rebellion and indiscipline obviously exacerbates the situation thereby making focus on studies quite impossible. In the end, no one learns!

This is however in stark contrast to what's happening in the most successful private primary and junior high schools across the country where students are set by ability. The vast majority of these private schools group students as early as Primary 3 into different classes (often Primary 3A and 3B) based on the ability of attainment where the higher-attaining students are put in one class and the mid-range and lower-attaining learners in the other. From P3 - JHS3, students within a certain ability range are grouped together as a class, thereby allowing each students an opportunity to learn in accordance with their aptitude. This gives teachers an opportunity to be more in-tune with every student on a much more insightful level. But crucially, these private educators understand that children are different and therefore have different needs. Hence, for these private schools, equality isn't putting all children in the same class consisting of a variety of needs and teaching at the same speed as it is done in public schools, equality is setting by ability. It is taking the brightest students and stretching them and helping those that have fallen behind.

But is that fair? Is grouping by ability an efficient way to handle differences in student abilities? Is that not harmful to the students? Yes, setting by ability is fair. It is a system that does not degrade students who are exposed to some form of emotional disgust because they cannot live up to the standards of their colleagues that have strong abilities, thereby helping students grow in confidence and self-esteem since no one is made to feel inferior or stupid among his/her peers. Yes, setting by ability is an efficient way to handle differences in student abilities. It helps increase students' achievement by allowing teachers to move ahead at a brisk pace to meet the needs of a class of bright students than he or she would with a class of challenged students, thereby also meeting the needs of these less gifted students by instructing at a slower pace with more repetitions and reinforcements. In either situation, the teacher is able to select an appropriate pace and move ahead with it. No, setting by ability is not harmful to the students. It delivers appropriately challenging experiences in the classroom. Not to mention but children love a challenge and enjoy a sense of achievement, so being pushed by their peers is often a more positive experience.

Clearly, setting by ability has many benefits for the gifted as well as the challenged student. Research has shown that, students from private schools appear happier and perform better in the Basic Education Certificate Examinations (BECE) than their counterparts from the public schools even though they are sometimes taught by less trained teachers. In his book "The Beautiful Tree", James Tooley, a professor of education policy in the University of Newcastle in England observed that, in a test consisting of roughly 3,000 students in each setting of mathematics, English Language and Religious and Moral Education in Ghana, students in private schools achieved above the levels achieved by their counterparts in government schools. Subsequently, his research suggested that children in private schools outperform similar students in government schools in key school subjects. And concluded ironically that, private is better than public. Of course, am not saying that setting by ability accounts for all the successes in the Private schools but I believe strongly that it plays a huge part in raising the attainment of the more able students and giving an opportunity to challenged students who are potentially left behind. And inevitably, the pass rate in private schools give their students opportunities to get their first choice senior high schools to study their first choice programs to enhance better future opportunities than their public counterparts.

The success of private school administrators and teachers at delivering students who come out on top in the Basic Education Certificate Examinations (BECE) is quite impressive, especially when considering that the public schools have the well trained and most qualified teachers. The era of putting students of different attainment abilities in the same classroom and teaching them at the same pace that benefits neither the high achieving gifted students and the low achieving challenged students has run its course. Results have got worse and more children are leaving junior high school without been able to read, write and add up properly, despite Government's huge investment in education for children. Schools needs answers now and setting students by ability is one of the answers. In fact, it may be the only effective answer. One wonders what could be achieved if public primary and junior high schools and its administrators learn from what's working in private school settings and set students by ability.

Nana Kwaku M Asamoah
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