Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | July 28, 2011

Unbelievable: “School colour-codes pupils by ability”

An unbelievable report in The Guardian: “School colour-codes pupils by ability“, with a photo. Colours of ties are codes of ability streams. In my opinion as a teacher and a parent, this is madness. I cannot believe this is happening in a state funded school.

Pupils at Crown Wood. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian



  1. Why is it madness? In primary school, my teacher gave us surprise oral tests in class, in front of everyone, and if we did well, we could go outside of the classroom and write our name on the “honor list” pinned to the wall of the corridor, so everyone knew who was doing well and who was not. I would say it worked pretty well. It gave us an incentive to work. Either make an effort, or be ostracized for being “dumb”. We loved the competition.

    This was only 20 years ago. In Western Europe. And, truth be told, I was not in all “honor lists”, but I still vividly recall when I made to the one of the discipline I was weaker at. What a relief it was.

  2. OK, I should read the article carefully before posting. Apologies.

    They don’t have “honor lists”, after all. They have apartheid. I now agree with you. It’s utterly ridiculous.

  3. I started to read the article with the same sceptical approach, but the more I read the more I was astounded. I felt like Winnie the Pooh: “the more he looked inside the more Piglet wasn’t there“.

  4. Sasha I can’t quite see you as Winnie the Pooh! I think competition has a place in raising educational aspirations, and in preparing pupils/students for a competitive environment outside education as well, but it must be balanced carefully with cooperation. Other pupils usually know full-well who is doing well academically. We often see weaker students seek out stronger students for help — to mutual advantage. Different coloured ties would be as devisive as it is unnecessary.

  5. Bill, I know all that — I was brought up in the strict tradition of public oral examinations, and passed about 80 of them in my early life. The issue is not about children seeing and judging for themselves who is good academically and who is less so — this is normal group dynamics. The really serious issues start when students are assigned to separate streams and segregated.

    I remember explaining mathematics to my deskmate (this was in those primordial times when two pupils shared a desk); he was not the most academically successful student, but he liked to listen to my explanations and was not embarrassed to ask naive questions. When he got a chance to start from a clean page — this happened in classes of technical drawing — he suddenly discovered that he had good visualisation skills and that the whole 3-dimensional stuff was for him just a child’s play. Ability streams segregation would deprive him of that chance.

    Later, aged 15-17, I had a chance to study in a very selective and highly competitive boarding school (it is described in my essay: My peers recognised that different people were good at different things. I was considered to be good at mathematics, but was not the best in physics (after all, my room-mate from that school is now a professor of plasma physics in the Imperial College) — but I learned a lot, and still love physics. This natural competitiveness of children is not the same as colour-coding and freezing them for ever within fixed ability streams.

  6. At 11 years old, all pupils at the college are streamed according to ability in what the headteacher argues is the only way to survive in the brave new world of market-driven education.

    I wonder if he realizes how relevant is his reference to “Brave New World”.

  7. “Brave New World” : a very good point indeed.

  8. I read this article a few days ago, and was appalled. My state high school had streaming by ability but of course no-one was marked out to be stupid. I don’t agree with the idea that education should be instilled into kids by fear and shame. Not every one is cut out to be academic. And if they can, good. And if they can’t, then, is that so bad? Schooling should be preparation for life, not for just work.

  9. Those who knows something about environmental psychology will not except this brutal technique.

    {Why does the education system need to label children as clever or less cleaver or stupid? This method wont work for the economically less developed state schools!}

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