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Should young children be grouped by ability?

Research suggests school starters are being increasingly grouped by ability – but is this a good thing?

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Should children as young as three, four and five be taught by ability?

Grouping children like this in nursery school, Reception and Years 1 and 2 is increasingly common across England, according to a report by University College London’s Institute of Education and the National Education Union.

The study raises concerns about the impact of teaching by ability on pupils’ confidence and aspirations.

But while some are critical of the practice, others say it works well.

So what are the different views on the issues of grouping children in the early years, Reception and Key Stage 1?

The report

In the Grouping in Early Years and KS1 “A necessary evil”? report, which was based on responses from 1,400 union members, authors Dr Guy Roberts-Holmes and Dr Alice Bradbury claim the practice of grouping young children has become “taken for granted”.

Image copyright UCL

The report says school leadership teams expect teachers to group pupils and the practice is seen as preparation for tests such as the phonics screening check and KS1 Sats tests.

“Many teachers think children are aware of their group, and they are concerned about the detrimental impact of being labelled on children’s self-confidence and behaviour, and about the production of limits on children’s learning,” it says.

“There were concerns raised that this could have a potentially negative impact upon some children’s mental health.

“Teachers both in early years and KS1 feel that the pressure of assessments produces the need for grouping in some form.”

The research quotes a teacher from a focus group who recalled a girl telling her that her aspiration to become a doctor, like her mother, had disappeared when she was moved down a set.

The reaction

Some people feel that grouping children so the work is targeted to their individual needs makes perfect sense.

John Blake, head of education at the think tank Policy Exchange, says: “If children need additional support to understand the key concepts of learning, then grouping them together to provide such support is perfectly sensible.

Image copyright Policy Exchange

“Provided it is clear to teachers why the division has been made, and the additional support required is given, there is no reason such grouping should be bad for children – quite the reverse, in fact, since schools should be using whatever tools they think are appropriate to ensure children have learnt the curriculum.

“Parents should be worried if schools were avoiding teaching children appropriately, using effective methods, including ability grouping if the school judges that to be appropriate.”

Mr Blake says it is a teacher’s job to make sure that children don’t feel inadequate or stressed.

“There is no reason at all that teachers should be passing on to children any stress or pressure about the phonics screening check or their Sats tests – these are not ‘high stakes tests’ for the students.

“Indeed, many schools never even tell the children they have been through a statutory test at all. I find it extraordinary that teachers think that children are stressed and it’s not the pupils’ fault.”

The mother

Mother-of-two Elisa felt let down when she found out her son had been grouped by ability – into a lower group – from Reception.

“It was like he’d been branded – ‘you belong to the lower group and you’ll never move up to the higher group’,” she said.

“I couldn’t understand why some of the mums were so pushy with their children in Reception and Year 1 – it was because they wanted to make sure they were in the advanced group.

“Children develop at different times, so to say at five or six that’s what you are, you’re not as smart as everyone else and you belong to a certain group and you’re stuck with it is just not fair – you’re condemning those children to say at that stage rather than pushing them on.”

Elisa says the experience made her son doubt himself.

“He called himself not as intelligent as the other children, he wasn’t as clever as so-and-so. He found it hard with his self-esteem, I think.”

Elisa says she’s now much stricter with her second child, who is a summer-born.

“I’m much less relaxed with her – she has to work a lot harder, I’m not going to let her fall behind. I tutor her, I’m not going to take any risks whatsoever – my trust with school after my experience with my son was lost.”

The head teacher

Some head teachers say the practice of grouping children helps them as professionals to target help, especially as some children start school “ready to go” and others need a lot of nurturing.

One school leader quoted in the UCL/NEU report said: “I personally think it’s better for the children, because otherwise your more able children get bored and frustrated and your less able children just get left behind.

“So the grouping means that you can focus your attention.”

The groupings

Image copyright Getty Images

Whether and how teachers arrange any grouping of pupils is very much down to individual schools. Some schools might move children between groups fairly loosely, others might be more regimented.

Minister for children and families Robert Goodwill said: “Teachers and early years staff are best placed to make decisions about the teaching methods they use.

“There is no statutory requirement that suggests children should be grouped by ability.”

Teaching primary-age children by ability can be done in a number of ways, the UCL/NEU report says.

Streaming: Children are put in a class based on a view of their ability.

Setting: Children are placed in groups for particular subjects, usually literacy and maths, and move from their normal mixed-ability class for this subject.

Within-class ability grouping: Ability groups are used within a class – usually sitting at different tables with different tasks and levels of support. This may occur in a mixed-ability class, or within a set.

Interventions: Specific children are targeted and removed from the class for additional support or extension activities. This is often for a fixed period of time and a specific purpose, for example booster groups.

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Education & Family

My shock at discovering I was a donor child

One man says the revelation split his family, while a woman says she is now closer to her mother because of it.

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When parents tell a child that he or she was conceived from a donated egg, or donated sperm, it can come as quite a shock.

After Elaine Chong wrote about donating her eggs to help other couples have a child, two readers got in touch to explain how the revelation that they were donor children affected them – one said it split his family, the other said it drew hers even closer together.

‘My entire existence is a lie’

I found out I was donor-conceived when I was 22. The conversation was not planned. When my younger sister discovered she was pregnant she asked my parents if there were any hereditary family conditions that she needed to be mindful about. Then my parents told her that they couldn’t answer her question that she had been born as a result of gamete donation.

My social father (this is what we call the parents who raise us) then told me that was also the case for me. He said they had gone to a doctor at Harley Street who had helped them conceive both myself and my sister, who is three years younger. But that was all he was willing to talk about and neither he nor my social mother wanted to discuss the subject any more.

As I was conceived in the early 80s it’s impossible to find records as to who the egg and sperm donors, my biological parents, are. It was rare for that information to be kept on file then.

I’d often wondered why I looked so different to the people that raised me. I’m tall, hairy, with dark eyes and features. My parents are shorter, pale with light eyes. I started wondering if maybe I could be of a different ethnicity. Suddenly my whole existence felt like a lie.

My relationship with my social parents deteriorated and I spent years moving around, doing a number of odd jobs. I also battled with gambling issues. I felt like a gypsy. I should add that my sister had a different reaction to me. She maintains a good relationship with our social parents, whereas mine has almost entirely broken down.

Even though I am now married, with a young child of my own, I am still against gamete donation. We shouldn’t be playing around with science like this. If I had been adopted, it would be easier to trace the story of how I came to be and easier to find roots. As it stands it’s unlikely that my egg or sperm donor parents knew each other, and I don’t know the motivations of why they chose to donate.

I feel that donor conception is a trade in human beings and very few people consider the effects it has on a child.

John, 35, UK

‘I also want to be an egg donor’

My sister and I have always been almost opposites – which was the main reason why I could tell something was different between us. She was slim, smart, and a rule-abider. I was more of a wild child with an athletic build. Throughout our childhood, it was always a joking topic, but it was never addressed until I was 11.

My dad and I were in the car and I had brought up again how my sister and I were so different. He said: “Yeah, we can talk about it when we get home.” I was like, what? After all this time, now there’s an explanation! In a way it was satisfying to know that my premonitions were correct.

At home, it was a full family conversation. My mom cried when she confirmed my suspicions that my sister and I weren’t fully related.

She’d had a problem with her IUD implant in the 70s that affected her uterus and the transport of her own eggs. She had never told anyone in her family except for her mother because of the stigma against not being able to get pregnant.

My parents told me that my sister was an in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) baby, with my mom’s egg and my dad’s sperm, and that I was conceived from an egg donor with my dad’s sperm.

It was very emotional. I can vividly remember that.

It’s such a fragile state to be in, to have your own kid question where they’re from. It was one of those things where my mom thought if I knew that I wasn’t necessarily related to her, I would push her away – that’s what she conveyed to me.

After, I remember sitting in my room and I felt like I had known it was true the whole time. I had grown up with these differences and my parents never loved me any less. I’ve never felt betrayed – I’ve just felt grateful for the chance to be given life.

Image caption Elizabeth (left) and her sister

My mom and I have gotten closer because of it. I think it is the bravest thing she has ever done. I began to see how it had shaped her as a mother too – every night she would tell my sister and me: “We did everything to have you, we’re so grateful for you in our lives.” Now I understand that they really did do everything.

As I got older, I became more intrigued by IVF. I thought it was very interesting to see how my parents had taken this very new technology and applied it to their lives.

I want to be an egg donor once I finish college because it would make me feel so proud.

I want to represent a successful story of in-vitro. My mom is very supportive of me becoming an egg donor. I think it would make her feel like she has continued the process of family completion in a way.

Donor conception is still seen as a very secretive process, but I think if it were to have more light brought to it, things might change. If I could help at all to de-stigmatise the idea, I would feel very proud.

Elizabeth, 21, US

When to tell the children

If children have been conceived from a donated egg or sperm it’s good to tell them early, says Nina Barnsley, director of the Donor Conception Network. Ideally at the age of five, and no later than 10.

This allows them to get used to the idea as they grow, and averts the possibly traumatic experience of a sudden revelation later on. “It ends up being just an exciting story of how they came into the world,” she says. “Parents should see it as an open door to continuing the conversation as the child wishes and ages.”

If parents wait until their child is an adult, they may be asked why they hid the truth for so long. But late is better than never, Barnsley says, and better than a deathbed confession. “We’ve had children in their 30s with parents in their 70s when they have the conversation. It can go very well.”

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Education & Family

The nursery in Amsterdam’s red light district

A nursery is kept open to help local families to stay in inner-city Amsterdam

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Princess Juliana nursery school is sandwiched between two brothels in the middle of Amsterdam’s red light district.

If you stand outside, you will hear passing tourists expressing disbelief that a school exists in such a location.

Manager Sally Fritzsche has heard them all – from the man who scolded her as she took the children on their weekly walk, to the tour guides who pretend it is a school for prostitutes’ children.

Despite its unusual location, the nursery is one of the best in the Dutch capital – in the last four years, its rating has risen from “red” to “green” on the city’s traffic light rating system.

This improvement came despite a cut to a government subsidy which let parents reclaim nursery fees from taxes, which had forced a number of other nursery providers out of business.

Keeping communities alive

Princess Juliana opened on the historic street of Warmoestraat in 1875, and moved to its current location of Oudekerksplein in 1999. It is metres from the canal which runs through Amsterdam’s red light district.

Image caption The Princess Juliana nursery in Amsterdam’s red-light district

Run by a company called Kleine Wereld (“small world”), the nursery’s nine teachers look after 60 children aged from three months to four years.

It opens from 7.30am to 6.30pm, which means there is a lot of overlap with the brothels’ opening hours of 10am until late.

Most children at the nursery come from families living in the nearby Nieuwmaarkt district – with fees reasonable for Amsterdam.

The students are from a broad range of backgrounds – some are from migrant families and speak no Dutch, others are children of musicians from well-known Dutch bands.

‘Just normal people’

When a new teacher starts at the school, they usually take time to adjust to their unusual commute.

“I have been here four years and still, when I walk past the ladies, I think ‘okay where do I look?’,” says manager, Sally Fritzsche.

“But it does not bother me. You just think there must be a reason why they are working there and you don’t know if it is a good one or a bad one, but you accept it.”

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Keeping local services open is a way of preventing Amsterdam from being saturated with tourism

Wilma Korff, who grew up in the area and has taught at Princess Juliana for 28 years, believes the children actually benefit from the nursery’s location.

“I would say growing up here had a good effect on me, and it has a good effect on the children,” she says.

“They are growing up in a place that is a bit different, and they understand that these ladies are just normal people.”

Sally Fritzsche agrees. “These kids learn to see people as people,” she says. “They see the women waving and they wave back. They like them, and they have no judgement.”

Every week the children are taken for a walk through the neighbourhood in a colourful contraption that resembles several prams joined together.

Tourism pressure

The women in the windows recognise the children – some close their curtain as the group approaches, others wave.

Sometimes the children ask if the brothels are swimming pools. Sally Fritzsche lets parents decide how to answer these questions – but the children are usually too young to realise what they are seeing.

Image caption Without nurseries like Princess Juliana it would be impossible for families to stay in the inner city

Tourism, or more specifically resentment of tourism, is currently a major issue in Amsterdam – and Princess Juliana plays an unexpected role in slowing it down.

Dr Jan van der Borg, a tourism expert at KU Leuven in Belgium, says the city is suffering from a process that he calls “Venetianisation”.

This is named after the Italian city of Venice that has become a symbol of a local economy being saturated by the tourist industry, so much so that it is difficult for ordinary residents to carry on living there as local facilities disappear.

Dr van der Borg describes it as a “touristic monoculture that suffocates other social activities” – and in Amsterdam it means souvenir shops with big clogs and tulips replacing local services.

Amsterdam has responded by banning new tourist shops and the “beer bikes” which were popular with stag dos, and raising taxes on homeowners who rent their rooms for short stays.

Protecting nurseries

But Dr van der Borg thinks this is the wrong approach – he says it is “much more efficient to enhance and strengthen alternative activities to tourism”, such as keeping schools open.

He says that if the city “nurtures” schools such as Princess Juliana, Venetianisation “can be slowed or even stopped”.

Image caption Sally Fritzsche says her nursery belongs here as much as the shops in the red-light district

So Princess Juliana, and the nearby secondary schools Sint Antoniusschool and Witte Olifant, play a vital role in preserving a residential community in the centre of Amsterdam.

“I cannot imagine what would happen to the neighbourhood if we were not here any more,” says Sally Fritzsche.

“What would parents do with their children? You get a good neighbourhood when you have good facilities around them. If that breaks down, the neighbourhood breaks down too.

“If all houses here were doing Airbnb, the whole neighbourhood would change and there would not be kids living here anymore.”

Image caption The nursery and sex workers operate side by side

Amsterdam’s local authority, which owns the building that houses Princess Juliana, recognises the nursery’s importance.

The school’s survival was threatened when its former operator pulled out in 2013 because of falling revenues.

But despite the lucrative potential of a large two-storey building in a central location, the council offered it to Kleine Wereld at a discounted rate.

So visitors to Amsterdam will still see a group of children and teachers walking through the red-light district for the foreseeable future.

This summer, Sally Fritzsche was confronted by a tourist during one of these walks. “He stopped us and said, ‘what are you doing with kids here?’,” she says.

“We were like, we are not going anywhere. We belong here.”

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Education & Family

Southampton University corrects statement in vice-chancellor pay row

The university admits Sir Christopher Snowden was a member of the committee which decided his pay.

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A university at the heart of a row over its vice-chancellor’s £424,000 salary has admitted that he was a member of the committee which decided his pay.

Southampton clarified that Sir Christopher Snowden was a member of its senior salaries committee when his pay was set, but it insists he “was not present” for discussions on it.

On Friday, the university said the vice-chancellor was not a member of the pay-setting committee amid a pay row.

Academics had hit out at his salary.

The University and College Union had highlighted how the vice-chancellor’s pay package had risen to £424,000 last year – compared with £352,000 in 2015-16.

The lower level had already drawn criticism from universities minister Jo Johnson, who has hit out at high rates of pay in higher education institutions.

The university explained the extra £72,000 was not a pay rise as such but was because Sir Christopher had only been in post for 10 months during 2015-16.

The higher pay reflected the full year’s salary for 2016-17 and the national higher education pay award of 1.1%, it said.

‘Error in our statement’

At the same time, the university stressed that Sir Christopher had no role in the remuneration committee which dealt with the issue.

But an academic at the university, who wished to remain anonymous, contacted BBC News with documentary evidence showing the claim to be incorrect.

The university then had to correct its statement after it was contacted by the BBC News website with the publicly available information.

A spokesman for Southampton University said: “There was an error in the wording of our statement sent to you on Friday.

“It should have read that the vice-chancellor’s salary was set and regularly reviewed by the university’s independently chaired senior salaries committee (now replaced by the university’s independently chaired remuneration committee) which reports to the University Council.

“Previously, Sir Christopher *was* a member of the senior salaries committee, but was not present at any point during discussions of or voting on his pay.

“The senior salaries committee was recently replaced by the remuneration committee – a decision agreed by full council in September 2017.

“At the same time, terms of reference for the new committee were agreed, under which the VC is no longer a member – but he is invited back for key discussions for issues not relating to his pay.”

‘One rule for them’

The unnamed academic got in touch because he said he was angry about the pay level in the context of university tuition fees.

He also said: “The university’s ’10-Year Plan’ includes plans to reduce the salary bill of academic staff, while simultaneously increasing teaching and research quality.

“Most ordinary members of the university consider these two aims to be contradictory and the 10-Year Plan to be corporate nonsense.

“But what we find frankly insulting is that, when it comes to the vice-chancellor’s pay, the opposite argument is used: we must apparently pay more to get the best quality.

“One rule for them; a different rule for us.”

Sally Hunt, of the University and College Union, said senior pay and how it is set had long blighted the university sector and that its research showed over two-thirds of vice-chancellors sat on the committee that sets their pay.

“While most people would agree this is wrong and looks suspect, it is currently the norm, which makes Southampton’s efforts to try and obscure the fact that their vice-chancellor was on the committee that sets his pay package really strange.

“For the university to say the vice-chancellor’s pay was set by a committee that didn’t even exist when his pay was actually set will fill no one with confidence about its governance structures.”

Ministerial criticism

The university drew criticism from Mr Johnson in the summer.

He said in a speech: “There is one institution on the south coast that has seen vice-chancellor pay rise from £227,000 in 2009-10 to £350,000 to 2015-16, which is really quite a sharp increase.”

Southampton defended the pay package, saying Sir Christopher was an outstanding leader for the university with much experience in business.

“He is one of the most experienced vice-chancellors in the sector with a track record of delivering long-term exceptional results, and he is a former president of Universities UK.”

The row comes a few days after the UK’s highest paid vice-chancellor Dame Prof Glynis Breakwell stepped down.

The University of Bath boss had become the focus of criticism for her £468,000 salary.

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