On tracking in education

By \”tracking\” we mean division into academic sheep and vocation goats:

Expansion of education and changes in the structure of schooling — for
instance, a shift toward later tracking — appear to have contributed to increases
in intergenerational mobility in Sweden and Finland.10 On the other
hand, in the United States and United Kingdom mobility seems to have

stagnated and possibly decreased in recent decades despite educational advance.

It\’s worth noting that both Sweden and Finland have (Finland more rigidly than Sweden) have education divided into those academic and vocational streams from 15 onwards. As we know very well, the UK abandoned this (and sure, perhaps 11 was too young to be making the distinction) and the US hasn\’t really ever had it.

But if you were interested in increasing intergenerational mobility, as so many of those who wanted to close down the grammar schools have told us over all these years, might you not at least be reconsidering, just a little bit?

Given that those social democracies, those Nordics we are all told we should be more like, have managed to increase it by doing exactly the opposite of what we did, by retaining and enforcing the tracking instead of decreasing it?

5 thoughts on “On tracking in education”

  1. My primary school yeargroup was divided into only two streams. That may partly explain why I was bored silly in primary school. In secondary we had (I think) seven streams. Hurray – I found it possible to pay attention. Was 11 too early? Dunno – it was 12 in Scotland.

  2. Do UK State schools still divide pupils into streams or has the comprehensive acid washed even that away? Of course the public schools have none of that nonsense. We were rigourously streamed, into five different categories, with the upper two being ‘top set’ and the lower three being ‘bottom set’. And you’d better believe there was social cachet in being top set, as opposed to the almost aggressive anti-intellectualism that seems to pervade so much of modern life. We were in sets at prep school too, but not at the level of granularity we encountered ages 13 onwards.

  3. Based on purely personal observation of my kids and their friends and classmates, I think you can actually tell at about 3 who are smarter, quicker, curiouser, and therefore likelier to do well at school and benefit from university.

    Equally informally, I’d reckon only about 20% of people actually get much benefit from an academic university education. The others, if they go, are wasting their time. And if at least the last couple of years of regular academic secondary school are pre-university preparation, about 80% of kids should really stop at 16 and go do something else, or be taught other things, different skills. Go to work, join the army, sail a boat, apprentice.

    None of this to say non-university types are thick, by the way – quite a lot are, but intelligence comes in different forms and universities only cater for part of the range.

    One key is to stop the drift to requiring university degrees (or even high school diplomas) for jobs that just don’t need it. For years I’ve gone through job postings at different employers and written in “or equivalent experience”. Claims managers in insurance companies, and credit officers in banks, for example, need only their wits and on-the-job training, and from there can run the companies. Compliance is another good example. But it’s getting harder and harder to join the mail room at 16 and retire as chairman, which is a real, crying shame.

    i treasure the fact that in New York at least you can still take the bar exam without ever having gone to law school or even graduated high school – just work in a lawyer’s office some years, and then pass the test. Not easy, but absolutely right in principle.

    Tim adds: For one odd reason I was checking on this in the UK a few weeks back. You can still do articles to be a solicitor. No degree or law school required, experience, some courses and pass the exams….

  4. I should have added, in the middle, among the other things to do, paint, act, design video games, farm, play in a band. the list of things A levels and a BA don’t make you any better at is very long.

  5. David: my rather dodgy secondary comp in North Wales (mid-90s) streamed for most ‘core’ subjects, and fairly heavily for some subjects like Maths. We all knew what was top set and what was bottom set, although the school had a strong bifurcation in class background, and thus there were some children whose attitude inverted the more usual scale for achievement.

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