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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

ĀteaMarch 20, 2023

The plan to end classroom streaming by 2030, explained

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Despite being entrenched practice in New Zealand schools, the practice of academic streaming in schools might not be around much longer. A plan launched today sets out a pathway to achieve this.

If you went to school in Aotearoa, odds are that streaming was part of your experience. The numerically-inclined and bookworms among us might have made it into the A-class for maths or English. Perhaps you were somewhere in between for science. Or maybe you were plonked in the bottom class. Around 90% of schools in New Zealand stream their students into classes or groupings based on perceived ability. The ingrained nature of the practice lies in the belief that it helps both students and teachers progress at a pace that works for everyone. 

But school streaming’s pervasiveness might be nearing an end. For decades, a growing body of voices in education has begun questioning this approach. It’s a shift based on an expanding body of research which says the practice actually does more harm than good. Today, a plan to move away from streaming, called Kōkirihia, will be launched in Christchurch – and experts say it marks a major milestone in the movement. 

So what’s this plan about?

The plan is about setting out the steps needed to end streaming in Aotearoa by 2030. It makes the case for the change, offers alternatives to streaming, and a “road map” for getting there.

Let’s rewind, what’s streaming?

Streaming is the practice of grouping students by their perceived level of ability, from the “least likely to succeed” to the “extension” classes. It’s often used interchangeably with “ability grouping”, which is the same practice of grouping students by their perceived level of ability, but within a class.

An empty classroom, desks and chairs, weird late afternoon light.
(Photo: halbergman via Getty Images)

OK, so why exactly is there a movement to end it?

We’re absolutely obsessed with streaming students in Aotearoa. Overall, international studies show that Aotearoa uses ability grouping far more often than most OECD countries. But decades of research has shown that the practice has negative impacts for the majority of students. According to this research, streaming can lead to students developing low self-esteem – by believing they’re incapable or just “dumb” – and developing a problematic relationship with learning. It’s also shown that the negative assumptions go beyond students, with teachers developing low expectations of students’ potential. In this way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, where those low expectations, rather than a student’s natural ability, lead to poor results.

“It is evidenced in the research which shows that Māori and Pacific students are more likely to be incorrectly placed in bottom groups and classes, and that it damages self-esteem and confidence and limits career pathways,” says Hana O’Regan, lead technician of Mātauranga Iwi Chairs Group and CEO of CORE Education Tātai Aho Rau. The plan documents describe how “the policies and practices of streaming students into certain subjects or classes based on perceived ability equates to inequity by design in our education system”.

In a 2020 interview on current affairs programme The Hui, then minister of education (now prime minister) Chris Hipkins acknowledged it was Māori and Pasifika who were most disadvantaged by the practice and for that reason alone it shouldn’t exist. “All of the international research is very clear: streaming does more harm than good, it isn’t justified, it’s wrong, it’s discriminatory, it’s unfair,” he said.  

Are there any arguments in favour of streaming?

Yup. Opposition to destreaming is often based on the fear that “brainy” students will be unfairly “stunted”. But the evidence for this is mixed, with some studies showing students benefit from being divided into these “extension” classes, and others finding positive effects on these kinds of students when they’re placed in mixed ability classes.

Photo: Getty Images

So who’s behind this plan?

The project is a rare example of the entire education sector coming together to make a major change. It began when the Ministry of Education and the Mātauranga Iwi Leaders approached Tokona Te Raki, a Ngāi Tahu think tank, to lead the project. Tokona Te Raki formed a team to design and develop the project, consisting of members from the education unions, the Ministry of Education, university academics, school principals, the Education Review Office, New Zealand Qualifications Authority and more. 

How will this be rolled out?

The plan is being launched today. Every organisation involved in the design team as well as several others set out their own commitments in the plan. The plan emphasises that the pathway to end streaming will be different for every school and that it is important for schools – with the support of the wider education sector – to do this in a way that will work best for them. Many schools have already ended streaming, so learning from these schools about what worked and what didn’t is a vital part of the process. Already, the tide has begun to turn on streaming with figures quoted in the plan stating that 33.8% of secondary teachers already teach non-streamed classrooms, and 61.3% of all teachers reporting that they’re confident to teach without streaming.

The plan which includes the whakapapa of streaming is designed to grow awareness of the issue, showcase alternatives and outline the actions the key agencies have committed to in order to ensure the end goal of removing streaming from our schools is achieved by 2030. “This is a groundbreaking approach in that it has brought multiple stakeholders together to design the solution to a systemic issue. It is an exciting and huge step forward in creating a much-needed shift, one that will give all our kids a chance to realise their full potential on their journey – whatever it may be,” says Piripi Prendergast, Tokona te Raki project lead.

Streaming pretty ingrained in some schools (ahem, Auckland Grammar School) – will they have to make the change too?

No schools are required to do anything, but they’re likely to increasingly become part of a minority if they don’t embrace the change, due to the growing acceptance that these practices result in an education system with disparities and inequities.

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