Too Cruel for School?

19/07/2013 10:13 BST | Updated 17/09/2013 10:12 BST

My Year 9 Chemistry teacher was ruthless.

In streamed sets of approximately twenty students, we were tested regularly - every fortnight or so. Our teacher would ensure we never marked our own papers and we'd only find out our score when a peer read it out in front of the whole class. Sir's level of approval (or disapproval) was made clear by a single phrase - 'well done', 'room for improvement', 'disappointing' or the worst - a grimace, then silence.

He was not unknown to zoom in on the lowest marks in class, in a ritual humiliation act which left the culprit red-faced and squirming in their stool. Nobody attempted to justify a poor mark - it simply wasn't good enough. We were ranked in order of achievement and it was made perfectly clear when we'd slipped or gained a few places. Slip too far and you were relegated to a lower set, with a likely softer teacher. Meanwhile life at the top was by no means stress-free - it was a position you had to fight to defend.

I was by no means a natural Chemist. With an irrational fear of Bunsen burners and a reliance on an annoying YouTube video to learn the elements of the Periodic Table, I was near enough a lost cause. However, this quickly changed when I realised that unless I forced myself to be more engaged, I'd be humiliated on a regular basis.

The environment was competitive whether one liked it or not. Nobody wanted to be at the bottom of the class and being among students of a very similar ability meant that it was more or less fair game. I was among students that felt sick at the sight of a B and considered anything under 80% a fail, an attitude indirectly encouraged by our tutor. I soon realised that the only way around not dreading every lesson was to work hard. Work hard I did, and I quickly reaped the benefits. I now consider my Chemistry teacher to have been one of the best I have ever had.

However, is such a level of competition healthy and beneficial in primary school?

Michael Gove and 'controversial' are scarcely left out of the same sentence. His plans on educational reform frequently cause widespread upset and he's regularly labelled as another out of touch Tory who goes against the national interest. These aren't criticisms I agree with, but nevertheless I understand the arguments against some of his propositions.

The Education Secretary's proposal to rank primary school pupils against their peers across the country was met with a predictable level of uproar. Would national rankings shatter dreams, breed low self-esteem and lead to unhealthy levels of competition, or encourage pupils to strive harder to succeed and push up standards?

My answer would be a bit of both, but in this instance I consider Gove to have gone a step too far. Being ranked in a class of 20 is one thing. Being ranked in the millions is another entirely. Nick Clegg insisted the reforms were needed to ensure that primary pupils are 'secondary ready' by the time they commence high school. This can be achieved through decent teaching and parental support (the importance of which must not be undermined), not national labels which could quickly demotivate chunks of less academic school children.

Streaming thus seems like a suitable solution. It is a proven method of ensuring that pupils are taught at an appropriate pace, with the ability to progress and succeed while simultaneously keeping competition confined to classmates. Whilst primary school may seem a young age to begin to stream students, in a competitive world it merely prepares students for the future.

Pupils are not all equal in ability and we must not continue with a system that appeals to such an ideology.