Blair fails on pledge to increase setting in secondary schools

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The majority of secondary school pupils are still taught in mixed-ability classes - despite a pledge by the Prime Minister eight years ago to increase setting in schools.

Figures obtained from Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, show that only 38 per cent of lessons observed by inspectors involved setting - teaching pupils in different groups according to their ability. The figures for 2002-03, the last year for which it kept separate figures of lessons involving setting, also showed the percentage of lessons had been falling since the turn of the century (from 39 per cent to 38 per cent).

The Prime Minister pinned his hopes of raising standards in schools on setting when he unveiled Labour's election manifesto for 1997. In doing so, he rode roughshod over the views of some of the party faithful who believed mixed-ability teaching was the best way of introducing a truly comprehensive education system. Supporters of it say slow learners and gifted youngsters can learn at their own pace. Opponents argue that children in lower sets feel demoralised.

The drop was most marked in languages - from 65 per cent to 62 per cent in the past three years. Its use was most frequent in maths - 86 per cent.

Labour said in its 1997 manifesto that Ofsted would collect data on setting - and that schools would be expected to adopt it unless they could show their test and exam results had improved without it. Ofsted has now ceased to record separate figures for the percentage of set lessons.

Nick Gibb, the Conservatives' schools spokesman, said he had been "shocked" by the figures.He accused Labour of failing to deliver on its earlier pledge. "With setting, the curriculum is more tailored to the individual," he said.