Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has denied she is planning to force all secondary schools into introducing ability groups.
This has appeared to cause confusion in Government circles with officials refusing to confirm or deny the story.
According to the Guardian’s website, she was said to be asking education standards watchdog Ofsted to make it a condition of a school receiving an outstanding ranking in an inspection, an idea that sparked fury from teachers’ leaders and opposition MPs.
Teachers argued the move was contrary to the Government’s oft-repeated mantra that schools should be given more freedom from central control.
In addition, they pointed to research which indicated that in schools which introduce setting, the gap between high performers and those who struggle grows.
Tonight, though, Ms Morgan dismissed the suggestion, saying there was “absolutely no truth” in suggestions that Ofsted would be asked to promote setting. Downing Street said it knew of no plans to introduce the policy while the Liberal Democrats insisted it would not become part of government policy while there were involved with the Coalition.
One suggestion circulating in Whitehall - unconfirmed - was that plans to promote setting would form part of the Conservative party manifesto.
The leak failed to indicate what would happen to an outstanding academy given the freedom to conduct its own affairs if it failed to introduce setting.
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “If Nicky Morgan is committed to closing the gap for disadvantaged children the last thing she should do is to divide children into ability sets and use Ofsted to enforce this.
“This is educationally unjustifiable. The evidence is overwhelming that this practice holds back poor children, denying them access to an appropriately demanding curriculum. Any claim that Ofsted is independent of government ideology will be shot to pieces if the agency is required to enforce ministerial dogma.”
Tristram Hunt, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, demanded “urgent assurances” the plan “would not put a cap on aspiration and confine some children to a second rate education”.
“I believe excellent heads and great teachers know better than Westminster politicians how to deliver the best schooling for all pupils. It is worrying to see an Education Secretary two months into the job thinking she knows best how every school should teach every subject,” he added.Both the leading head teachers’ organisations, the National Association of Head Teachers and Association of School and College Leaders, came out against the idea.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, said: “Are we really to be faced with a scenario where a school with outstanding attainment and progress is denied a top grade simply on the basis that classes aren’t organised according to a rigid national edict?”
Setting in schools, which means dividing children by ability in each subject, has long had its advocates in political circles. Tony Blair called for more setting in schools during the 1997 election campaign, and Prime Minister David Cameron has let it be known he is strongly in favour of it, as is Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief schools inspector, who believes all-ability teaching is too difficult for some teachers to handle.
However, research from the Education Endowment Foundation concluded that, overall, grouping in sets appears to benefit higher attainers but can be detrimental to the learning of mid-range or lower achievers.