Setting: an old debate rejuvenated by New Labour rhetoric

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The Independent Online
The Labour White Paper's suggestion that mixed-ability teaching should be judged guilty until proven innocent raised many eyebrows. Bethan Marshall finds that the argument is far from settled.

When Labour launched its massive consultation exercise on the education White Paper this summer, many filled it in with a degree of cynicism. Too often, under the Tories, those involved in education had been asked to comment, only to have their comments ignored - or, worse, to find their responses distorted for political ends.

But it appears that this consultation may be different. Labour seems to be more willing to enter into a constructive dialogue than its predecessor. And the proof lies in the debate surrounding a particularly controversial issue - that of pupil grouping.

As with many issues in education, the arguments surrounding pupil grouping have been polarised around a progressive/traditionalist debate. Mixed- ability teaching has become synonymous with "trendy, progressive" ideas and with child-centred learning. Those who support it contend that setting labels the vast majority of pupils as second best, and that most children live down to those expectations. The "traditionalists", on the other hand, argue that it is impossible for one teacher to cater for the needs of such widely varying abilities when they are all taught together. They say that the brightest will be held back and the least able will struggle. Setting, they believe, allows teachers to cater more closely for the individual needs of their pupils.

This view is gaining ground with many heads, not least because setting is also said to be favoured by parents - particularly those of more able children, whom schools are keen to attract. Gill Ross, an ex-teacher, whose three children attend a primary school in Richmond, Surrey, is typical. "Setting can create a stigma for the less able. But, well handled, all children have a greater sense of achievement when they are neither struggling nor bored, and when the work is aimed directly at them."

In this context, the rhetoric of the White Paper clearly took sides. It read, "Unless a school can demonstrate that it is getting better-than- expected results through a different approach we do make the presumption that setting should be the norm in secondary schools." But this statement attracted more adverse comment than almost any other single issue in the White Paper, suggesting that for many the debate was far from over.

Judy Sebba, who has been seconded to the Standards and Effectiveness Unit from Cambridge University, said, "The consultation suggested that the statement was too bald. That was the message we got from a huge cross- section of responses." She says that, in the light of the response, the emphasis must now be on showing how any form of pupil grouping works. "We are now saying that all pupil grouping needs to be properly evaluated, including setting." To this end, she commissioned a seminar just before Christmas to look at the research that had been done into the effects of pupil grouping.

One of those presenting a paper at the seminar was Dr Jo Boaler, of King's College London. Her research on pupil grouping is particularly ground- breaking because she studied a subject where setting is the norm and found that, far from helping the most able pupils, setting may in fact hold them back. She studied the delivery of the maths curriculum in two secondary schools with a similar intake, over a three-year period. One school set for maths, whereas the other maintained mixed-ability classes up to and including GCSE. She discovered that pupils in the mixed-ability classes did consistently better than those in the ones that are set, and achieved more As and A*s. While these results may seem localised, she points to those countries that do well in the often publicised Timms tests in Maths. Those countries that come out best in the international comparisons do not set for maths.

Her findings would find a sympathetic audience with Vivien West, whose children attend a primary school in Ealing. Her daughter was placed in the top set for maths. "It just made us all anxious," she says. "It put pressure on the child and on the parents. I didn't want to go into the school and say `put her down a set', because if there is a top set you want your child to be in it. My son was in the middle set and he found it a demotivating experience. I used to be really pro-setting, but now I think mixed-ability teaching is more child-centred."

It is the introduction of setting in primary schools and secondary English classes that is proving contentious. Here, mixed-ability teaching is far more widespread. John Wilkes, general secretary of the London Association for the Teaching of English, claims that many English departments are being forced to introduce setting despite evidence that pupils are doing well in mixed-ability groups.

"Schools are panicked into it because of the league tables," he maintains. "They want to be seen to be focusing all their energy on those who are likely to achieve five A-Cs at GCSE. What they don't consider is that setting usually discriminates against boys, because it puts them in the lower set and does little to boost their confidence." He cites his own department as an example of the positive effects of mixed-ability teaching. Since he introduced it, results have steadily improved, and he claims that this pattern has been repeated across London, where English results are consistently higher at GCSE than they are in other subjects which are set.

While he does agree that the school must be committed to this form of pupil grouping for it to work well, he adds, "There should be as much onus on those who want to set to demonstrate that it works, as for those who want mixed ability."

His views find an echo in the recent report commissioned by the Scottish Council for Research in Education. Wynne Harlem and Heather Malcolm undertook a comprehensive review of all research on the effects of setting and streaming. Looking particularly at the primary sector, they concluded, "Research at primary/elementary level provides no evidence that achievement is raised be streaming or setting within a school", adding, "What happens within classes [is] the important matter, and not how classes are constituted."

Judy Sebba, of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit, says this must be the new question. "We need to ask, `how is the grouping enhancing learning?' The DfEE is supporting research in this area, and will be issuing some kind of guidance at the end of this year."

Ofsted is also getting in on the act, by issuing a report in May. Its remit is much narrower, however, and will cover only the way in which setting affects standards in the primary sector. It is not considering mixed-ability teaching at all, and will be based on inspection reports, a postal survey and 50 school visits. It will be interesting to see whether either this report or the DfEE guidance continues to reflect the new, more open approach.

The case for splitting the abilities: Dormers Wells Junior School

Dormers Wells junior School serves a predominantly Asian community in Southall, west London, and has nearly four hundred children on its roll. The headteacher, Sue Reading, introduced setting for maths three years ago.

"It sprang from a concern that the most able and the least able were not being catered for. When we went grant-maintained we had more flexibility with our staffing. We are a three-form entry school but each year-group now has four sets for maths, including one for children with special needs." She is trying to ensure that the top sets have subject specialists.

She admits that the staff were anxious at first. "Labelling children exercised our consciences a great deal. But children know where they are and now the less able are failing less regularly because they are successful at what they are doing. The staff are happier because they are dealing with smaller classes and the work is more focused.

"I think, though, that the whole ethos of the school is very important in maintaining the self-esteem of pupils; our recent Ofsted report calls us a caring and positive school - and it's important to get that right first."

Although they have seen no dramatic improvements in the results so far, they will continue with the system. "We review the policy every year and recently we have extended it. Children are now taught in sets for part of the week for English from year 4 onwards and we are considering it for science."

The case for mixed abilities: Dormers Wells High School

Most students transfer direct to Dormers Wells High School. Many subjects are set, but the English department introduced mixed-ability teaching four years ago when head of department Grahame Price arrived. Results improved at Key Stage 3 and GCSE, where all pupils were entered for literature for the first time.

Mr Price says: "Year-on-year the results have improved ... We have better results than any department that sets, and are the only department that has a regular record of getting As. Ofsted said we were raising achievement, and pointed to our excellent practice in reading."

But senior management decided to introduce setting in English from year eight onwards this September, mainly because the feeder primary school set, so parents had come to expect it.

Mr Price worries that grouping arrangements could "undermine the achievement of pupils in the middle, particularly boys, as the top sets are girl-dominated", and that more demanding texts, which less able children regularly encountered in mixed-ability groups, could become inaccessible. "I feel that a return to setting will undermine our ability to deliver the English curriculum effectively to all pupils." He starts a senior post at a school in east London this month.