Conservative manifesto: Tories favour 'setting' in schools, but won't enforce it

A conference of education researchers sent a message to the PM that Ofsted would fight such a move if it became an election pledge
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The Independent Online

The Conservatives have ruled out including a commitment in their election manifesto to force schools to adopt setting, the Schools Reform minister said yesterday.

Speaking at the researchED conference in London, Nick Gibb said he favoured the use of "setting", in which pupils are put in different groups depending on their ability in individual subjects.

"My view is that it is the best way of raising standards," he added. "Ultimately, though, these issues have to be left to individual schools."

He was speaking after David Cameron, the Prime Minister, had been warned in the conference that he would face a fierce battle with Ofsted if he went ahead with such a move.

Sean Harford, a national director in charge of schools policy at the education standards watchdog, described the idea of compulsory setting as "bizarre", saying it "goes against everything we want to do".

Reports last week indicated the Government was planning to persuade more schools to adopt setting by insisting they could not be ranked "outstanding" by inspectors if they refused to adopt the policy.

Despite Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, strongly denying the report and the Liberal Democrats saying there was no way they would support the idea, sources said later that the idea had only been postponed and could be revived in the Tories' election manifesto – a suggestion dismissed by Mr Gibb.

Speaking at yesterday's conference of education researchers, Michael Cladingbowl, Ofsted's national director for inspection reform, said there was something of "the Emperor's new clothes" about the suggestion. "Setting is the norm" in most secondary schools, he said. "Even in primary schools they are setting for English and maths."

Earlier, the conference heard research indicating that setting would work well only if the country's most outstanding teachers taught the lower sets. Professor Dylan Wiliam, of London University's Institute of Education, said results showed setting improved the performance of those in the highest sets but reduced the outcomes for pupils in the lower sets. The loss in performance of those in lower sets was greater than the improvement in the top set, he added.

"Therefore the best outcome would be for the best teachers to teach the students in the lower sets," he said. "However, this would be political suicide as most parents believe their children should be in the top set and if you told them the better teachers were going to the bottom set, would they still support it?"

The research also showed that girls had wanted to move down from the top set as they thought the pace of learning was too fast, while those in the bottom sets sometimes felt it was too slow.

Setting has been a controversial topic since Tony Blair included in Labour's 1997 election manifesto a commitment to increase its use.

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