A survey of 400,000 lessons and 900 schools backs the Government's belief that children achieve more if they are grouped by ability for different subjects. Setting is different from streaming in which pupils of similar ability are taught together for all subjects.
The proportion of setted lessons in primary schools has doubled to 4 per cent in a year.
An analysis of more than 20 major studies recently found that setting and streaming made no difference to pupils' achievement. Children in the bottom sets tended to give up and some of the brighter ones became over- confident about their ability, said the report from the National Foundation for Educational Research.
But inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) said that nearly all of the schools inspected "demonstrated a clear trend of rising standards for pupils of all abilities once the use of setting had been established".
The report argued that there was no reason why some setting should not be used, particularly in maths, from the age of five or six, provided it was sensitively organised.
Inspectors visited more than 50 schools and found that national test scores in setted subjects improved "in some cases spectacularly" between 1996 and 1997.
However, the report warned that setting did not compensate for poor teaching and must be carefully planned. Schools needed to build in safeguards to avoid "the low-esteem and the negative labelling of pupils which can occur in lower sets".
But inspectors found no evidence that pupils in the bottom sets were badly motivated and badly behaved. "The vast majority of pupils see advantages to setting, accept the purpose and fairness of their allocation to a particular set and like having more than one teacher."
A postal survey of 900 schools found that six out of ten junior schools and more than a third of infant schools used sets for at least one subject. Maths was most commonly setted. Pupils of different ages were taught together in two-thirds of the schools that used sets for maths and one- quarter of those that used sets for English. Boys tended to predominate in the bottom sets and inspectors said schools were not doing enough to discover the reasons.
Schools took into account aptitude and interest as well as test scores when they allocated children to sets.
Of the schools that used sets, 96 per cent did for maths, 69 per cent for English and 9 per cent for science. A very few also set for French and music and for team games.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "As long as heads and teachers take the view that setting is appropriate for their pupils, I don't think anyone should worry about their judgement."Reuse content