Can we block 'divisive' setting?

Joan Sallis Answers your questions

I am a parent-governor at a comprehensive. When I was at school we had the 11-plus and later I fought in vain to get rid of it. I never thought that one day my local city comprehensive would bring in the same divisive organisation and classify children by ability at 11.

I accept that later, when their interests and strengths become more obvious, it may be necessary to group children, but our new head has decided to split them into streams based on primary school records. My colleagues are not united on it but a number agree with me. Surely it is a matter we should discuss before such high-handed action is taken? Can we overrule the head if a majority are against it?

There are strongly held views on organisation of the first secondary year, though I don't know that there is any conclusive evidence on how different policies affect progress. Most schools will, as you say, set children by ability for at least some subjects in the second or third year after entry and I don't think there are strong objections to this. However, streaming for the first year is not so common. Many teachers prefer mixed ability but the argument has been raging all my lifetime and will continue forever. As for your first year, I hope the setting will be flexible. It should be made clear to pupils and parents that it is provisional and will be reviewed and changes made, possibly subject by subject, as time goes on.

Strictly speaking the organisation of teaching groups and their allocation to spaces, times and teachers is the head's final responsibility, and I don't think a governing body, even if united, can overrule himher just like that. But, like mixed-age classes in primary schools, setting is right on the territorial borderline: professional, because it is to do with the best arrangement of groups for successful teaching; strategic, because it has social and moral implications and is very sensitive with parents.

In these borderline areas it is always better to proceed with agreement. I hope your head will realise this and listen to what you have to say. I hope too that the point about flexibility will be made and that there will be careful monitoring of the results of setting - social as well as educational. If you do have problems getting it properly discussed, remember that any three governors can ask for a special meeting and that this cannot be refused, but it should not come to that.

Joan Sallis welcomes your queries but please keep requests for private replies to a minimum, since we aim to provide helpful information for ALL readers and always protect the identity of schools and individuals. Questions for Joan Sallis should be sent to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, fax 0171 782 32023205, or see ask_the_expert

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