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Directors challenge HMI over setting

The Inspectorate's drive to encourage subject setting has met scepticism bordering on hostility from directors of education.

Mike McCabe of South Ayrshire gave notice this week of refusing to comply with the recommendations of Achievement for All, the HMI report commissioned in January by the Secretary of State. "We will certainly take soundings from parents and our staff but, if they are happy with the present arrangements, we will be very reluctant to change them," Mr McCabe said.

He was "very, very concerned" at the prospect of labelling children. "It is not difficult to put a label on pupils and you have got to be very careful about the accuracy of the information you use. I am not really sure what broad-banding means and how pupils would move between bands.

"All the evidence in education is that prophecies become self-fulfilling and my inclination would be to delay putting a label on young people for as long as possible."

Ian McMurdo of West Dunbartonshire agreed with the inspectorate that managing a wide range of abilities within a single class is a difficult job for teachers. But he, too, cautioned against "categorising pupils into ability bands which may militate against progression. We cannot return to a system which categorises children as successes and failures. Professional judgment, not political ideology, is what should determine class organisation at the end of the day."

John Stodter of Aberdeen challenged the view that children necessarily learn best when placed alongside those of similar abilities. "The bottom set, for example, will have the youngsters who struggle most and who are also likely to have social and behavioural problems. It could well be counter-productive placing them together, whereas spreading them out across the range of mixed abilities is more likely to be helpful."

Mr Stodter also said setting could pose timetabling and staffing problems: an S1 intake of 180 to 210 pupils might require six to eight sets.

Ken Macleod of Dumfries and Galloway says his major concern is that "there is to be no latitude for schools and that they are going to be judged by HMI on the basis of this report. That is contrary to our policy of leaving schools with a degree of responsibility, which is particularly important in a rural area."

All directors, however, welcome the clear rejection of streaming according to a general measure of ability. "It is important that this discredited approach, which was damaging to so many children in the past, is not reintroduced into Scottish schools," John Travers of North Ayrshire commented.


HMI's key principles

Class organisation of pupils should: * Create conditions which motivate pupils to make sustained progress in learning within a common curriculum framework.

* Be flexible in responding to pupils' academic, personal and social development.

* Make it clear that the achievements and progress of each pupil are valued.

* Promote teaching, which builds on the prior learning and attainment of pupils.

* Free teachers to spend most of their time on direct teaching and enable pupils to work effectively on challenging tasks.

* Be feasible and appropriate in terms of expectations of teachers and pupils.

The key principles require teachers to have * Information on pupils' prior attainment, which they have gathered themselves or which has been reported by previous teachers.

* Sufficient, sustained time with groups of pupils to enable them to assess each pupil's attainment regularly, to take account of preferred learning styles and to provide well-considered feedback on pupils' progress.

* Access to good quality resources which support differentiation.

* A clear understanding of what pupils are expected to achieve.

* Carefully planned programmes or courses which provide an overall coherence for the work of the class.

* Good classroom management skills.

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