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Heads voice their views on setting

The First Minister, Jack McConnell, has called for more subject setting in S1 and S2. In a TES Scotland poll of all secondary heads, we asked how many had already introduced setting and how many were prepared to do more. One in six replied and their answers reveal a cautious but steady shift towards setting

Yes to more setting

"We find broadband setting very useful for English and mathematics in S1 and S2. It allows teachers to match the difficulty of the work and the pace more precisely to the attainment levels of the pupils.

"It means these departments must plan suitably challenging courses for each class. The sets with high achieving pupils are now doing Standard grade work for a substantial part of S2.

"It is important to operate a system which allows pupils to move between sets as children develop at different rates over time.

"We would like to extend the use of broadband setting into science but staffing constraints may prevent this. The additional staffing the First Minister was suggesting would perhaps help."

Graham Legge Kemnay Academy Aberdeenshire

"We have setting in S1 and S2 maths, plus S2 French and English. The arrangement is relatively new in both French and English so it is premature to draw conclusions. However, we are happy with the current state of progress and note outstanding improvements in both reading and writing. Setting is clearly not the sole or prime factor here but nonetheless has played some part in the raising of standards."

Colin Maclean Auchinleck Academy Cumnock, East Ayrshire

"We use setting in maths in S1 and S2 and English and French in S2. We might start it earlier in some subjects and possibly introduce it in social subjects.

"Schools need the flexibility to respond to the needs of their pupils. Decisions should be made on the basis of the professional judgment of teachers in the best interests of pupils. I suspect such freedom will lead to more setting."

Carole Ford Kilmarnock Academy East Ayrshire

"We only use setting in maths at present but would consider introducing more, particularly English.

"It's an interesting idea and good that the First Minister has grasped the nettle. It could tie in well with a move to reduce class sizes in S1 and S2. It could help too with inclusion since learning support help could be targeted more effectively at a set class."

Charlie Robertson Kelso High Scottish Borders

"We have flexible setting early in S1 maths and towards December in S2 English. Before this, pupils are often set in English in ability groups for particular tasks within a mixed ability class. Following a similar pattern, modern languages setting is done in January of S2.

"In all three curricular areas this flexible approach continues up to national Standard grade exams, with movement of pupils between sets up to that point."

"Flexible setting, along with other classroom strategies, can be valuable tools to ensure the needs of every pupil, including the more able, are being adequately catered for in terms of pace and challenge.

"Flexible timetabling (blocking of classes where possible) can allow movement between sets. Inflexible setting which rigidly categorises children is to be avoided.

Stephen Shaw Gairloch High Highland

"We have setting in English and maths and would be prepared to introduce it in modern languages.

"The answer is not setting or no setting, but appropriate organisation of classes. This means that in some circumstances pupils will benefit from being in ability groups, whereas in other situations, mixed ability is fine.

"Even within a particular subject, such as English, it could be that some aspects are taught in mixed ability groups, but that others - reading texts - are differentiated by degree of difficulty for a range of class groupings.

"These arguments tend to become polarised and political and it doesn't help teachers and schools to do their best in every circumstance for every pupil."

Pat Sweeney St Margaret's Academy Livingston, West Lothian

"We set in maths, all social subjects, modern languages and partially in English. Setting can be an advantage, especially in subjects which are progressive in nature (as when the lesson depends on the previous one), for example maths and modern languages.

"To set all pupils in S1 and S2 would be impossible. The timetabling constraints would require major restrictions on choice and teacher continuity at senior levels.

"How do you set practical classes? They are not taught at the same time per subject and to set on the basis of, say, science ability might mean they also attend their art classes in science sets, which could be inappropriate."

Ralph Barker Alloa Academy Clackmannanshire

"We have setting in S1 maths and S2 maths, English, social subjects, modern languages and science. We might introduce these in S1.

"Setting is not a panacea to address raising attainment issues. The professional skills of the teacher are of paramount importance. Hence the need for continued emphasis on high quality of professional development.

"Information and communication technology offers huge potential to cater for individual needs.

"Setting needs to be considered very carefully and there must be mechanisms to ensure that students who make good progress can move up a set. If not handled carefully, it can, bring about certain levels of expectation for students within a set. Hence, all students may not be appropriately challenged, as in mixed ability groupings.

Anon Fife

"We support the principle of setting, though it is not always necessary to create separate classes to address the range of ability.

"Our close partnership with our cluster primaries provides us with excellent information on transferring children and we attempt to cater for them appropriately. In English and maths this means separate classes.

"We run a winter after-school programme for able P7 pupils in English, maths and German to ensure that progression to secondary school is seamless."

Anon West Lothian

"Our pupils are in classes based on overall ability from the beginning of S1. All pupils go to maths at the same time and can be further set within that subject. Difficult to set further.

"Most schools have had some form of setting in S1 and in particular in S2 for some considerable time. Pupils are also set based on ability in primary schools.

Anon Edinburgh

No to more setting

"Not in S1. It is important that equal access to the whole curriculum can be demonstrated as pupils begin their secondary education, with appropriate support and challenges of course.

"If pupils were set in S1, what would be the criteria?

"We set in S2 maths and also PE but by psycho-motor ability."

Rosemary Holmes Larbert High Falkirk

"We have no setting at all and would do none. Setting is socially divisive, condemns some pupils to reduced self-esteem and reduced performance thereafter and carries a stigma. More to the point, there is no evidence that it leads to improved attainment levels overall. On the contrary, there is some indication mixed ability teaching is more likely to bring that about."

Jim Cameron Kilchuimen Academy Fort Augustus, Highland

"We only set in S2 maths and would not do more. It's the only thing in Jack McConnell's otherwise very welcome speech that I have difficulty with. Whatever the problems are in S1 and S2 one thing is certain: there is no single solution and we should be careful about giving such an impression because it might appear that schools are being asked to be as inclusive as possible, only to exclude groups of pupils from any experience of a common course, by putting them in sets as soon as they walk in the door."

Frank Lennon St Modan's High Stirling

"We set in S2 maths. English and modern languages but would not do more.

"This is not a simple issue and the idea of setting being good, mixed ability classes bad (and vice versa) is simplistic, misleading and unhelpful. There are curricular areas within the school in which mixed ability is advantageous.

"Parental views on this matter are also strong and it is important that these are taken into account.

Gordon Miller Mearns Academy Lawrencekirk, Aberdeenshire

"We broadband set in S1 and S2 maths and S2 modern languages. After six years of creating a top set in S2, the English department has requested a return to all-through mixed ability teaching based on individual pupilgroup programmes. Setting is irrelevant if true individual pupilgroup programmes and an accurate pupil tracking system is in place."

Bill McGregor James Hamilton Academy Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire

"We set in S1 and S2 maths and are reviewing that. There is no convincing research base to support a move towards more setting. Some studies have shown that it decreases overall attainment. It does appear to increase discrimination by socio-economic status.

"Supporters of setting should answer the following question. Would you want your child to be in the bottom set for any subject?"

Anon Perth and Kinross

"We set in maths only and may revert to mixed ability. I am not prepared to do more unless instructed by the authority.

"The easy answer is a return to setting, despite all the social and motivational disadvantages that were well documented in the 1960s and '70s.

"The correct answer is specialist support in mixed ability classes. If this is adequately resourced we can make it work."

Anon South Lanarkshire

"We set in S2 English and maths. We wouldn't do more for practical, timetabling reasons but the French department would like to.

"Setting is not a solution in itself. It is how learning is organised that is crucial. Setting can help if it is managed correctly.

"A more effective move would be more staffing, particularly qualified learning support staff."

Anon Scottish Borders

"We use setting in S2 English, maths and modern languages.

"We believe that what we have in place is working well. It has the support of staff and we shall consider changing the current arrangements only if there is evidence that they are hindering pupil progress and welfare."

Anon East Renfrewshire

"We use setting in S1 and S2 in maths and modern languages but wouldn't wish to do more. Ability sets are difficult to timetable in a small school and we have found mixed ability groupings work well provided there is sufficient support for those with special needs."

Anon Shetland

"We use setting in S2 maths and English but would not do more. All schools should not be clones. It depends on circumstances."

Anon Scottish Borders

"We use setting in maths only. We have a strong belief in mixed ability classes and our very good results back this up."

Anon Shetland

"We use no setting. It's dangerous to label children as poor at a subject too young."

Anon Scottish Borders


"We set in S1 and S2 English, maths and French and are giving it consideration in science and social subjects. Additional staff and smaller class sizes in S1 and S2 would offer more opportunity for setting but, more importantly, would be the best route to improving attainment."

Robert McClymont Bridge of Don Academy, Aberdeen

"We set in S1 maths and S2 maths, English and modern languages but are unlikely to do more. Setting imposes considerable constraints on a timetable which is already hard-pressed to meet all the needs of an over-crowded curriculum in S1 and S2 while also trying to limit the number of classes (and teachers) pupils have each week.

"This session we are reviewing our S2-S4 curriculum to consider which types of courses should begin after pupils reach level E."

Michael McGrath Our Lady's High Cumbernauld

"We do no setting in S1 but set in S2 in maths, science, modern languages and to a limited extent in English. We would only do more, if, in discussion with subject leaders, we identify a need.

"We would be very reluctant to set in S1 because we structure our classes to bring about integration of pupils from different villages. We mix ability deliberately and accept primary school advice about pupils who are better kept together or apart. We could not set and maintain all of these socialisation and school ethos issues."

John Mitchell Kilsyth Academy North Lanarkshire

"We are too small to have setting between classes. We have class differentiation systems at work in maths, sciences and social subjects. We would only increase setting in S1 and S2 if pupils' ability levels required it.

"Small high schools often can't set classes, especially where there is just one specialist per subject. There can also be social implications. Setting within small year groups can be difficult since most schools of our size operate on a community principle and you need to handle this carefully and sensibly.

"A better approach is to try, as far as possible, to tailor work to the needs of individuals or small groups. This works well and helps to raise personal attainment."

Anon Highland

"We set in English, maths and science. Setting is not the answer to everything. It is about satisfying the needs of every child in the class, which may not only be about raising attainment but also achievement. Setting is only one of many strategies.

"To increase setting across the board can have both positive and negative effects on attitude to those in upper and lower sets. These effects have been discussed many times as the debate goes around and comes back. As with all strategies, it needs to be thought through and put into use only at appropriate times and stages."

Anon Fife

"We use setting in maths only. We encourage flexibility, pupils grouped appropriately according to task. At times this will be according to ability in a particular subject. It may be that mixed ability is more appropriate or it could be single sex groups at times."

Anon East Ayrshire

"We use broadband setting across S1 and S2, linked to language choice, in all non-practical subjects. Our review with staff will dictate how we progress. This will not be completed until February.

"There are tensions between several government education agendas at the moment. The raising attainment agenda is perhaps not best served by mixed ability classes; and the inclusion agenda not best served by an increase in setting. What every school has to do is to work in its own context.

"If we truly want to serve the needs of every child then we have to have the funding to carry that through. Resources spread thinly result in a watered down delivery."

Anon Moray

"We use setting in S2 maths and languages and with reservation may do more if Standard grade is introduced to S2 in English and maths.

"I have great caution in this. The tools for establishing sets are very crude and the loss of confidence to youngsters in lower sets is inestimable - and researched.

"I distrust setting, although inevitably it does occur in S3 onwards. Even there I have doubts.

"The way I would like to see things move forward is to work with methodologies which engage and include all youngsters. Mixed ability does not work as well as it should: that I believe is because little has been done to look at the best way of working with this method of organisation.

"Nor do I seek set groups within the one classroom, although at times that should be employed.

"Differentiation has so far engaged staff in thinking of bilevel worksheets in many ways."

Anon North Lanarkshire

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