Government inspectors will not force secondary schools to set first and second-year pupils by ability in key subjects. But headteachers will have to justify their policy if they do not use setting, Graham Donaldson, deputy senior chief inspector of schools, told East Renfrewshire heads this week.
Mr Donaldson dismissed claims that research did not back the Government's approach to classroom organisation. In a speech intended to rebut "misconceptions" about the Achievement for All report, published last October, Mr Donaldson insisted inspectors "will not seek to prescribe one form of class organisation for all schools".
His address was also a counter to the stinging criticism levelled by Brian Boyd, associate director of the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University, who claims there is no research evidence to support the drive to raise achievement based on setting.
The latest Government White Paper on education, published last Friday (pages 4-5), unequivocally backs attainment groups in primary and broad-band setting in English and mathematics in S1 and possibly in other subjects by S2. The report notes that some setting is already in place and stresses this is a "good foundation on which to build".
Mr Donaldson said: "The way pupils are organised for learning must be subject to dispassionate, professional judgment which examines the merits and implications of different approaches in the context of the individual circumstances of the school and in the best interests of each pupil."
Mr Donaldson, chief author of Achievement for All, backed organising pupils "within classes or into classes" based on prior attainment, although he supported movement between groups.
He accepted that the advice to schools was based almost entirely on HMI inspections and said that research findings had proved "inconclusive", with none of the studies mirroring conditions in Scottish schools.
Headteachers remain suspicious about the Government's intentions, but Jim McVittie, head of the heavily subscribed St Ninian's High in Eastwood, commented: "The significant thing is that while there is a clear steer towards setting, inspectors will not come into individual schools to impose setting. As a staff, we can exercise professional judgment."
Mr McVittie, whose school is currently undergoing inspection, said he would find it difficult to endorse setting in S1 and S2 when the research was not conclusive. The school currently uses mixed-ability teaching within broad attainment groups based on 5-14 levels, supported by co-operative teaching. A staffing equivalent of 9.5 teachers is used to target specific learning needs.
Mr McVittie believed there was a social function to education that segregation of children by strict setting could damage. "This could have the opposite effect on raising standards," he said.
Kenny Dykes, head of Barrhead High, said there was unanimous approval among colleagues for the six key principles for organising teaching set out in Achievement for All and for the flexibility heads would retain. But he shared the doubts about a move to setting when the research failed to support the arguments.
"Heads were not convinced about this," Mr Dykes said.
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