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HMI's omission on setting

Adam Gamoran gives an American perspective to Achievement for All.

As an American observer of Scottish education, I am struck by the seriousness of purpose reflected in Achievement for All, HM inspectors' recent report on classroom organisation in Scottish schools. In the United States, local control over education is so strong that agencies of federal and state government have few direct links to schools and little authority over what occurs in classrooms. While this may seem liberating, it means that government sources offer little serious advice to educators, and there is no accepted body of collective wisdom. Compared to Achievement for All, policy documents in the United States lack substance.

The power to speak authoritatively, however, also carries special responsibilities, including a need for thoroughness and balance in weighing the evidence and offering recommendations. How well does Achievement for All meet these standards? In the context of a generally serious and balanced discussion, I find that the report ignores pertinent information and overstates the applicability of its main conclusions. Addressing these concerns is essential as educators consider implementing the report's recommendations. The report considers three forms of classroom organisation: streaming, in which students are divided for the entire school day on the basis of a narrow criterion of intelligence; setting, in which students are divided by academic performance on a subject by subject basis; and mixed-ability teaching, in which classes vary widely in academic performance.

The inspectors quickly dispense with streaming, criticising its outmoded view of intelligence as a fixed and unitary construct, its stigmatisation of low achieving students, and its tendency to allocate resources unequally, favouring students in higher streams. This characterisation, combined with the fact that the report does not even mention selective schools as a possibility, deflates the claims of some critics that the conclusions were determined by politics. Instead, the report seems genuinely guided by a desire to establish classroom conditions that support effective teaching.

In this context, the report provides a balanced account of the advantages and challenges of mixed-ability teaching. Mixed-ability classrooms create an environment in which all pupils can be valued equally, and where social divisions outside the school are not reproduced inside the school. Moreover, the inspectors acknowledge that mixed-ability teaching is effective when teachers manage to differentiate instructional tasks for students with different needs. However, when teachers ignore differences among students, they tend to teach to the middle of the ability range and fail to challenge many students, particularly the most able.

The inspectors combine their assertions about mixed-ability teaching with evidence on classroom organisation and outcomes in the first two years of secondary school to suggest that mixed-ability teaching is not effective at that stage. First, most teaching in S1 and S2 is mixed ability. Second, test scores at that level are low, both in international comparisons and in trends for Scotland over time. Third, students in S1 and S2 often are not challenged academically, whereas students in S3 and S4 face much heavier challenges. Instead of mixed-ability teaching, the inspectors recommend setting as the most appropriate mode of classroom organisation in S1 and S2.

Curiously, however, particularly in contrast to the balanced discussion of mixed-ability teaching, the disadvantages of setting are not seriously discussed. The possibility that students in lower sets may feel "undervalued" is dismissed by asserting that setting is less stigmatising than streaming, and that a supportive school ethos which values all students can mitigate the hurt of low-set placement. Research, not cited in Achievement for All, suggests that implementing setting in this manner is difficult but not impossible.

Other serious problems are not taken seriously. Students from advantaged social classes are more often placed in higher sets, while disadvantaged students are overrepresented in lower sets. In practice, setting often resembles streaming. This occurs because students tend to perform at similar levels across subjects, and because scheduling difficulties can mean that decisions about placement are dictated by logistics rather than educational need. Hence, the social divisions fostered by streaming may be nearly as salient in setting. Finally, students in higher sets tend to encounter higher quality instruction. This possibility is dismissed without explanation in the report, yet it is consistently supported by research from England and America.

Why did the inspectors overlook the disadvantages of setting? Three reasons are apparent. First, they claim that research on the topic conducted outside of Scotland is irrelevant to Scottish education. This view is naive. Few lines of research in education are as strong and consistent as the findings that grouping students by performance is associated with placements that differ by social class; unequal attainment; and differences in quantity and quality of instruction. Clearer standards and closer links between curriculum and examinations in Scotland could mitigate these disadvantages to some degree, but a full and open discussion of their salience in other contexts is essential so the problems can be recognised and, if possible, avoided.

Second, the inspectors place too much emphasis on their own and others' findings that students are not sufficiently challenged in S1 and S2, without looking closely enough at the evidence. Inspection of data reported by Mary Simpson and her colleagues indicates that high achieving students are not the only ones who report a lack of challenge. A substantial proportion of students at all ability levels - high, middle, and low - report that the curriculum in S1 and S2 is too easy. Hence, a first response might be to increase academic challenges for all students in the mixed-ability context. This response might improve teaching and learning in S1 and S2 without resorting to setting.

Third, the underlying view of teaching and learning in Achievement for All is overly mechanistic. Teaching is seen as a technical operation whose main challenges include finding the right "pitch," or difficulty level for students, and ensuring "direct instruction" in which teachers ask and answer questions and provide clear explanations. Yet teaching is a social process in which teachers and students work together, and the impact of teaching depends in part on the social environment of the school and classroom. This social environment is affected by setting, and teachers find it more difficult to establish a positive climate for learning in lower sets. To maintain control, teachers allocate class time to worksheets, for which students work independently at their seats filling in small bits of information. This situation is precisely that which the inspectors wish to avoid - it turns away from direct instruction, and it pitches instruction at too low a level - yet it commonly occurs along with setting due to the social nature of teaching and learning.

Does all this mean there is no place for setting in Scottish education? Not necessarily. Variations in local circumstances means that setting in the early secondary years may be appropriate in some contexts but not others. A school with a socially diverse student body may wish to refrain from setting as long as possible, to avoid emphasising distinctions among students from different backgrounds. HM inspectors should recognise that implementation of recommendations depends to some degree on varying local conditions.

Adam Gamoran is Professor of Sociology and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an associate member of the Centre for Educational Sociology, Edinburgh University.

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