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Let the facts on setting speak for themselves

Evidence that Brian Boyd brought "out into the open" in his article (TESS, December 6) about the Inspectorate's report on Achievement for All was not about setting and mixed ability. It was about streaming and mixed ability.

Dr Boyd seems to use the words setting and streaming interchangeably. This is unfortunate given the strong feelings that most educational practitioners and many members of the public have about streaming. Dr Boyd is correct in his interpretation of the research of the late 1970s and early 1980s about streaming and mixed ability which tends to show no difference on average in academic attainment although there is evidence that the more able benefit least from mixed ability compared to streaming.

The original Banbury study (Newbold 1977) in fact states that "the system of organisation is of less importance for academic standards . . . than the other substantial variables". It is perhaps worth noting that in some of the mixed-ability groups at Banbury setting occurred for some subjects. Just in case anybody thinks I am advocating streaming then let me say I am not. I simply want to say that the research in the late 1970s was not about setting.

As Dr Boyd says, research in the 1980s about mixed ability is thin on the ground. However, it does provide some insights into setting and some of the issues raised by HMI. School Matters (Mortimore et al, 1988), a wide ranging study of school effectiveness in 50 London primary schools, found that where pupils worked on the same task with other pupils of roughly the same ability the effect on progress was positive. This is setting or grouping within mixed ability. May we not speculate that this is evidence for setting working?

A range of studies in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States indicated that direct instruction was a characteristic of improving schools. A "best evidence synthesis" (Gutierrez, Slavin, 1992) of grouping children in primary schools according to performance found that it can have a "positive impact on achievement . . . if it is used to allow teachers to provide more direct instruction to students but not if it is used as a framework for individualised instruction".

I agree with Dr Boyd that most pupils feel that they and their peers should all be treated with equity and this is confirmed in my own discussions with pupils. However, I am not sure that setting-attainment groups in S1 and S2 is inequitable, given the experience of most pupils in seven years of primary education where setting-attainment groups within a mixed-ability class operate for a range of curricular areas.

Perhaps I am naive but I do not feel that comprehensive education is threatened by setting or by introducing attainment groups in the first two years. It should be remembered that mixed ability was really only introduced in a formal way in Strathclyde after the 1981 officer-member report. The Benn and Chitty book Thirty Years On indicates that in 1994 while more than 70 per cent of schools have full mixed ability in the first year only 24 per cent continue the practice into the second with the remainder adopting some setting. It should also be noted that only one school had streaming in all academic subjects in S2. I wonder if it is the diversity and response to the perceived and developing needs of pupils within comprehensive schools that are the keys to success in Scotland rather than a narrow concentration on one methodology. I do not read in the HMI report that only one form of classroom organisation will meet the needs of all, able or otherwise, pupils. The recommendations indicate that whole class teaching should be used as part of a "judicious blend of teaching methods" to sustain effective learning.

Very often criticism of mixed ability in the 1970s was not about mixed ability itself but about the teaching of mixed ability groups and the nature of the material used for these groups. To paraphrase L P Hartley: the past is a different country they do mixed ability differently there. One of the major differences has been the development of differentiated materials within most subjects.

What we need is detailed evidence about what is currently being done in schools in Scotland in mixed-ability classes, set classes and attainment groups. This information should then inform the discussion about how we can achieve the "judicious blend of teaching methods" recommended in the HMI report.

Ron Mitchell is research and development officer for a local education authority. He writes in a personal capacity.

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