Scotland's leading experts on classroom learning have attacked the Scottish Office's announcement that the Inspectorate is to mount an inquiry into the merits of mixed-ability teaching, streaming and setting in primary and early secondary education (TESS, last week).
Professor Mary Simpson, head of educational research at Northern College, commented: "Research over many decades has failed to find substantial support for the view that if pupils are grouped according to their ability or performance on tests in specific subject areas, their subsequent levels of attainment will be significantly raised."
Brian Boyd of the Quality in Education Centre at Jordanhill points out that most research on the topic in Scotland is 20 years out of date "simply because it has not been an issue here". Even the outdated research is inconclusive, Dr Boyd says.
Professor Simpson adds: "I regard it as an illusion to suppose that a streamed class or a set group can be regarded as homogeneous in relation to pupil learning needs. Behind that illusion there lies the notion that a pupil's measured present attainment is a reliable indicator of what that pupil should study next."
The Inspectorate believes, however, that setting according to subject ability produces a good deal more homogeneity than mixed-ability teaching. Although HMIs have in general felt that all teaching methods and types of class organisation are appropriate providing they suit the purposes of the lesson, the Inspectorate has been notably cautious about mixed-ability teaching even before last week's intervention by the Secretary of State.
The 5-14 "practical guide", published two years ago (see panel), declared that "too heavy a reliance on mixed-ability or social groups can inhibit progress by making it difficult for teachers and pupils to judge an appropriate pace of learning for all pupils".
Despite Professor Simpson's view, endorsed by Dr Boyd, that the issues are more complex than class organisation, the evidence from school inspections is said to be that "many teachers are toiling with mixed-ability classes", as one insider put it. "If you are faced with 30 pupils, limited time and a range of abilities, that is a very, very challenging task for most teachers, although it does not mean they are not good teachers.
"You will tend to revert to very limited teaching methods. The same, of course, can apply to streaming: if you have a bunch of eggheads in front of you, you will tend to talk at them the whole time and assume they are absorbing everything you are trying to teach them."
The Inspectorate would not therefore disassociate itself from Dr Boyd and Professor Simpson in emphasising that the real issue is effective learning and teaching. But Dr Boyd has detected signs that many secondary schools are reverting to subject setting in S1 rather than S2. This is particularly true of maths departments, he says, but also in modern languages and some sciences.
Dr Boyd believes this is a "misguided" response to the publication of school exam tables. But he suggests it is also a result of the misuse of national test results, leading secondaries to take information that was intended to be descriptive of pupil attainment at specific stages and making it serve a predictive purpose.
"Maths attainment has not shot up with the introduction of individualised schemes," Professor Simpson warns. A recent Northern College study of secondary school practice found that where pupils were allocated work according to attainment "the extent to which these new learning tasks met pupils' learning needs was vastly less than in English and in modern languages where whole-class, mixed-ability was the norm, and where the pupils' learning needs were continually evaluated and responded to by the teacher".
Secondary pupils identified teachers' skills in diagnosing their difficulties, helping them and setting targets as the key to improved performance, Professor Simpson says. Attempts to grade them in maths and match them to curricular materials at suitable levels of difficulty were seen as an inferior way of providing challenge and support.
Work on school effectiveness, which the Quality in Education Centre is carrying out as part of a UK study, appears to back that view. "The message which comes across loud and clear," Dr Boyd says, "is that pupils in the early secondary years feel under-challenged, they see themselves being patronised, and schools don't want to know what they have achieved. The subject that comes in for the greatest criticism is maths with pupils being asked to do work they have already done in P5. Schools don't always build on prior knowledge or attainment."
This will confirm the Inspectorate's contention that secondary schools are guilty of a "fresh start" approach in the first year of secondary, which effectively means a slow start for many pupils. It also fits with the findings of the 1993 report on able pupils from P6-S2 and with the surveys of the Assessment of Achievement Programme on pupil performance in P4, P7 and S2 that the early secondary years are a period of marking time.
Jim McNair, secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, says heads feel frustrated that the common course in S1-S2 does not serve the needs of the abler pupil. But Dr Boyd believes that has nothing to do with mixed-ability teaching and everything to do with discontinuity between primary and secondary. "It shows that the major problem in secondary schools is not post-16, but 5-14," he says.
Professor Simpson acknowledges that pupils can benefit from being grouped on the basis of assessed performance "for some learning tasks". The Inspectorate often points out that primary classes are not organised on mixed-ability lines, that Standard grade pupils are allocated to three differing levels and that "multi-level teaching" is being proposed for Higher Still; S1 and S2 are unique.
But Professor Simpson observes: "Unfortunately the secondary school systems are not designed to be flexible. The year-on-year, lock-step age grouping, the rigidity of the subject boundaries, the inflexibility of the timetabling all create a rigid structure. Setting would cement 'ability' into this, and it would come to be regarded as fixed which it demonstrably is not."
It may not, however, be the measured views of the Inspectorate or researchers that will prevail. The issue has been on the Secretary of State's agenda for some time. The TES Scotland reported as early as March 1991 that Michael Forsyth, then education minister, intended to scrap mixed-ability teaching.
This was confirmed nine months later when Mr Forsyth declared in the run-up to the 1992 general election: "I do not believe that mixed-ability classes have been a success. It is unfair to the less able children in particular subjects as much as to the more able."
THE INSPECTORATE VIEW
* For mixed-ability groups
provides opportunities to help each other in a learning task gives pupils opportunities to learn from each other, by hearing a wider range of contributions, for example, each at their own level allows pupils to take a lead encourages team work promotes personal and social development
* Against mixed-ability groups
can prevent some pupils from making rapid progress and others from making sufficient progress makes heavy demands on teachers' skills
* For attainment groups
enables a group of pupils with a similar level of attainment to be taught together at a suitable pace and make good progress helps teachers achieve a good match between teaching activities and the attainments of pupils can provide quality teaching time, attention to individuals within the group and good opportunities for pupils to work together
* Against attainment groups
the allocation of pupils to groups can become inappropriate if based on out-of-date assessments makes heavy demands on teachers' time
From 5-14: A Practical Guide (HMI 1994)