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Schools set because they know it works

Primary school setting is back in the headlines (TESS, May 20). Research from Edinburgh University has given us a picture of its use across Scotland and the regular debate that setting inspires has overflowed on to the letters page of this journal. Setting is controversial because of its division of children into ability classes for teaching in a particular subject, and selection by ability sits uneasily, for some, with the equality-for-all approach practised since the 1960s.

So one of the surprises of the Edinburgh research is the large number of primary schools (72 per cent) which have experience of setting. I didn't realise it was so widespread. Interestingly, the research also shows that schools found little encouragement from above to try setting and, almost always, the initiative came from within individual schools.

Setting is not an easy option for a school. It has to be timetabled so that mixed-ability classes can easily change to ability classes, while there are implications for the flexibility of visiting expressive arts teachers and of other classes in the school. Nor can organisation be over-rigid. The occasional placing of a child in the wrong group must be remedied speedily.

Setting must also benefit all children so it often requires additional staffing, perhaps involving a promoted member of staff who is then unavailable for other duties. The complications mean that any headteacher looking for a quiet life will not venture into setting unthinkingly.

A headteacher on the setting road should also be prepared for disapproval.

Not from teachers, pupils or parents, but from education experts. They will not condemn outright, but quiet disapproval is evident by their attitude and patronising questions.

"Do you know that there is no research to support setting?" (So what? There's a lot we do that is not supported by research.) "What do your parents say?" (This is a trick question in which they hope to catch you out on lack of consultation.) "How do you provide for children with learning difficulties, oops I mean additional support needs?" (Another trick.) "How much time do you allocate to maths?" (When all else fails, try to get me on failure to provide a balanced curriculum.) I am not sure why our experts are so disapproving. Are they put out that setting is an approach which comes from individual teachers and schools and not from above? Or are they so wedded to the 1970s fuzziness of integrated days and endless "centres of interest" that they are only pretending to support the Scottish Executive's emphasis on attainment? Or is it because sensible setting finds support with HMIE and the experts would rather that inspectors stick to inspecting and stop giving advice? Whatever the reason, don't expect encouragement.

Any school considers setting for one purpose only - to raise attainment and to raise it for all pupils. In the absence of any supporting research (and it's unlikely there can be any, given the multitude of variables), teachers critically draw on their own experience. The large number of schools using some form of setting implies widespread belief in its value.

Statistics are not everything. The focus on a narrower ability range should result in better learning. A smarter pace and easier access to a teacher's attention should be evident at all levels. As for pupils with difficulties, they can benefit most from a small class and a dedicated teacher.

French and Dutch electors gave their governments a poke in the eye when they rejected the proposed European constitution. They took the opportunity to tell their political elites that they are remote from the concerns of ordinary people. Scotland also has an educational elite. Its members do not find their daily work in schools but they decide the policies and directions which affect those who do.

A sneering attitude to setting, in the face of the efforts and concerns of many schools, shows that it is not only political elites who can be out of touch.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary, Perth.

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