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Setting by ability has its limitations

The best part of my job is that I get to visit schools on a weekly basis and observe the learning and teaching process. One thing I've noticed during my visits is how necessity is the mother of invention particularly regarding the organisation of learning.

East Lothian is fortunate to have many small schools, which results in the "dreaded" (by parents) composite class. In such a situation, the teacher might have three or four different year groups represented in the same class. There is no alternative, so the teacher must organise learning in such a way that every pupil in the class gains access to the curriculum and makes progress.

Contrast this with the secondary school, where it is possible to split a single year group into "ability" groups and give responsibility for each group to a single teacher.

The logic of such setting appears to be compelling. It's surely easier for the teacher to teach one level in a class. The pupils in a set have access to a curriculum that is tailored to them and work with others of the same ability. The confidence of pupils of lower ability is not compromised by being in the presence of "abler" peers. Lastly, schools can focus their support staff on the less "able". Of course, the above depend upon the premise that we can make accurate judgments about ability and that each set is a homogeneous group requiring no further differentiation.

There also exists an unspoken, yet powerful, reason for ability setting, which is the presumption that pupils of lower ability are those likely to disrupt classes. By removing them from the presence of those who "want to learn", the teachers are able to make progress with the curriculum. Finally, HMIE has promoted setting since 1996 as the preferred mode of organising learning.

It's a brave headteacher, then, who would challenge such forces in favour of ability setting especially where the scale of the school makes it easy to facilitate.

Yet the small-school headteacher faces no such pressure and, although he or she might look to emulate some of the setting models from larger schools, the prime modus operandi is the use of groups characterised by careful planning, differentiation and personalisation.

I spoke to such a group of pupils in a P5-7 class last week and asked if they saw any disadvantages with the set-up they saw none. Yet, when I asked them what the advantages were, I got a long list which included: "You get to hear things that you've done before but didn't perhaps understand the first time"; "You get to help people in the class who are doing new things"; and "You get to see what you will be doing next year".

In the summer, I was fortunate enough to listen to Norman Kunc who has cerebral palsy and has the most challenging views about how schools unwittingly prevent children from having any sense of belonging to the education system they experience.

Kunc used Maslow's hierarchy of needs and pointed out that modern society values mastery over belonging yet, in Maslow's hierarchy, mastery cannot be achieved unless the "need" for belonging is first fulfilled. The result is that young people disengage from the learning process and seek out other groups with whom they can form an allegiance and fulfil their need to belong.

I am not decrying setting in all circumstances but I question the artificial limits and fixed expectations which extensive setting places upon children, particularly in the early years of secondary school.

As a former secondary headteacher who allowed setting in maths and English, I wish I had had the courage of my convictions to explore alternative and more positive ways to create "classrooms without limits".

Don Ledingham

is head of education at East Lothian Council

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