Setting creates ‘double disadvantage’ for poor pupils

Setting by ability is more likely in Scotland than abroad, despite warnings that it promotes social class differences

Emma Seith

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Pupils in Scottish secondaries are more likely to be grouped by ability than those in almost any other western country outside of the UK, new figures show, prompting one leading academic to warn that setting puts poorer pupils at a “double disadvantage”.

An inclusion expert has also warned that grouping by ability is now increasingly common in Scottish primary schools – just as the government is striving to “close the attainment gap” between the most and least well-off pupils.

Although Scotland has among the least academically selective school admissions systems in the world, last week’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results show that almost 92 per cent of Scottish secondaries grouped students by ability for “some subjects”. This compared with an average of 38 per cent across member nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which runs Pisa.

Grouping by ability within classes for some subjects is also more likely to take place in Scotland – 85.7 per cent against an OECD average of 50.5 per cent.

Professor Becky Francis, director of University College London’s Institute of Education, said that grouping by ability caused the lowest attainers – who tended to come from disadvantaged backgrounds – to perform significantly worse than if they were placed in mixed-ability classes. She also hit out at the “cultural assumption or myth” that it is harder to teach mixed ability.

Professor Francis told TESS: “Given that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to be over-represented in these [lower] sets and streams, the disadvantage is doubled because they come into the system behind their more affluent peers and then are subject to practices that we know will have a detrimental impact on their progress and educational outcomes.”

'Detrimental impact' of setting

Professor Sheila Riddell, an inclusion expert at the University of Edinburgh, said that setting was fine for children in top groups, who would largely be from middle-class backgrounds, but had a “very detrimental effect” on lower groups, likely to be from poorer backgrounds.

“Setting has the effect of promoting social class differences rather than eroding them,” she said. “My impression is that primary schools in Scotland do a lot of setting by ability, placing children in different groups for reading and maths, which is going to depress the expectations of children from poorer backgrounds right from the start.”

Professor Francis, who is leading a major research project into the issue of setting involving 140 secondaries, said that the problem with grouping by ability is not just the impact on the confidence and self-esteem of the pupils who find themselves in the bottom classes.

Lower-ability classes, she said, tend to be assigned worse teachers, expectations tend to be low, courses are less demanding and there is often little movement between classes.

This is an edited version of an article in the 16 December edition of TESS. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click hereTESS magazine is available at all good newsagents.

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