Abolish setting and narrow the gap

14th March 2008 at 00:00
Recent reports from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have posed a significant challenge to Scottish education. The report on Quality and Equity of Schooling in Scotland is largely positive. But one important, and shameful, statistic emerges.

Our highest-attaining young people rank third among the OECD countries, with only Finland and Belgium doing better. Yet our lowest-attaining young people come bottom. In other words, the gap between the highest and lowest is greater in Scotland than in any other OECD country.

Another of its reports, No More Failures: Ten Steps to Equity in Education, defines equity as a combination of "fairness" (ensuring personal and social circumstances are not an obstacle to achievement) and "inclusion" (ensuring a basic minimum standard of education for all). It proposes that, if equity is to be an aim of modern education, we should "limit early tracking and streaming and postpone academic selection".

These two reports should surely cause us to re-examine the practice of setting.

Over the past 100 years, Scottish education has improved in outcomes and has become more inclusive. Neither of my parents went to secondary school. My primary schooling in Drumchapel was good, although selection took place at age 11 or so, and I was one of only six boys who went to a senior secondary in Glasgow, while the others went to junior secondaries.

I achieved enough Highers to get to university. My son, the beneficiary of child-centred approaches, blossomed as a learner. By the time he left secondary, he had taken up public speaking and achieved seven Highers and two Advanced Highers.

We have now an education system that serves its highest-attaining young people well (though the current exam system means that even they do little deep learning). But the gap between them and the lowest-attaining pupils is too high.

Because of pressure from the inspectorate in the 1990s, setting is on the increase, even in primary schools. There is no research evidence to support the practice and we know that, in bottom sets, boys from disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionately represented. So, too, are some ethnic minorities. Gender, socio-economic status, age and ethnicity - all reason for fair and equitable treatment - are in reality factors in underachievement.

We have the pedagogies to make setting a thing of the past. Active learning, Assessment is for Learning, Teaching for Understanding, collaborative learning and thinking skills all offer approaches which are enhanced by mixed-ability classes.

We are even approaching the day when class sizes will be closer to 20 than 30 across the 3-18 age range. And we have A Curriculum for Excellence which is, philosophically, inclusive and equitable.

Setting should be consigned to the dustbin of educational history and we should make closing the gap our major goal in the 21st century.

Time for a Scottish baccalaureate? page 22

Brian Boyd is professor of education at Strathclyde University and was a member of the review group which produced A Curriculum for Excellence.

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