18th June 2004 at 01:00
Answers your questions

I am a fairly new parent governor of a comprehensive. Do you think governors should have any say over whether we have mixed-ability classes or sets (which I think used to be called streams)?

Parents think brighter children are held back in mixed classes and that the less able disrupt lessons.I have tried my best to raise this issue because I agree with them. But I have not had much luck. I am told that this is a professional decision and also that the education authority makes the rules. Surely something so basic to school success and of so much concern to parents ought to be decided by governors after consultation with parents?

I agree that this is a hot issue. Only a couple of weeks ago I was in a hall crammed with parents talking about it. I wish there were simple answers both on the rights and wrongs of setting and the responsibility for deciding about it. Of course a good school will listen to what parents say and also discuss policy decisions with governors.

Every secondary's curriculum committee ought to review each year how different ability levels are handled and professionals should be there to defend their beliefs.

But in the end I do think the decision is one for head and staff - but not until they have listened to everybody. (The LEA doesn't decide for the school but has advisers who give expert opinions.) Yes, governors are responsible for "the general conduct of the school" and academic performance. But what we have to judge is outcomes - and that's why we need to be convinced about what works best in our particular school, and there should be discussion.

Remember, however, that schools, and their governors, need to look to the success of all pupils: it's often parents of able, not slower, children who argue strongly for sets.

The case for sets isn't that simple either. There's more than one point of view among teachers. Some agree that more homogeneous groups do better, while others stress the stimulation which students get from each other and the demoralisation of being put in a uniformly slow group.

Streaming means the segregation of pupils by ability for all subjects.

Setting involves separate classifications for each subject, so that a child may be in a high set for one subject and a low one for others, and is much more common now.

In many schools pupils will be set for some subjects - generally subjects such as maths where progress may depend very much on keeping up with a logical sequence of skills - and kept in mixed-form groups for, say, English literature where there is more scope for discussion and interaction. Generally there is the possibility for changing sets as pupils develop.

Questions School Governors Ask, a compilation of Joan Sallis's columns, is available from The TES bookshop, price pound;7.95 : call 0870 4448633 or see Send your questions to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Fax 020 7782 3202, or see where the answers to submitted questions will appear.

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