The case for setting must not be a political football
Their report, Achievement for All, is not intended as a response to political concerns about standards and pupil progress. No doubt ministers will use it to endorse their policies, but they will not find in it any apology for left-wing deviationist errors of the 1960s and 1970s when egalitarian ideas allegedly ruled the classrooms. Recantation may be the order of the day among senior professional advisers south of the border, but the authors of Achievement for All are to be congratulated on sticking by the belief of the overwhelming majority of teachers that past methods of organising schools and classes are matters of history. They have been replaced by better ways and although these may need refinement, professional judgment is preferable to political dictate.
Teachers naturally do not all have the same ideas. Some are wedded to mixed-ability classes in the lower secondary. They believe that a system of class organisation that serves primaries well should be continued at least until the end of the 5-14 programme. They have researchers' evidence to back them: Mary Simpson and others have suggested that differentiated teaching is feasible and successful in secondary as well as primary. Pupil attainment rises generally when slower learners are grouped with their speedier peers.
The HMIs do not rebut the mixed-ability case head on. But they say that it fails to address the burdens placed on teachers. They surely have a point: getting the best out of all pupils in a mixed-ability class is no doubt possible for the most gifted teachers, who may well be the strongest advocates of such an approach. But the arguments for creating attainment groups, especially in the key subjects, should win the day if the needs of the whole system are taken into account.
Many secondaries already practise setting. If it becomes the norm, as the report wants and as HMIs on school visits would expect to see, there will be claims that political pressure has forced the issue. Teachers who already divide their classes by attainment would resent that. They would accept the underlying argument of the HMIs that professional judgment points in one direction whatever the politicians may say.
Achievement for All will have failed if it becomes a political football. It is unlikely to divide the parties in the election run-up. Labour is at least as keen on rigour these days as the Government. But it would be a pity if, armed with the HMIs' conclusions, ministers were to become heavy-handed with education authorities or headteachers.