An Edinburgh academic has floated the idea of bussing pupils from different socio-economic catchment areas to school, to ensure that each institution has a mix of social backgrounds.
Some city schools serve almost exclusively middle-class areas, while others draw their pupil roll from deprived catchments with all their myriad problems, said Linda Croxford of Edinburgh University's Centre for Educational Sociology.
This was less profitable for all pupils and exacerbated the attainment gap between rich and poor, she argued in a fringe meeting at the Educational Institute of Scotland's annual conference this month. It is an aspect of Scottish education criticised by the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development.
Dr Croxford acknowledged that bussing would be an "extreme solution". A less drastic remedy, she told The TESS, would be for local authorities to engineer school catchment areas to make them more mixed. "Some authorities have attempted to create more mixed catchments, by the way they have drawn the boundaries for each school," she said.
Social segregation in and between schools posed problems, she continued, and attacked the inspectorate for "pushing" the setting of pupils by ability, claiming it labelled pupils, exacerbated inequalities and reinforced low expectations.
HMIE still advocated the approach, she said, in spite of its own research which found there was "no consistent and reliable evidence of positive effects of setting". Setting reinforced class divisions, increased the likelihood of delinquent behaviour and lowered teacher expectations of the less able; these were "well documented".
Teachers in Dr Croxford's audience described setting as "shameful". One said that each time he was required to set S1 for entry into S2, it destroyed "part of my soul". The English teacher admitted: "We are not setting by ability but by (social) class, to a large extent."
However, another argued: "I would have difficulty explaining to my parents why their kids did not do so well because I was not able to put them together with pupils of equal skills and determination."
Dr Croxford replied that research showed mixed-ability classes were beneficial for all pupils because teachers were less likely to make assumptions about each pupil's level.
"Piecemeal" funding for projects that could narrow the gap between rich and poor pupils had to end, Dr Croxford continued. Things could only get worse for pupils living in poverty in the current economic climate, she warned. "Who will suffer more at a time when there is competition for resources than those who are the most vulnerable?"
It was not just about funding, but policies, she argued. "If your priority is to attract pushy middle-class parents to your school to raise levels of attainment, your policies are going to be quite different than if equality of opportunity and outcome are your priority."
Brian Boyd, emeritus professor of education at Strathclyde University, has also reiterated his view that setting is "anti-inclusive". In a new publication by the EIS, he claims such policies could be open to legal challenge under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Children's Act (1995) and the Education (Scotland) Act (2000).
Both academics have contributed to Poverty and Education: breaking down the barriers.
In it, the union calls for setting and streaming policies to be challenged; ring-fencing and targeted funding to be restored; more money to be provided for schools in areas of deprivation; trainee teachers to be taught about the impact of poverty and deprivation; and "full funding" for Curriculum for Excellence.