Faith is misplaced

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
I am a great admirer of Tom Burnett both as a person and as a headteacher, but I fear that his faith in setting as a means of raising educational achievement is misplaced (TESS, last week).

The finding in Lorna Hamilton's research that setting is on the increase in primary schools is not, in itself, proof that it is efficacious; it may simply be evidence that pressure exerted by HMIE and the stress felt by teachers having to meet targets expressed in terms of 5-14 levels or examination results have forced schools to revert to the "default position" of setting.

Notwithstanding the increase, the evidence for the benefits of setting by attainment is unconvincing. Since the 1997 review by the Scottish Council for Research in Education found that the evidence that setting improved attainment for all was inconclusive, there have been other studies, each adding to the view that organisational solutions to problems of pupil learning are unlikely to succeed.

The study by Dylan Wiliam and his colleagues at King's College London on the effects of setting in maths on more able pupils, Chris Smith's and Margaret Sutherland's study in Scottish schools, and Professor Adam Gamoran's continuing work in the United States and Scotland have all suggested that setting is problematic.

However, the wider issue is surely that of how learning takes place, rather than in what kind of class it takes place. We now know a great deal about how human beings learn. We know, too, that traditional notions of intelligence were incomplete and limiting. We know that the human brain is "modifiable" and that tests which merely measure where a pupil is at the present without trying to determine his or her potential, are likely to give limited, and limiting, information.

If setting, broadbanded or otherwise, is to become the norm, it rather suggests that we as educators are prepared to put organisational solutions above pedagogical strategies in trying to raise achievement for all.

Recent developments such as assessment is for learning, alongside ideas derived from the thinking skills movement, seem to me to offer a more enlightened set of perspectives on the challenge of raising achievement for all. A Curriculum for Excellence offers a view of the future where learning rather than passing exams is the fundamental objective of schools.

Once we open our eyes to this possibility, then the need for setting seems less important than ensuring that all young people, working in collaboration with their teachers, their fellow pupils and their parents, can be supported to realise their potential as learners.

There is too much evidence of a pernicious, self-fulfilling prophecy, particularly in the lower sets, for us to be confident of the benefits of setting. Perhaps what we need is to move on from the setting versus mixed-ability debate and find new ways of engaging all pupils so that they become, in the language of A Curriculum for Excellence, successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens.

Brian Boyd Professor of Education Strathclyde University

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