Five reasons change was needed

11th October 1996 at 01:00
Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector of schools, explains the background to the Inspectorate's proposals to make setting the norm in the first two years of secondary school. In January, the Secretary of State asked the Inspectorate to enquire into and report on good practice in the organisation and management of classes in primary and early secondary education with particular reference to the relative merits of organising classes by mixed ability, streaming and setting.

That request was prompted by concerns about classroom organisation, about S1S2 in particular, about challenges for the ablest pupils, about support for those with learning difficulties but also about the progress being made by all pupils. Why do we feel the need to give this advice at this time? There are a number of reasons.

* There is concern to improve the levels of attainment at all stages in education; we believe that the way in which pupils are grouped together for learning is a factor in effective learning and in good teaching.

* In some primary school classrooms, there are too many groups working on too many aspects of the curriculum at the same time, thus diverting the teacher's time away from direct teaching, whether to individuals, groups or the whole class.

* In some secondary schools, inadequate account is taken of pupils' primary school learning and planning what they do in S1, often because the pupils in any one class are at too many different stages.

* There has been widespread concern about the pace and level of attainment in S1S2 for many pupils. In particular, the evidence is that we need to pay more attention to maintaining progress in English and mathematics throughout school and because of their importance to success elsewhere in the curriculum.

* The demands on teachers arising from the need to differentiate work for too many levels of attainment can lead to inappropriate teaching styles and can divert teachers away from direct teaching, making it difficult for them to base work on prior learning and to plan the next stages of learning for individual pupils.

We have, at present, the anomaly that pupils are grouped frequently by ability for aspects of their primary education, grouped again for work towards Standard grade but organised mainly in mixed-ability classes without effective use of attainment groupings in the intervening years at S1 and S2 when there is the added problem of an increased number of subjects to study and a limited amount of time allocated to many of these subjects.

On streaming, we are quite firm. Streaming was based on a concept of general intelligence and an assumption that intelligence as a form of innate capacity would deliver achievement across all subjects. This is no longer the accepted definition of ability. Streaming does not accord with a number of the key principles and is not considered to be an appropriate form of organisation.

Mixed ability is a form of organisation which is prevalent in S1S2 in Scotland and also in primary schools although few primary schools operate mixed-ability classes without some form of grouping. Mixed-ability teaching can undoubtedly work but it relies on the effective use of attainment groups within the class.

Its inherent complexity places very heavy demands on teachers, in some subjects more than others and on the management and resourcing of classes. This complexity takes teachers away from direct teaching, makes it difficult to base learning on an individual's previous attainment and to assess and feedback regularly. In primary schools, there should be more use of attainment groups within classes, certainly for English and maths.

Setting has several merits and is consistent with all the key principles (see panel above). Given that most primary classrooms use a form of attainment grouping at least in English and mathematics and that setting is a common method for organising pupils into teaching groups for Standard grade courses, it is hard to find compelling reasons why there should be such a significant difference of approach in S1 and S2.

Schools are reluctant to form sets in S1S2 although setting by ability within the class has been a feature of some aspects of primary education. This reluctance is often based on the lack of reliable assessment information from previous stages or from teachers own assessment. 5-14 changes that picture significantly. There is now no reason why sets cannot be formed on the basis of primary assessments in English and mathematics, grouping to-gether broad bands of ability.

Effective setting requires careful account to be taken of prior learning, enables direct teaching to take place and makes fewer demands on teachers because it is easier to match teaching and learning to pupils' needs.

There are, of course, some fears which are commonly expressed about setting on the grounds that it may lead to inappropriate expectations of pupils in different sets and to less motivation for those in lower sets; there might also be concern that there will be unequal allocations of staff and resources. There is no suggestion that these sets will be narrowly selective - they should be broad banded to allow for different rates of progress within the set but all will be within "reach of each other".

We believe that course planning in schools and teachers' ability to adapt resources have reached a stage where there is much less danger that there will be one type of course for faster sets and another for slower sets who will get the leftover resources. Nor should it be assumed that pupils with special education needs will necessarily be in the slower sets for all subjects.

Nevertheless, teachers and departmental managers must be alert to any suggestion that setting or using attainment groups within a class can reduce expectations or esteem for lower sets. Pupils' entitlement to work within the 5-14 curriculum framework within all sets should reduce these concerns. All pupils should be progressing towards defined targets at a pace best suited to them. Attainment groups and setting, when used flexibly, can enable the teacher to meet the needs of pupils who make faster or slower progress than anticipated.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today