Flawed by its stand on setting

1st November 1996 at 00:00
Brian Boyd outlines his professional objections to setting as proposed by HMSCI Douglas Osler (TESS, October 11). Having now had a chance to read Achievement for All, the HMI report on selection in schools which advocates setting, I would concur with Brian Boyd's criticism, for the document reads as though the conclusion was decided first, and the arguments added afterwards to reach that conclusion. Unfortunately, the arguments have not been well added.

In his forward, Mr Osler states: "There has been no specifically Scottish research undertaken recently which examines the effects of class organisation on learning and teaching". Instead, the report's conclusions are based on evidence collected during inspections. However, one rationale for research is that observations can often be misleading and persuade people to draw false conclusions.

Moreover, although Mr Osler points out that there have been studies in other countries (and no hint is given as to what these found), he cautions against using such studies because of "significant cultural and contextual differences". However, the report has no difficulty in using comparisons with other countries when it suits its purpose as when it highlights Scotland's low placing in an international comparative study of achievement in mathematics and science.

The report states that its main purpose is to identify the reason why "too many young people are failing to sustain progress in the later years of primary and early years of secondary school". It goes on to say that "the reasons for this are complex" and then to identify seven factors which have a bearing. It then chooses to ignore four of these factors, including "the different rates at which pupils develop and mature" - the one many people would regard as the most significant - and instead focuses only on the first three, listing "the ways in which pupils are grouped into and within classes" as number one.

Again, the report offers no research evidence on either the validity of the factors nor on which might be the most significant.

The underlying message of the report is that the organisation of mixed ability classes is time consuming and there should be more whole class teaching. However, having concluded that setting will enable whole class teaching, the report then goes on to suggest that these "set" classes should still be organised into attainment groups because "although setting will reduce the range of attainment in each class, this does not mean that a single approach to teaching should be used in each set".

Finally, the report begins by praising the improving success rates in Scottish schools as measured in examination passes. Moreover, The TES Scotland carries news of research evidence that improved pass rates measure a genuine improvement in standards as the examinations are not getting easier.

If the final result of schooling is that the standards are rising, it is legitimate to suppose that the current, relaxed, mixed-ability class organisation in primary school and through to S2 may have something to do with it. Without research we simply cannot tell.

JUDITH GILLESPIE Convener Scottish Parent Teacher Council

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