It is too early to decide whether this week's research paper on streaming and setting (page three) is answering an out-of-date question. The survey of evidence, from North America as well as the United Kingdom, was commissioned by the former government to accompany its paper on Achievement for All, which made a case for setting of pupils, if not for streaming. No doubt the briefing papers being read this week by Scottish Office ministers invite them to decide on their attitude to an issue dear to the heart of their predecessors. They will get little practical help from the research review.
Its authors, Wynne Harlen and Heather Malcolm, conclude that some studies lend support to ability grouping, while others point in the opposite direction. But on one matter they appear agreed: there is little to suggest that the ablest pupils are disadvantaged by mixed-ability classes in their early secondary years.
Underachievement was a concern of the last government. The conclusion of the research review is that class organisation is not the only factor. How a teacher handles pupils of varying abilities must be significant, but there is not enough chalkface evidence to allow that to be taken into calculation. The review is still useful. It brings together manifold studies and suggests that they should be evaluated using a concept of "best evidence synthesis". In other words, not all are of equal merit. The review also clears up a misconception that dogged the political debate earlier this year. Primary schools discriminate among pupils by ability. So why is the practice abandoned in many secondaries for S1 and S2? Harlen and Malcolm point out the difference between secondary setting, which involves forming whole classes by ability or achievement, and the creation of ability groups within a primary class. They also note that whereas mixed-ability work may be difficult in mathematics and modern languages, it is less so in the social subjects, which do not depend so heavily on accumulated concepts and knowledge.
For new ministers the conclusion should be clear. Classroom organisation is not a matter for Government fiat, or even for uniform policy across an education authority. In some schools the social disadvantage of setting - that pupils whose self-esteem needs boosting are discouraged if placed in a "low" set - is the most important criterion. In other schools a majority of teachers may favour selection by ability, at least for some subjects by S2. Heads and their staffs should be allowed to make a professional judgment. The available evidence offers no better alternative.