Perils of the fast set

29th November 2002 at 00:00
WILL the Scottish Executive backtrack from its latest position on setting pupils in groups according to their abilities in different subjects? It is notable that Jack McConnell, the First Minister, was more bullish in his approach when he breakfasted with headteachers than was Cathy Jamieson, the Education Minister, when she spoke at the TES ScotlandEdinburgh City Council conference.

There is always a danger that, pressed into unfavourable comparisons with what appears to be "reform" in England, Mr McConnell will be tempted into donning his Action Man suit. If there is one lesson that he and other politicians ought surely to have learnt from educational reform by now, it is that he or she who hesitates is not necessarily lost. We live in an age in which political delivery is judged by the amount of instant activity and excitement it generates; all else is regarded as a technocratic exercise which the media dismisses as dull and, almost by definition, incompetent.

But the results of our extensive poll of secondary heads today (page one and ScotlandPlus) should indeed give pause for thought. These experienced practitioners would embrace any panacea if it worked. Who wouldn't? S1S2 has been a "problem" for as long as most of us have been reading HMI reports. Heads are clear, however, that setting is not a panacea. Many of them are happy to embrace it but only in some subjects and certainly not for all of the first two secondary years. Most are wary about extending it.

That seems a commendably sensible approach. It is, of course, in line with Mr McConnell's much promoted mantras to concentrate on "what works" and not on "one size fits all". Setting, in other words, is fine if it is managed well. The arguments that built up against mixed-ability groupings were precisely the same: the approach is too difficult for teachers to manage. It would be the ultimate irony if the same judgment befell any alternatives that were the product of a rushed fix.

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