Pressured into setting

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Your two correspondents last week, Brian Boyd and Colin Weatherley, fail to answer the reasons why Tom Burnett and many other school managers are turning to discredited organisational solutions such as streaming and setting across all stages.

This is particularly striking, of course, in the context of inclusive education and the publication of A Curriculum for Excellence which is about raising achievement (as opposed to certification) and promoting success, confidence and responsibility among all pupils. Their failure to deal with this contradiction will make their argument sound particularly hollow, pious and unconvincing to many managers and teachers.

They both counterpose the need for teachers and pupils to establish collaborative learning communities and find a classroom methodology that respects individual learners' needs and abilities. I couldn't agree more.

So why setting? The turn to more exclusive organisational practice is taking place in response to four things: the pressure arising from target-setting and raising certification agendas; the failure to deliver on the promise of lower class sizes; the growing and persistent indiscipline of a minority in the classroom; the backlash of the more articulate parents and pupils who are, quite rightly, concerned about the perceived threat to their well-being, learning and development.

Managers and teachers are succumbing to these pressures as coping strategies in very difficult circumstances where they feel stretched in delivering a safe, happy learning experience for all.

As a classroom teacher for 26 years (and still standing), I have immense sympathy for this reaction but am afraid it will not take us very far in providing any educational solution and will only compound the problems we face in the future.

Unfortunately, existing secondary school organisation makes it difficult to target intervention for those young people who do find the mainstream classroom a challenge and for whom we should explore creative and educational solutions (as opposed to missing classes due to absence, latecoming, standing in corridors or sitting around and standing outside offices on referrals, even exclusion - only to return to class as angry or humiliated or alienated as before to threaten and disrupt teaching and learning).

Setting focuses on ability levels predetermined by the curriculum. It is obvious that attendance, motivation, confidence, the willingness to co-operate and self-esteem are far more important in successful learning and a positive school experience, and not some unreliable and narrow notion of ability. We are in danger of losing sight of this.

Tom Burnett claims that "providing the climate is right . . . setting or broad-banding undoubtedly has many benefits". Unfortunately, there is no reliable evidence to show these many benefits. In my experience, it is only when there is something seriously wrong with the climate that schools seek refuge in simple organisational solutions.

Brian Boyd says we have to move on. In the absence of the support, strategy and resources to do so, I'm afraid that is not easily done for us in the classroom who would indeed like to move on and convince others to go with us.

Hugh Donnelly EIS Education Committee (in a personal capacity)

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