The real hot potato is the bottom set

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
According to Alastair Horne, adviser with Angus Council, "setting is wrong" (TESS, November 1). Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?

I recently attended the annual conference of modern languages teachers in Stirling where the keynote speaker, Professor Gordon Millan of Strathclyde University, bemoaned the state of language departments in universities and urged us, as language teachers, to inform the outside world of the gravity of the situation where many departments are facing closure or amalgamation.

A rather inarticulate member of the audience (well, I was nervous!) tried to ask him whether he thought setting would make a difference to the quality and number of students taking up a language. All I remember of his answer was that setting was a "political hot potato".

It seems to me that this "hot potato" is being passed around from researcher to adviser, who can only say that "there is no evidence that setting in itself improves learning".

This fails to acknowledge the real problem in our education system: there are too many disruptive pupils who are unwilling or unable to learn, particularly a modern language. At least setting would ensure that most of these reluctant learners were confined to the same group and therefore allow the vast majority to get on with their learning.

Mr Horne's article also suggests that working-class children are automatically allocated to low sets. But in my experience there are plenty of bright pupils from working-class backgrounds who would benefit greatly from setting, being given challenges and encouragement in the classroom which they do not necessarily receive at home, allowing them a social mobility they are presently denied.

As a language teacher, I have done some extensive research of my own and according to my empirical evidence, there is only one thing that might convince me that setting is a bad idea. It is a question which I dread:

"Joanna, is it your turn to take the bottom set?"

Joanna Mitchell

Moray Park



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