Secondaries may need to use setting by ability and new timetabling if they want to deliver the objectives of Curriculum for Excellence.
That was the message last week from Tony Conroy, education consultant and former head, who warned senior managers and school timetablers that HMIE would be looking for evidence that pupils were making better progress in S1-2 and were being offered personalisation and choice under CfE.
The best way to do that was to timetable S1-3 classes in blocks for all subjects, which made it easier to group pupils by ability and allow them to work at an appropriate level. That meant giving the lower and upper school equal priority when creating the timetable, said Mr Conroy, former head of St Ninian's High in Kirkintilloch.
"The reason kids are not progressing in S1-2 is because of us," he told some 90 delegates at a conference in Irvine.
"The vast majority of teachers find it difficult in a mixed-ability section - and that is why the vast majority of kids are treading water. Kids are less likely to be treading water if they are set or blocked."
Too many lower-secondary subjects were timetabled as single mixed-ability classes, stuck into gaps in the rest of the timetable "like tiles in a mosaic", which left departments with no flexibility to move pupils into classes organised by broad-banding or setting, he said.
Mr Conroy identified the main questions facing schools in the transition to 2013-14, when the new National 4 and 5 exams come in, as:
- How does everyone work at an appropriate level so that they are not treading water?
- What about personalisation and choice? How do they fit that in?
- When do they have the choice point?
- When do pupils start the Standard grade course or new National 4 course?
- When do they move from a level 3 to a level 4 course?
- When, if a pupil is very good, do they start their Higher work?
Mr Conroy said almost all these issues could be addressed more easily if each subject was timetabled in a block so that all pupils in a year-group were taught it at the same time. But he warned that staffing cutbacks meant it would become increasingly difficult to construct timetables and that schools would have to be more efficient in their use of staff than ever before.
"Regardless of whether you are using a 30-period week or a 33-period week (which is more efficient), part-time staff are not efficient," he said.
A teacher working 0.7 of a week was theoretically available for 16.8 periods per week - but that meant that the teacher could only be timetabled to work 16 periods and the remaining 0.8 of a period was lost to the timetable.
Traditionally, part-time teachers working on a contract for 0.4, or two- fifths, of a week have tended to be timetabled to work two full days out of five. That might no longer be possible if schools "blocked" more subjects in a timetable. Instead, they might have to teach across three shorter days to make the timetable work, he said.