Sad to see new Labour adopting the Conservatives' approach

21st June 1996 at 01:00
Tony Blair's decision to announce his views about setting in comprehensive schools is a bad step because it tells us a great deal about the way the Labour party is thinking about controlling education.

Even if we assume that there is incontrovertible evidence for the value of setting, then it would be more appropriate, in dealing with professionals, to publicise this evidence and leave to teachers the decision of whether to implement setting in their schools. The processes of inspection, governors' actions and parental influence would be sufficient to ensure that the desire for high-quality education would ensure that all appropriate classes would be set.

Tony Blair's announcement suggests he believes that the evidence is clear, but that he does not trust teachers to work it out for themselves; that he, and the Labour party, have to make it blindingly clear what teachers have been missing. We are more used to the Conservatives behaving in this way and it is alarming to see "new Labour" adopting the same approach.

The truth is that the evidence is equivocal. The influence of teachers' views, whether they are personally committed to setting or mixed-ability teaching, have a large impact on the effectiveness of the method employed. The impossibility of setting where there is only one class in an option group does not seem to have been catered for.

In some schools, some subjects are taught in half year groups because of a shortage of appropriate classrooms, increasing the range of ability in each class. In small comprehensives, this can mean that the whole range of pupils are divided between two classes, and even setting these still leaves, essentially, mixed-ability classes.

Setting also imposes restrictions on timetabling, by requiring all classes to be taught the same subject at the same time, leading to choices of subjects being restricted.

The research evidence on the effectiveness of grouping is unclear, since data has been collected in different ways and in different contexts. It is my understanding that it would be impossible at this stage to state with certainty that one method or other is best for examination achievement.

Of course, schools have to have regard to other factors, such as personal social development and working in teams, and these are also important and complicate the decision of which teaching method to adopt.

John Oversby Department of science and technology education University of Reading Bulmershe Court Earley, Reading.

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