Setting by any other name . . .

5th December 2003 at 00:00
TO set or not to set? Setting or so-called broadbanding is now common throughout primaries and secondaries in the core subjects that promote numeracy and literacy. Ministers want more of it in the first two years of secondary, although they are careful to say "it is not a universal recommendation".

But their qualification is not working. An Edinburgh University study (page 1) is beginning to show that teachers have already adopted first the HMI's and now the First Minister's admonitions on setting. It is less of a suggestion, more a command that many, truthfully, believe is the best way to manage a class and improve learning for all. If it has worked for P6 and P7, why not down the age range? So six-year-olds are now regularly in ability groups. You might call it differentiation and more appropriate pacing.

Earlier this year we also reported a small study in Stirling which showed that five-year-olds know that their abilities - assessed by the teacher - determine which reading or maths group they are in. This can have an impact early on in primary on motivation and self-esteem and similar doubts exist among many at whatever stage setting is deployed.

Without central direction and the impetus from target-setting, many may not have gone down this road when they know that research evidence does not support the move. Social inclusion and raising attainment agendas may not sit well together when familiar faces appear in the bottom groups.

As primaries extend setting, some secondaries, as we have reported in the past year, are ditching it in S1 and S2. They want a focus on more skilled teaching and smaller classes after no improvement in performance. In primaries with new ventures in collaborative teaching and more support staff, the evidence for setting could be strengthened. We need answers.

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