Setting must not be used to separate the unwilling

6th December 2002 at 00:00
I am concerned indeed at the perception of the use of setting expressed by Joanna Mitchell in her letter to you (November 22). Ms Mitchell appears to advocate setting as a means of annexing the "many disruptive pupils who are unwilling or unable to learn" to create a sink class - the prospect of teaching this class being a cause for "dread".

In Ms Mitchell's model, the remainder of the pupils can then get on with their learning - including the bright working-class kids who will become socially upwardly mobile (despite the lack of support from home), presumably by gaining a place with the nicer middle-class kids in the top set.

The appropriate use of setting is not to exclude the "reluctant learner" - its purpose is to ensure that an appropriate curriculum is presented in a manner and at a pace that stimulates, challenges and enthuses all pupils, irrespective of their position on the ability spectrum, the social spectrum or the behaviour spectrum.

Setting is simply a tool that allows closer matching of pace, progression and range of activity to the needs of pupils by organising them in classes with others who have a similar level of prior attainment.

Each set remains a mixed-ability group in its own right and the needs of every pupil in every set must continue to be met. The expectations of and standards set for pupils in the bottom set in terms of application, effort, behaviour, progression etc should be no different to those set for pupils in the top set. Indeed, achievements and successes should be celebrated equally.

It is clear that setting is not the only valid means of organising a pupil cohort - and debate continues over the benefits and shortfalls of its widespread use. When setting is, however, deemed the appropriate option, it should be on the basis that all pupils benefit and that equity of regard for the youngsters in each set is maintained. It should not be seen as an easy option where only the top sets are supported, encouraged and valued, while the bottom sets are "lion-tamed" and denied the opportunity to succeed.

Stewart Nicolson: Principal teacher of mathematics, Ayr Academy

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