Setting is not the way, Mr Osler

18th October 1996 at 01:00
HMSCI Douglas Osler (TESS, October 11) has to be congratulated. By coming out into the open over the issue of setting by attainment in the early stages of secondary he has put to rest the myth of the impartiality of the Scottish Inspectorate.

He now appears to be happy to align himself with his counterpart south of the border, Chris Woodhead, by proposing a simplistic and dogmatic solution to what is a complex problem. Thus, underachievement, a problem identified in most advanced European countries and singled out by all of the major political parties, is to be solved, at a stroke, by setting pupils in English and mathematics on the basis of 5-14 levels.

HMSCI Osler offers five reasons for the Inspectorate advice but no research evidence whatsoever. He bases his advice on inspections carried out by his inspectors, acting on a common agenda, promoting a consistent party line. Ask anyone who works in a school which has been inspected recently and they will tell you of the inspectorate litany of "pace of learning", "national testing" and "setting."

There is no attempt at subtlety and there was no attempt by HMSCI Osler to consult on the issue of setting. He might have asked parents, or teachers, or even pupils. Pupils will tell you, if you ask them, that it makes sense, on occasions to work as individuals; at other times, in pairs; sometimes in groups by attainment; and at others, in groups by friendship, by interest, by skills, but here we have the Inspectorate asking themselves the questions and coming up with highly predictable answers.

He might have, in the literature search, looked at Thirty years on (Benn and Chitty 1996) which finds no evidence across the UK that pupils in set classes achieve better results than those in mixed ability classes. Indeed, all of the research since the1960s has come to similar conclusions.

But, instead, HMSCI Osler elects to echo OFSTED in its suggestion that more whole-class teaching is the answer, fewer activities in any one class, and, of course, this is easier with homogeneous classes.

But will these classes be homogeneous? And how will primary teachers fell about the prospect of their judgments of a child's present broad level of attainment being used to predict future performance. In effect, it will be the primary teacher who will do the setting!

There is an inherent paradox in these latest pronouncements form an Inspectorate that in 1993 (The Education of Able Pupils P6 to S2) rejected setting as providing the answer to the needs of able pupils (while, rightly, arguing that mixed ability, acceleration and "hot-housing" could not do so either. It is the same inspectorate which his promoting multi-level teaching in the context of Higher Still.

What game is being played here? Has the inspectorate bought into a right-wing, elltist agenda and seeks to justify it by saying that teachers find mixed-ability to difficult to manage. What teachers find difficult to manage is the plethora of new initiatives, the refusal by the Scottish Office to let one initiative bed down before promoting another one, and the continual emphasis on things that can be measured. What S1 pupils dislike is the fragmentation of the curriculum, the lack of progression and the fact that they are not treated as mature learners. None of these problems will be solved by setting.

So the Inspectorate has raised the issue and it is time the profession and all connected with schools responded. Setting by attainment is no answer to underachievement. Indeed, there is growing evidence that it is motivation, self-concept and even "emotional intelligence" which are the real predictors of success. If we accept this proposal we will have moved one step closer to selection and 30 years back to the "qualy".

BRIAN BOYD Quality in Education Centre Strathclyde University

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