Setting puts boys at bottom of the heap

18th July 1997 at 01:00
Probably the most pressing educational issue this nation faces is the under-attainment of boys and the widening gender gap in academic results.

Of particular concern to all must be the increasing number of white working-class boys who leave education with few or no qualifications.

At 11 the average boy is some nine months behind the average girl in development of oracy skills, 12 months behind in literacy and six months behind in numeracy.

When schools set, they set, not on subject-specific skills but, inevitably, on these core skills; and all too frequently on criteria related to behaviour rather than attainment. The upshot is that top sets in mixed schools are predominantly female, middle sets mostly male and bottom sets almost exclusively comprised of boys.

At a vulnerable time in their emotional and academic development, where boys especially are seeking to establish their gender identity in the competitive and hierarchical confines of their peer group, setting does little more for the under-attaining boy than consolidate his view that maleness equates with academic underperformance and dissociates him from the high order learning and life skills of the most able, namely the girls.

The justification that setting provides appropriate teaching to ability is naive. Children learn in two ways: through being taught and "proximally", through and by working with other children.

Setting inevitably creates sink groups of working-class children, mostly boys, with no access to proximal learning extension who perceive that success at school is not for them. This is the major cause of indiscipline.

Let's be honest with ourselves. We are not talking education here, we are talking politics. After all, 80 per cent of parents are in favour of setting because they believe they have the 20 per cent of children who will be in Set 1.

Perhaps we should have been taught in the Pacific Rim countries held as paradigms for attainment, where maths is taught in mixed-ability classes.

GEOFF HANNAN Training and Consultancy International Bank Cottage Bourton Road Much Wenlock, Shropshire

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