Setting versus mixed ability

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
As the debate over class organisation, reignited by the First Minister, starts to blaze, Raymond Ross visits Ross High in East Lothian, where setting is employed, and St Modan's High in Stirling, where it is rejected

One firework the First Minister, Jack McConnell, let off on November 5 in his speech to headteachers was the call to make more use of setting in S1 and S2.

"We know that the first two years of secondary schooling move too fast for some and too slow for others. So let's make more use of setting. Put real effort into genuine parental involvement and make progress through courses which are tailored to individual development."

To political pundits, this might be dismissed as the Government trying to win votes of approval from middle-class parents. Others may see a contradiction in greater use of setting alongside a strategy to develop tailored courses.

Some argue that setting takes place in mixed ability classes anyway, through the use of support for learning for less able pupils and challenging extension work for the more able. Others say more rigid setting narrows the middle ground which teachers target in broadband setting.

One group who will welcome the First Minister's words will be Her Majesty's inspectors, says Brian Boyd, reader in education at Strathclyde University. "They'll see it as an endorsement of what they believe is a more rigorous approach to raising attainment."

Although setting is far from popular (and far from popular practice) in Scottish secondaries, many headteachers say it remains a favourite hobbyhorse of HM Inspectorate of Education, which often puts schools under pressure to adopt it. This, says Mr Boyd, is because "the inspectorate's agenda is conservative and based on old-fashioned and perhaps overly narrow ideas of attainment".

He argues that, from his researches, the evidence about setting is inconclusive but there is growing evidence of a negative effect on the self-esteem of pupils in lower sets and raising anxiety in pupils in top sets.

"You also exacerbate the gender divide, with top sets tending to be female and bottom sets tending to be male," he says. "Similarly, lower sets also tend to be characterised by pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.

"So there's a social inclusion issue and a rights issue involved.

"I think we have to be very wary of setting."

He adds: "We have to ask: is the setting versus mixed ability debate the right debate to be having? Maybe it's better to look at learning styles, where the argument might be that a mixed economy of approaches to teaching and learning is required, one which meets the needs of the pupils rather than trying to to satisfy an ideological viewpoint."

YES TO SETTING

Ross High in Tranent, East Lothian, has been setting in S1 and S2 since 1999-2000. The school initially used 5-14 national tests results and primary school comments and in October amended the sets according to S1 cognitive ability tests.

The following year, setting was based on CAT tests carried out in P7 classes. This allowed incoming pupils to be placed in classes by the June induction.

"Ross High has no mixed ability classes except in social education," says headteacher Helen O'Rawe. "About 70 per cent of S1 teaching time is set and in S2 about 55 per cent."

Mrs O'Rawe's advocacy of early setting derives from both her classroom and management experience. She regards secondary teachers very much as subject specialists.

"As a modern studies teacher, I was convinced mixed ability classes did not work for most pupils," she says. "I was producing a huge amount of extension work, written work, for pupils and was more of a facilitator than a teacher. It was death by a thousand worksheets.

"Teaching integrated social subject classes did not work.

"We are secondary specialists. The subject is a key component in the secondary teacher's life.

"To motivate, engage and progress a pupil, the most important thing is the teacher. An unconvinced teacher comes across as such. In senior management, I observed mixed ability classes where teachers were working much harder than the pupils, who were often off-task, talking among themselves andor repeating work.

"The pace of learning was not as it ought to have been. So we decided on setting."

She gives the example of a science class where the teacher was "run ragged around experiments while the pupils learned very little and were not grasping the necessary concepts to progress".

There was "too little correlation between the prognosis of teachers at the end of S2 and what the pupils achieved at Standard grade", she says.

Mrs O'Rawe argues there are two myths about setting which need to be dispelled. One is that the timetabling is too difficult. ("Timetabling problems are not insurmountable.") The other is that teachers prefer mixed ability because they don't want to teach lower sets. "This is certainly not true in our school," she says.

Although it will be 2005 before Ross High starts to see the outcome of setting in Standard grade exam results, depute headteacher Willie Carroll says Scottish Qualifications Authority results are "on the way up" already and both senior management and principal teachers argue that setting has raised achievement and enhanced good behaviour.

Pauline Gilhooly, the principal teacher of English, says: "In English there has been a definite improvement in 5-14 national testing and in the standards of the different ability groups, with perhaps the most marked improvement at the bottom end where the classes are smaller.

"I was probably initially sceptical about setting but now I'm a total convert. You could see the difference in the behaviour of the children within the first year.

"The top class are definitely stretched while the bottom are not left behind. They take pride in their work and, being in their own group, are not intimidated by better performing pupils," she says.

Sue Davidson, the principal teacher of chemistry, says: "With setting it is easier to teach necessary concepts more effectively to a level." Her belief that setting is improving boys' attainment is echoed by the principal teacher of geography, Rhona McNaughton.

"The boys' attainment has gone up as their confidence has improved. There's a 'cool to work' and a 'cool to do well' ethos among the boys, even in the lower sets. There's less negative peer pressure," she says.

Setting at Ross High has wider approval too. A school survey shows that the majority of both parents and pupils either "agree" or "agree strongly" that "children should be placed in classes with others of the same ability level" and that "extra help is best provided with others in small groups".

From a general educational perspective, Mrs O'Rawe argues against the "social agenda" dominating the curriculum while believing that setting is not against the principle of social inclusion.

"I don't think that looking for a social mix is an educational enough reason for retaining mixed ability classes," she says. "But if you go down the setting route you have to look at ethos equally.

"You have to let young people know they are valued as young people, which is one reason why we have full-time guidance teachers in the school. We also have celebrations of success at the end of each year: our aim is to have one for every year group. And we have celebration lunches for achieving pupils."

Mrs O'Rawe would like, ideally, to see setting structured according to the individual pupil's learning style. Although most S4 pupils are studying for nine Standard grades, she says the curriculum is socially inclusive and balanced, with some pupils able (with parental consent) to drop modern languages in S4, for example, to do extended work experience or college transition modules. "We need flexibility based on what is best for every pupil," she says.

The school is planning to reduce its number of learning support teachers, from 6.5 full-time equivalent staff to two or three. "I want to make the departments responsible for pupils needing support and to keep learning support staff as consultants," says Mrs O'Rawe, "because I believe the creation of learning support teachers led to an off-load culture which has not aided subject teachers to become adept at teaching the wide range of abilities in the whole school."

Assistant headteacher Alan Borthwick says the key to allowing pupils to move between sets, which can happen at the end of terms or of blocks of work, is to timetable as many S1 and S2 subject classes as possible together.

NO TO SETTING

Frank Lennon, headteacher of St Modan's High in Stirling, puts his view simply: "We don't want bog-standard setting, at least not in this school.

"There's no dogma here. It's subject by subject, department by department. There's no one policy fits all approach," he says.

Like Mrs O'Rawe, Mr Lennon is loathe to argue about what might be good for other schools. "Setting may be good practice in one school but not in another," he says, adding that setting could pose a philosophical problem.

"Mr McConnell did single out setting in S1 and S2 in his speech but, if you're arguing for setting in principle, there could be a contradiction between that and the comprehensive principle. I'd temper any pedagogical system against the values a school stands for.

"What's the purpose of the curriculum? Well, this may not be the politically popular message of the moment, but it's about values first and everything else second.

"I don't think there's a systems answer to the problems of Scottish education. It's more to do with the quality of the teaching than the system adopted. A good teacher can make any system work because a good teacher knows that teaching is fundamentally about values."

There is no rigid setting at St Modan's High. Setting for Standard grade in S3 is broadly banded, with generalCredit and general banding. The only early setting is for S2 maths, which is also broadly banded.

"The usual argument for setting is that it will raise attainment. Even if it did, there is still a question of principle. If education is about values and citizenship (national priority number four) where does that leave the argument for setting? And if education is about raising attainment (priority number one), then St Modan's is doing significantly better than comparable schools without it."

Looking at the eight other secondaries who share St Modan's High's free meal entitlement of 26 per cent over a three-year period (1999-2001), a comparison of SQA results drawn up by the senior managements shows that St Modan's performance of five or more Standard grades at level 1 or 2 is more than double that of the other schools, at three-plus Highers at A-C it is more than double, and at five-plus Highers at A-C it is nearly five times that of the others.

"Setting does not necessarily raise attainment," Mr Lennon says. "Even if it did, given the impact setting can have on a pupil's self-esteem, is it worth pursuing it over these two full year groups?

"I'm not against setting in principle but in this school at this time with this staff, I don't see the case."

If a pupil were to attain eight Standard grade level 1s and five As at Higher but have attained no solid ethical basis for life, that would be no great achievement, Mr Lennon believes.

"Look at the case of the accountancy firm Arthur Andersen. It's failure was ethical, not academic. We don't want to be producing what the president of the Institute for Global Ethics, Rush Kidder, calls 'people with a moral chip missing'. Education is about more than skills education," he says.

"It's not as if we're arguing for pastoral care and moral education because we can't get attainment up. We've proved we have and we can.

"A lot of headteachers feel like I do about this but won't speak out to say values come before attainment if their school's attainment is not great. However, the bottom line remains that attainment should grow out of values rather than the other way round."

Setting is traditionally argued for maths and modern languages. But St Modan's exam figures can counter these arguments, Mr Lennon argues. Comparisons between two three-year averages in Standard grade modern languages, 1995-97 when there was rigid setting and 2000-02 where there is broad banding, shows Foundation passes dropping from 57 to 17; general passes rising from 35 to 65; and Credit passes rising from 22 to 66.

"I don't think you can put the rise in attainment simply down to the move away from rigid setting," says Mr Lennon. "It's also to do with the quality of teaching, the less negative labelling of lower band pupils and the primarysecondary modern languages liaison which the department works hard at."

The modern languages department is in accord with this view. Like senior management, the staff are opposed to setting in S1 and S2, which they believe is against the school ethos of everyone being included and valued.

"Everyone here is valued as who they are and not on how well they are doing," says principal teacher Martin McGeehan. "We're here to teach children first and foremost. The subject comes after.

"Ethos is about social inclusion. Our attainment has gone up because we don't tell pupils they can't do it. We don't set limits. We all work to raise self-esteem."

Class teacher Nadia Conetta says: "The battle in primarysecondary liaison and the early secondary years is to get the pupils to like a language, to enthuse them about it, not to test them.

"It's about giving them success. There's enough pressure on 11 and 12-year-olds without setting and pigeonholing, without giving them a ceiling. Give them confidence."

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