Slippery slope of grouping by ability

21st March 2008 at 00:00
Last month, during spring half-term, I was back at ski school. The first activity was the ominously named "selection". Around 40 of us gathered at the top of a gentle incline. The instructors watched from the bottom as we skied down, then directed us to take our place in the line: Eddie Eagles at the top, basket cases at the bottom.

I thought I did all right - not exactly Dancing on Ice, but passable. To my horror, I was placed near the bottom. To my shame, my heart leapt when one of the others fell over. At least there would be another below me.

So I was in the remedial group. I told them that I did not do well in the test because my cat died two weeks ago and I was worried about my grandmother's bunions. I immediately rang my mum on the mobile to get her to swear at the ski-school head.

To no avail. I was in the bottom set. If this were a real school, we would all be men who were pretty good skiers but who had ended up in this group as a result of our consistently bad apres-ski behaviour.

At first I was alpha male, overtaking the others to be first at the bottom. Then I learned more sensitivity. No use being seen as a smart-arse; better to merge quietly into the middle of the group and not push yourself. How little any one member of the group gets of the teacher's attention. And how patient you have to be while that attention is on someone else. So you start indulging in ribald jokes with the other men in the group, a little flirtation with the women, and you soon forget what you are supposed to be learning.

The joy on day three when I was promoted to the group above. My confidence improved, and so did my skiing - because it had to. How much more encouraging to be in the company of people better (but only slightly) than you. And how nice that the teacher took the trouble to introduce me to the new group, even if he did not bother to phone my mother to let her know I had been moved.

It was obvious to learn to ski in setted groups, yet the PE groups in our school are all mixed ability. It's not a debate that seems to excite much passion. There's a government orthodoxy that sets are the thing, but this seems to be based more on a desire to reassure the middle classes that Cynthia will be in a group with other bright children than on a clear rationale.

A study of 28,000 high achievers by David Jesson, of York University, found that they are more likely to fulfil their potential when there are at least 20 other high-fliers in their year group. We know peer influence is one of the most powerful determinants of outcome, so it's a short step to seeing that bright children are more likely to thrive in sets with other bright children to compete against. And just as easy to see that weaker children will do better in a mixed-ability system with good role models in their group.

It is a debate that owes more to political winds than to educational research. When society's need is for building social capital, then mixed ability is the flavour; when it's about getting the results up, then sort them into sets, pour the resources into the borderline groups, issue those teaching the bottom sets with cattle prods, guard dogs and an extra teaching assistant, and forget about them. Right now, we need both community cohesion and high standards. So how are you grouping the children in your school?

Roger Pope, Principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon.

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