Soapbox - Setting is cruel to children

10th October 2008 at 01:00
Every week your chance to shout about what makes you happy, sad or mad .

I hate the idea of setting. As a boy I was in "Gamma" for Latin and maths and was consequently never good at either. It was a grammar school.

Streaming is even worse. Roger McGough in one of his humorous poems points out that there's no streaming in the graveyard and yet for some of our politicians it's a golden chalice to be held aloft, inviolable. Well I would violate it. I remember being given the bottom set of Year 10s for English as a young teacher at a comprehensive. They treated me like the school was treating them - rubbish.

They sat at the back of the room in their coats and talked. It was only when I stepped off my plinth and began to listen to them that I was able to teach them anything useful.

This consisted of walking around the town with a tape recorder and recording their conversation. When we got back to school I played it to them. Then at home I transcribed the tape and let them read what they had said. Today I flatter myself by thinking that some of them might have started to see reading as a worthwhile activity.

I read a piece recently by Margaret Drabble, the writer, who at a school reunion noted the lasting bitterness of the girls who had been put into the lower sets. This is the result of that system - anger and bitterness. Most educational research has found that setting makes no difference to achievement, even in maths.

Nowadays setting is creeping across the primary years in the mistaken belief that by using it the school can advance up the league table. At the middle school where I used to teach, children at key stage 2 were no longer taught together for English and maths but ranked into sets so that they could reach the holy grail of level 4. Even science, where once the non-academics in the class could thrive, was being taught in this way. There will always be losers in that kind of system, the ones who think they're rubbish.

Mixed ability teaching is harder at first but, if a school staff work together on it, they could find that it will raise the achievement of everyone. In Finland they have abolished setting and pupils now outperform all other countries in achievement. I rest my case.

Peter Leyland, a former classroom teacher, is a Workers' Educational Association tutor.

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