Spectacular setting;Briefing;Document of the week

15th January 1999 at 00:00
OFSTED's latest report on the value of setting in primary schools is generous in its praise, writes Sarah Cassidy

The use of setting in primary schools has produced "spectacular" improvements in many of them and should be considered by all primaries, according to a new report by the Office for Standards in Education.

The report, Setting in Primary Schools, found that all but a handful of inspected schools made impressive gains in national tests in setted subjects - usually well ahead of the average national improvement.

However, the document also describes a number of pitfalls. Teaching in setted lessons in English, maths and science was of a slightly higher quality than in full ability range lessons in these subjects. But the top sets were consistently given the best teachers, usually the subject specialist, while the poorest teaching was seen in the bottom maths sets and the middle science and English sets.

The weakness of teaching of the bottom maths sets particularly concerned researchers, as those schools had told them setting had been particularly intended to help the lowest achievers.

In contrast, the bottom English set was taught particularly well, usually by the school's special educational needs co-ordinator.

The report analysed inspection data from 400,000 lesson observations as well as responses to a postal survey of 900 schools and visits and interviews with more than 100 schools known to use setting.

Sets could be both larger or smaller than pupils' usual classes and often contained pupils from more than one year group. Two in three schools that set in maths and one in four that set in English did so across year groups.

This aimed to accommodate children far ahead or behind their peers but created difficulties if too wide an age group was taught together.

Schools were found to go to great lengths to avoid labelling pupils as either high or low achieving but pupils invariably have an accurate idea of the ranking of the set to which they are allocated, said the report.

The vast majority of pupils told researchers they welcomed setting, liked having more than one teacher and thought it was a good preparation for secondary school. The research found very few examples of elitism or negative self-image.

To take full advantage of setting, teachers need to teach the set as a whole and to strengthen their whole-class teaching.

Setting failed when teachers continued to teach the set as a mixed-ability group and over-used individual work or attempted to sub-divide the set into ability groups.

Half of all schools using setting failed to monitor and evaluate the system properly, according to the OFSTED report. But a substantial minority had begun to use the data to calculate the value added by the school. In most cases these analyses confirmed the positive contribution made by setting.

Setting in Primary Schools is available from OFSTED Publications Centre, PO Box 6927, London E3 3NZ. Tel: 0171 510 0180

* 70 per cent of junior schools and 40 per cent of primary schools use setting.

* The proportion of setted lessons is still small but it has recently doubled. In 199697 only 2 per cent of lessons observed by OFSTED were setted compared with 4 per cent in 199798.

* Setting is most common in urban schools with high levels of social disadvantage where standards are low.

* Few schools avoided setting because of ideological objections.

* Some schools in the OFSTED survey abandoned setting, usually for locally specific reasons such as a change in the age profile of pupils.

* The highest proportion of setted lessons was in Years 5 and 6, where 7 per cent of observed lessons were setted. For this age group, one in four maths lessons andone in 10 English lessons were setted.

* Inspectors believe setting polarises teaching quality: it is frequently either very good or poor.

* The best teaching was consistently observed in the top sets.

* Concerns were raised about difficulties of reporting progress to parents whenthe set teacher is not also the class teacher and the loss of opportunity to extend work beyond the timetabled period.

* Parents are very supportive of setting, but often receive too little informationabout why the school adopted setting or why their child has been allocatedto a particular set.

Briefing Document of the Week 27 TESJJanuary 15 1999

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