Subject setting risk to social inclusion

28th September 2001 at 01:00
The debate over the Education Minister's revamped assessment regime

THE Scottish Executive's target-setting agenda is turning the screw in secondaries and could hit social inclusion ambitions, a national conference on gender and pupil performance was warned last week.

With the expected exam norm fast becoming three Highers at A-C grades, schools are under increasing pressure to extend setting and other initiatives designed to drive up standards quickly.

One teacher said: "It is difficult to argue against setting if academic achievement is the holy grail."

But Linda Croxford, senior researcher at Edinburgh University's Centre for Educational Sociology, said she was "fearful for social inclusion" if that was the case. Research in England showed setting or streaming merely reinforced social division.

"You might increase attainment at the top end but you increase underachievement at the bottom end. You make it more extreme by setting," she told a conference in the capital called to coincide with the launch of the centre's study on gender and performance, supported by the Executive.

A review of evidence by the Scottish Council for Research in Education had highlighted the pros and cons of setting. Dr Croxford believed selection by ability merely placed girls in the top classes and boys in lower groups, reinforcing stereotypes and peer pressures.

Evidence also showed that pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds were left in the lower ability groups. "If we are genuinely concerned about social inclusion we should be looking much more at bringing up attainment for Foundation and General students, rather than General kids up to Credit and onto Higher level," she said.

Jenny Ozga, new head of the CES, said: "Pursuing setting does actually depress average and below average attainment."

Dr Croxford said that at the introduction of comprehensive education in 1965, 70 per cent of leavers had no awards at O grade A-C levels. In the same year, only 11 per cent left with three or more Highers. By 1998, the Higher pass figure had tripled. Girls overtook boys in exam passes by the mid-1970s and have stayed in front.

Alan Ducklin, CES researcher, said almost 200 pupils interviewed as part of the study rated better relationships with teachers as the most significant factor in lifting performance. But the pupils, mainly drawn from S3 and S4, also backed rewards such as Mars Bars. Time to talk at the end of the lesson might also encourage them.

They backed more single-sex classes and wanted more direction from the teacher, yet advocated more peer assessment. Another suggestion was putting boys back a year if they were not up to standard and removing disruptive pupils from the classroom.

Teachers linked social disadvantage and low attainment with parental attitudes to education but young people "almost unanimously" said their parents encouraged them to do well to increase their post-school chances.

Pupils believed boys received harsher punishments than girls for the same misdemeanours and that teachers expected girls to behave better than boys.

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