Teachers make the difference, not setting

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
In his letter on April 18, Brian Boyd urges us to deliver equity in education by refraining from setting
In his letter on April 18, Brian Boyd urges us to deliver equity in education by refraining from setting.

Setting has always existed in education but HMI noted in the 1990s that pupils in S1-2 were stagnating and marking time. Many headteachers attributed this to mixed-ability classes, where the necessity for a wide variety of differentiated material stifled teacher-pupil interaction, spontaneity and acceleration. The pupils who needed constant stimulation and motivation became bored waiting for others to catch on or teachers to administer their material, and consequently never really raised their game.

So when the chance came to set classes in first and second year, many principal teachers (myself included) jumped at it, and continue to have no regrets.

With setting, all sets are able to engage in the same sort of experiences, but the teacher can stretch each class of pupils while still keeping the weakest pupil in on the lesson.

I consider it to be the same as if I were in a lecture with Albert Einstein explaining his theory of relativity. I would understand the words and get a feel for the excitement of the breakthrough, but have very little idea what Einstein really meant. I would need to move down a set and brush up my physics.

Professor Boyd states that "the research evidence on setting is, almost universally, critical of the practice". I am always very wary about any research which says that setting is used in one country or another.

I have taught in six schools in England, Ontario and Scotland. Each school has set in some subjects and for certain age groups. The school in Ontario would not have claimed that it set, yet pupils chose their course and level, based on whether they thought they could cope with it; teachers then advised if they thought it inappropriate (setting, by another name).

According to a recent OECD report, the three major drivers to success are: employing the right people to become teachers, providing the right development for these teachers, and targeting support to ensure all pupils raise standards.

It is the teachers, not setting, that make the difference.

Andy Tomison, principal teacher of mathematics, The Community School of Auchterarder.

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