Unnatural selection: why do we default to setting pupils?

28th September 2012 at 01:00
The practice reinforces inequalities and can actually exacerbate problems, and yet we continue to do it

A recent survey has found that 20 per cent of people who failed the 11-plus (the "qualifying examination" in Scotland) were put off learning as a result, sometimes for the rest of their lives. A spokesman (sic) for the EIS told the Herald newspaper that "fortunately, education has moved on considerably and Scotland's comprehensive system continues to offer all pupils an equal opportunity to develop their potential. "

While I agree that we have moved on and that comprehensive education has been a success, I am less sanguine about the existence of an equal opportunity to develop potential as long as setting by prior attainment remains the default position in our schools.

In Scotland we pride ourselves on an evidence-based approach to policymaking. Assessment is for Learning, for example, is a pedagogical approach which has made a significant impact on learning and teaching in our schools, not least because it has a strong evidence base. The fact that its underlying principles make sense to teachers is supported by the international research evidence on which it is based. Teaching for Understanding, the approach to learning and teaching pioneered by David Perkins at Harvard, has similar evidence-based roots, in this case Project Zero.

So, why is it that the research on setting and streaming has not had a similar impact on Scottish schools? A review of the literature reveals that there is little or no evidence to suggest that the practice of setting improves attainment for all pupils. Indeed, even research which focuses on pupils in so-called "top sets", carried out by Dylan Wiliam and colleagues in the 1990s, showed that many of these pupils did not like being in top sets. They felt guilty that friends they thought just as good as them were not there, they felt under undue pressure to succeed and, most telling of all, found the subject less interesting because there was no to time to relax, think and explore concepts.

We know that setting breeds and reinforces inequalities. Working-class boys are over-represented in "bottom sets", exacerbating disadvantage and lowering aspirations. When asked why setting persists, headteachers and others often cite the need to raise attainment and attribute rising or high levels to setting. But surely improving attainment cannot be the only criterion for creating class groupings?

The 11-plus caused many people to struggle for decades with feelings of failure. Are we sure that "internal selection" will not do the same?

Brian Boyd is emeritus professor of education at the University of Strathclyde and author of The Learning Classroom.

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