When it works, use it. When it doesn't, don't

4th August 2006 at 01:00
The third in our series of summer debates focuses on setting in the primary classroom

It was eight years ago when our school first dipped its collective toe into the uncertain waters of setting. The venture arose in response to concerns about a particular class. By their primary 3 year, our assessments confirmed that many children in the class were underachieving. We didn't know why so, with the co-operation of teachers, we took a close look at our learning and teaching.

Techniques of teaching language and maths featured strongly, as did the best use of assessment in choosing groups and how poor classroom organisation can be a barrier to learning. I remember the time as one of the most satisfying for in-service work. In the following years, we saw our improvements have a positive effect on most classes. Except for one.

Despite our efforts our problematic class continued to struggle so, with their primary 7 year in sight, we decided to try setting.

The class attainment range, from pre-level A to level D, was too wide. It asked a lot of any teacher and for this particular class it could be a hindrance to progress. The idea of setting was not new to us. The then depute and I had discussed it on and off for several years. Inspectors had just issued Improving Mathematics 5-14 and in a recent inspection they were very encouraging about our sketchy plans.

However, setting was not a venture we tackled lightly and our eventual planning was meticulous. What would be the most important single factor in its success was the introduction of an additional teacher, a timetabled member of school management which enabled the four class teachers at primary 6 and 7 to become five. This enabled the creation of small classes for less able children. That decision meant that more able children would be in large classes but they would cope and we encouraged their teachers to develop their skills of whole-class teaching.

We also discussed how we would move children from one set to another as their progress demanded. In reality, it was not as easy as we had thought once the year was under way. But the need seldom arose, possibly because of our attitude to assessment. Get assessment right and the class selections would be right too.

Consultation with parents was easy. They were underwhelmed. They couldn't see what the fuss was about since setting was common sense to them. Nor did we see it as a big deal either. Like all primary teachers, we were used to organising for differentiation. We saw setting as just an extension of the maths ability groups operating in each class. Our development was a practical one and thoughts of philosophical, sociological or political stances were furthest from our minds.

Of course, professional educationists, whether in the education authority or beyond, saw it differently. Suspicion was accompanied by raised eyebrows, pursed lips and questions meant to trip us. "What evidence have you that setting has improved your attainment?" they asked.

I tried not to fall into the trap by attempting to make a direct link between setting and raised attainment because it's difficult to prove. I do have lots of figures. They show that during eight years of setting, our maths attainment has risen across the school. The whole-school rise is not down to setting at P6 and P7. There are many factors, some of which I am aware of; others may still be unknown.

Where the influence of setting is clearer, is at the upper ability range, where a substantial number of primary 7 children achieve level E, something we didn't even consider attempting before setting. Children working towards level E also appreciate the smart pace in their class.

Children of lower ability benefit too. Their small class, usually around seven or eight, means that many make noticeable progress. The problem is that once they transfer to a larger class and less support they tend to sink.

Our setting arrangements have worked because we took time to understand what we were doing and to make our arrangements. Children and parents are so comfortable with setting that they do not give it a thought. For them, it's just part of what we do in school.

We review our organisation for setting regularly and when it no longer works, we shall adapt or drop it altogether. We are not campaigners for setting. It has just been the right approach to our upper primary maths in recent years. Others will have different solutions that work for them.

And what happened to the class whose underachievement pushed us into setting? Now aged 19, many are working, some of the boys are in much sought after apprenticeships, two are in the army and some are at university.

They are pleasant young people who, when we meet, converse in a relaxed and confident manner. All very normal. Also a healthy reminder that our hang-ups about school progress and our entrenched views about learning and teaching fade into insignificance when we take the longer view.

Brian Toner is a former primary headteacher.

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