Why bottom set is a 'prison'

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Ministers' support for setting by ability in primary schools is condemning poor pupils to a lifetime of underachievement, a leading academic has warned.

Sorting pupils as young as four by ability limits their expectations and is one of the most distressing education policies of the current government, according to Jo Boaler, associate professor of mathematics education at Stanford University, California.

Young children put in lower sets, who come disproportionately from poorer backgrounds, are consigned to a psychological prison which breaks their ambition and from which they find it almost impossible to escape.

Mixed-ability teaching, much maligned by politicians, is difficult but worth the extra effort because it is fairer and produces better overall results, she said.

Setting of young pupils has been rejected by other countries and research by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development shows schools that divide students latest and least have the best results.

Dr Boaler accused Labour of going further than the Conservatives in its attack on mixed-ability teaching.

She said: "The fact that our children's future is decided for them by the time they are four years old derides the work of schools and contravenes basic knowledge about child development and learning.

"If the Labour Party really cares about promoting social justice then (it) must learn about equitable and effective grouping policies that promote high achievement for all rather than reproduce social inequalities."

Dr Boaler's critique of setting will appear in the next issue of Forum, out in November.

Leader, 22

Subscribe to get access to the content on this page.

If you are already a Tes/ Tes Scotland subscriber please log in with your username or email address to get full access to our back issues, CPD library and membership plus page.

Not a subscriber? Find out more about our subscription offers.
Subscribe now
Existing subscriber?
Enter subscription number


The guide by your side – ensuring you are always up to date with the latest in education.

Get Tes magazine online and delivered to your door. Stay up to date with the latest research, teacher innovation and insight, plus classroom tips and techniques with a Tes magazine subscription.
With a Tes magazine subscription you get exclusive access to our CPD library. Including our New Teachers’ special for NQTS, Ed Tech, How to Get a Job, Trip Planner, Ed Biz Special and all Tes back issues.

Subscribe now