Why is everybody so afraid of setting?

12th January 2001 at 00:00
Along with others, our school has been quietly administering a poke in the eye to one of the sacred cows of primary education. For years, the mixed-ability class has been sacrosanct and any suggestion of dismantling it is met by accusations of selection by the back door.

Those of us who have introduced setting for part of the curriculum have welcomed selection by the front door and it has been a positive experience for all. Headteachers in schools with no experience of setting see only difficulties. They say: "How do you cope with the complaints from parents?"; or, "Inspectors won't like it." The answer is that it has all been very easy.

Parents turn out to be sensible people who can't understand why you haven't done this before and during our inspection only encouragement was given.

The few problems which arise provide opportunities to fine tune our arrangements.

Three years ago we organised maths sets at P6 and P7. The children were in three mixed-ability classes which we turned into four maths sets with the introduction of a member of school management as the extra teacher.

Children with difficulties would be in a class of six pupils to one teacher. Our other classes at levels C, D and E would have numbers of around 30 and the allocation of teachers to sets was achieved in one friendly discussion.

We made a number of rules for ourselves. Maths sets would be at the same time each day of the week for one hour so that there was a clear routine known to everyone. Timetables for visiting specialists and other events would ensure that changes to the maths routine would be rare. Whole-class teaching would be the order of he day and it would be important for the whole class to move forward together. We would review progress regularly to check that children were in the most appropriate classes.

Everything worked. Teacher satisfaction increased as the narrower ability range allowed quicker and clearer progress. Children felt they were working at a smarter pace and received individual help when they needed it rather than waiting while the teacher worked with another group. Parents thought that children, whichever set they were in, received better attention.

Only school board members asked difficult questions. They liked the idea so much that they wanted to know when we would extend setting to younger classes and to English language.

The participation of headteacher or depute has been a significant cost. The commitment is substantial but we have both had to become better at recognising when the other is overloaded so that the class responsibility can be changed for a while. The children do not appear to notice any difference.

Attainment has risen. More children are exceeding the expected level for their age. Those in the small class make better progress and appear to be happier without the presence of children at other levels, but there can be a difficulty in maintaining progress when they join a normal sized class with its reduced level of individual support.

In the other classes there have even been one or two children who have repeated a year and become much more confident for it.

Next year we may extend setting to P5. The organisation will be more complex but we are encouraged by the demand from parents, teachers and pupils.

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