Who's leading who in the race to setting

Seven weeks into the school term and a week before the Conservative conference in Bournemouth may not have been the most reassuring time for the Inspectorate to speak out on classroom organisation. HMI, in the person of Douglas Osler, believes "the Inspectorate has a role in offering a professional lead to the profession on difficult and controversial issue such as this". How noble of Mr Osler. Down my way an example of an issue that is difficult and controversial is which teachers' jobs are to be lost when cuts of 6 per cent to 8 per cent are threatened. I look forward to HMI stepping forward to offer a lead on that.

In the inspection reports issued last year it is difficult to find any mention of mixed ability, setting or broad banding, never mind whether it was effective in promoting achievement. Usually if HMIs write about ethos they mention co-operation between teachers, high expectations or celebrating achievement. No reports over the past year mention the need for more rigid groupings. None mentions parents as being concerned about the ways of organising learning.

Who finds this issue difficult and controversial? Not secondary schools, according to the statistical bulletin on the curriculum published in March 1995. Just under 97 per cent of first and second-year classes, 67 per cent of third and fourth-year classes and 72 per cent of fifth and sixth-year classes were "full mixed ability". Such an endorsement by the profession hardly sends a message of difficulty or controversy.

The report on Standards and Quality in Scottish Schools 1992-95 makes no mention of grouping, setting or mixed ability. In terms of the first and second year, HMI stated: "In S12 pupils' overall performance in coursework was very good or good in more than 75 per cent of departments. However, this has to be seen in the light of courses which commonly failed to challenge the majority of pupils."

No one needs to visit a primary or secondary school to have some semblance of a notion why achievement falls in the early years of secondary. They only need to know two facts. In June of one school session primary pupils have one teacher. Seven weeks later the pupils have changed so much that they now learn best through working with 15 teachers.

Even if HMIs failed to notice this at some point during their 20,000 classroom visits, they could have read all about it a decade ago in the 10-14 Report. (Truly, the last document that offered an educational lead to the profession rather than managerialist targets, evaluation and appraisal.) When the then Education Minister, a man called Michael Forsyth, rejected the 10-14 Report there was, if I remember correctly, no sign of a professional lead from HMI.

More setting will not solve any of the difficulties of the first two years of secondary. Labour does not dispute that there is a place for setting and grouping. The party is looking to push the case for greater achievement for all pupils and wants schools to promote high expectations of all pupils.

Ethos is the key and the main argument against more setting is that it gives a message of some pupils being of greater value to a school than others. In its narrow version of league tables the Government was not willing to consider telling the public about pupils' achievement at levels 4-6 in Standard grade. It did not matter that for some pupils with difficulties a level 5 award is excellent.

The Socialist Educational Association believes that flexibility is the key to introduce ways to challenge all pupils in the early years. The structure of the curriculum from the sixth year of primary school to the sixth year of secondary needs to be reconsidered. There must be greater exchange between the sectors beyond information about individual pupils. The 5-14 programme has not improved the achievement of pupils in the first two years of secondary school as it was supposed to do.

Flexibility in grouping would allow some work across age-groups based on curricular demands, a variety in organisation and not the sterile approach of this Government and the HMI of "we can't have streaming and selection so we will just have setting and selection". Labour is determined that money will be committed to supporting work to improve mixed-ability teaching and learning, recognising that there is a place for setting but putting all pupils as the target not the more able or any one section of Scotland's children.

Promoting achievement, giving pupils more confidence in their abilities and challenging learners are goals that need an educational lead. HMI has left the perception that it is dancing to the tune of a Government that knows it is on the way out. A professional lead from the Inspectorate based upon sound educational principles is long overdue.

David Watt is secretary of the Socialist Educational Association, which is the Labour Party affiliate for education.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you