I’ve been working on a draft for my next TESS article. I’d welcome comments and suggestions for improvement:
One of the best parts of my job is that I get to observe the learning and teaching process in all of our schools. One of the things that I’ve been struck by during my visits is how necessity is the mother of invention – particularly where the organisation of learning comes into play.
East Lothian has many 2/3-teacher schools, which necessitates the “dreaded” (by parents) composite class. In such a situation the teacher might have three or four different year groups represented in the same class. There is no alternative so the teacher accepts the responsibility to organise learning in such a way that every pupil in the class gains access to the curriculum and makes progress.
Contrast this with the secondary school where it is possible to split a single year group into discrete “ability” groups and give responsibility for each group to a single teacher.
The logic of “ability” setting appears to be compelling. It’s surely easier for the teacher to teach one “ability” level in a class. The pupils in a set have access to a curriculum that is tailored to their “ability”. Pupils in a set are working with children of the same “ability” and the confidence of pupils of lower “ability” is not compromised being in presence of higher “ability” peers. Lastly schools can focus their support staff on lower “ability” groups. Of course all of the above depend upon the premise that we can actually make accurate judgements about children’s “ability” and that each set is a homogeneous group, which requires no further differentiation.
The second reason for setting is that most parents, who express a preference, prefer setting – in fact huge concerns can arise if their child is not in a set appropriate to their expectations, i.e. at least one above where they actually are.
The final and unspoken reason- for “ability” setting is the reality that pupils of lower “ability” are those who are likely to disrupt classes and the learning of others – by removing them from the presence of those who “want to learn” the teachers are able to make progress with the curriculum. Finally, the HMIe themselves have actively promoted setting since 1996 as the preferred mode of organising learning.
It’s a brave secondary Head Teacher then who even thinks of challenging such overwhelming forces in favour of “ability” setting – especially where the scale of the school makes it easy to facilitate.
Yet the small school Head Teacher faces no such pressure and although they might look to emulate some of the setting models from larger schools the prime modus operandi is the use of groups characterised by careful planning, differentiation and personalisation.
I spoke to such a group of pupils in a P5 – P7 class and asked them if they saw any disadvantages of being in such a class – they saw none! Yet when I asked them what the advantages were I got a long list, which included: “You get to hear things that you’ve done before but didn’t perhaps understand the first time”; “You get to help other people in the class who are doing new things”; “You get to know people of different ages”; and “You get to see what you will be doing next year” – wow – talk about metacognition!
In the summer I was fortunate enough to listen to Norman Kunc – who enjoys (as opposed to suffers from) cerebral palsy – and has the most challenging views about how schools unwittingly erode and prevent children from having any sense of belonging to the education system they experience.
Kunc used Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and pointed out that modern society values mastery over belonging – yet in Maslow’s hierarchy mastery cannot be achieved unless the “need” for belonging is first fulfilled. The result is that young people are disengaged from the learning process and seek out other groups with whom they can form allegiance and fulfil their need to belong.
I’m not decrying setting in all circumstances – but I do have to question the unwitting impact, artificial limits and fixed expectations which extensive setting places upon children particularly in the early years of secondary school.
As a former secondary Head Teacher – who allowed setting in Maths and English – I only wish I had had the courage of my convictions to explore alternative and more positive ways of organising learning.