Plenty of evidence suggests that setting students by ability is beneficial to more able students but detrimental to others (this summary of the evidence by Chris Husbands is a helpful starting point). We can say the same about the impact of grammar schools, which is perhaps no surprise since setting could be seen as a grammar approach in miniature – categorising students by ability and then separating them.
Yet I remain in favour of setting by ability, and given the threat posed to non-selective schools by the resurgence of the grammar school debate, I think it’s more important than ever that we set students by ability in our schools.
It’s tough for a teacher to cater for the full ability range in a mixed set, and very easy to end up teaching to the middle. Setting by ability helps to build an academic culture, supporting an honest and transparent approach to assessment in which students know where they stand and are therefore empowered to do something about it. Setting by ability also helps reassure parents of high attaining students that they can be stretched and challenged in a non-selective school – that they don’t need to go to a grammar or a fee-paying school to enjoy the company of other bright kids.
So how can me make setting fair and avoid the problems highlighted in the research, where more able students benefit but the rest suffer?
Firstly, we hold high expectations of all students and recognise that ability is not fixed – we improve through purposeful practice.
Secondly, no matter what set they are in, students should cover the same content. I saw this powerfully at an academy in Banbury recently where I had the pleasure of dropping in to 4 Year 10 English lessons which were set by ability. From the highest set to the lowest, students were analysing the same Macbeth passage and producing an extended response. What changed as we went down the sets was not expectations but support – teachers of these lower sets explicitly defined key language and provided a tight structure for students to arrange their response.
Thirdly, we should allocate our most established teachers to the lower sets, as it’s these students who need them most. We should insist that behaviour is impeccable in these lower sets just as it is in the top sets. These lower sets should be smaller, ensuring that all students are challenged and supported (I’ve known weaker students feeling lost in a big mixed ability class).
Fourthly, there should be frequent movement between sets – probably twice per year. In order to inform this movement we need to ensure that all students sit the same assessments, which goes back to our point that no matter which set our students are in, they are entitled to the same curriculum.
I recognise that setting by ability can be a pretty blunt tool, and I would be worried if all my views about education went against the grain of evidence. But with the threat of grammar schools on the horizon, perhaps now is the time to show that non-selective schools can be every bit as rigorous and academic as our most selective institutions.
We might worry about the impact of setting for those in lower sets, but we tolerate a system that allows nearly half of our kids to leave school at 16 with little to show for 12 years of full time education. Setting gives kids a chance to respond before it’s too late.
So long as we maintain the highest expectations of behaviour, teaching and curriculum in our lowest sets, I support setting.