One of the controversial issues in teaching is whether classes should be set or not. Should a school, or a department, using a narrow selection criteria of academic attainment, organise its pupils into classes where there will be a marked differentiation in teaching expectations, in teaching to particular standards, in content and in behaviour management? The importance of this question is magnified when the answer means that students may or may not be consigned to poorer academic results, lower self-esteem and diminished life chances based on the answer, depending on who you listen to or read.
The case against setting pupils is, in essence, that those who are not in the top sets are damaged by the experience. By not being exposed to the higher teaching standards in the higher sets they cannot progress as they could. Pupils in the lower sets have lower self-belief due to perceiving themselves as ‘second rate’, not good enough. Behaviour is worse in lower sets as disengagement and alienation from the educational process sets in. Subsequently, the tighter behavioural management in response requires a more constricted curriculum, therefore further narrowing and flattening the experience of school for pupils. Having gotten rid of the 11+ because it damages pupils, what is the point of re-introducing it through the backdoor of setting within a school? critics ask.
I think a lot of well-intentioned people advocate mixed ability classes, based on these arguments and a desire for a more egalitarian society. However, I think, theory aside, and given the social structure that we work within, the argument for setting is based on common sense. Common sense tells us that not everybody is the same at all subjects. Some people are very good at everything in school; some people are very good at some things; some at a few and some are not particularly able at nearly all things offered in most mainstream school curricula. It feels totally inappropriate to put pupils in a class who are struggling with basic skills together with pupils who are aiming for top grades. Who does it benefit? I’m prepared to admit that common sense isn’t always right (the earth isn’t flat after all, and it goes round the sun), but it would take a lot to convince me that mixed ability classes are delivering the educational levels and pace of improvement where every pupil feels satisfaction with their own development.
One teacher, one classroom – it is near impossible to have too wide a range of pupils within a class and deliver the progress wished for. A colleague of mine teaches Modern Studies which, due to numbers, have to be organised as mixed ability classes. He has a pupil in his class who struggles to read. A teacher-led lesson will invariably mean a printout of powerpoint slides are given to the pupil and he can glue them into his jotter. He never takes part in any discussion and always elects to work by himself. He’s not alone in this. In many mixed ability sets pupils will work by themselves – of their own volition and for a range of reasons: insecurity about their intelligence; they’re too clever or not clever enough. This does happen in set classes, but far less so, in my experience. I don’t see how any of these pupils are truly getting a good educational experience.
After having had plenty experience of mixed sets and knowing teachers who have taught tri-level classes for exam certification, I’ve become aware that most lessons for very mixed ability sets fall into a general pattern that is less than ideal: A general introduction will suffice, nothing to detailed in case it alienates part of the class. After that it’s on to separate work for the rest of the lesson. There’s no bringing the class together for summarising comments; there’s no extended questioning or discussion; there’s no mixed level group work, especially not in the certification years. And extension work tends to be worksheets. This is because the educational needs of one group of pupils are different from another group’s, and putting them into the same class is really just having three classes in the same room, rather than one functioning class. Trying to meet all needs can result in meeting some needs, partially, and all too often failing to meet most needs. The frustration of the high ability pupil in that class is matched by the fear of the lower ability pupil, worried in case he or she looks stupid (this can hamper progress too). Or, it can be the other way round – lower ability pupils can resent and intimidate more able pupils. I’ve seen this happen too; I’ve seen it happen to whole year groups, never mind classes.
Setting allows people to attain their academic potential more easily. I know there’s more to life than that, but this has to be a priority for a school. There are other institutions and groups to meet the other needs of young people – schools are about academic achievement, primarily, because that is a very large part of what will determine pupil’s economic opportunities. It may not sound very inspirational compared to some quotations I’ve read about education, but that is the current reality. Parents want their children to have these opportunities, to have the skills that create these opportunities, and that’s what pupils want too. Given the present structure of schooling, setting is the best way of making sure that everyone gets the best deal possible for their own academic progression.
Other institutions, often called ‘schools’ have a clearer purpose than we tend to give our schools, and this can confuse the issue. Accepting that schools are mainly about academic achievement, then we can use the following analogy about setting. Let’s say I went to a sports school. I would hope no sports school would put me in the same class as Usain Bolt, and then give us the same lesson. It would be absurd. His sprinting needs and his development are completely different from mine. He’ll learn nothing by listening to a lesson for me, and I’ll be years behind exercises that have value for him. Yet we would do the same with pupils, some of whom are years behind others in literacy and numeracy. Both groups have totally different needs. Are we really saying that the same lesson will fit both sets of pupils? There may be a place for more mixed ability sets in some subjects, but in many subjects, mixed ability fails pupils.