Simon Smith, deputy head (academic) at Haileybury, considers the controversial subject of setting and finds the reasons are compelling but inconclusive.
Instinctively, the idea of pupils of similar ability being taught at an appropriate level and pace has much to commend it. Certainly prospective parents regularly ask me whether we have setting at Haileybury and in which subjects. This is understandable; no parent could bear the thought of their child’s learning being damaged by another pupil’s inability to understand the material. Such a scenario, one imagines, would hamper a ‘brighter’ pupil’s progress and interest as the teacher was constantly distracted by ‘weaker’ pupils requiring lengthy, repeated explanations.
Similarly, a pupil who finds a subject difficult would surely be demotivated by a teacher setting off at rip-roaring pace encouraged by able and eager pupils, only to leave one or two behind feeling somewhat bewildered.
What is setting?
At Haileybury, we do set by ability in sciences, languages (classical and modern) and mathematics. In mathematics, able pupils are pushed sufficiently to enable them to take their IGCSE early and to study additional mathematics in Year 11. In English, we have an extension set for the most able and most likely to study A-level English literature. The arguments for setting are convincing and might seem reassuring. However, there are a number of health warnings.
Firstly, setting requires regular assessments to check pupils are in the right class as the pupils develop and the nature of the work changes. Cross-grades (as we call them) are like a good MOT or health check. However, if the outcome is such that a pupil is to be moved down into a ‘more appropriate’ class, then what of the effect on that pupil’s confidence and future progress? Just as many parents are upset when this happens as they expect us to have setting in the school. Paradoxically, I have known successful pupils not want to move up a set as they like their current teacher, who is clearly having a positive impact.
Secondly, one has to question on what ability setting is based upon. A pupil who finds algebra very straightforward may struggle with geometry or statistics. A pupil who can write wonderful creative pieces may find analysing poetry rather more challenging, and the pupil with an ear for a language may still find it difficult to use a past participle with any degree of accuracy. Even within setting there will be pupils with differing abilities. Set sizes of one are probably not practical.
Thirdly, and herein lies the problem with the demand for full-scale setting, it is, in many cases, impossible to apply. As pupils start to choose their options at 13 or 14+ they have to be, for timetable practicalities, in a class with those who chose the subject rather than aptitude. In the sixth form there is no setting for A-level, so why should it be applied lower down the school. If history cannot be set, should mathematics?
Does setting work?
Finally, and most importantly, is there any actual evidence that it works? World-respected Professor John Hattie in his book Visible Learning, synthesised over 500,000 educational research studies and concluded that compared to effective feedback, teaching study skills and pupil-teacher relationships, ability grouping has very little impact on a pupil’s progress. So when David Cameron said ‘every teacher knows’, those who have read Hattie would know differently.
Where does this leave us? Is the setting solution a myth? Should every subject be taught as mixed ability? In my 20 years of teaching I would suggest that context is everything. Schools recruiting pupils with a wide range of abilities, interests and linguistic backgrounds would certainly benefit from some sort of grouping.
In schools where pupils are of similar ability, this is less important, but motivation and interest is a characteristic not to be overlooked. How many top sets contain one or more pupils who are not necessarily the brightest but love the subject and work the hardest. How many lower sets contain pupils who simply ‘hate maths’ rather than being unable to understand the concept?
Such groupings may enable the teacher to devise appropriate lessons and materials but certainly without any hint of dumbing down. Every pupil responds to challenge and high expectation. Hattie may well have the solution. His works show that ability grouping within a class can make a difference, so at times, offering pupils the opportunity to complete a task with similarly able pupils can be beneficial.
I have seen this work extremely effectively. In a mixed ability IB Spanish lesson, I observed a teacher who had brilliantly established different pairings for oral work – each was colour coded. One colour meant they worked with a friend, one colour meant they worked boy/girl, one colour meant they worked with someone of equal ability and another for working with someone of very different ability. The pupils moved effortlessly around the class when instructed and at no point was there any protest or disruption to the learning. This was effective teaching and learning.
Is setting a cure-all? Absolutely not. Might it help? Possibly, but the reality is that every parent and teacher also knows that the most successful ingredient in education is professional and passionate teaching, irrespective of the makeup of those sitting front of them.