Ready – Set – Go ?

Posted: February 3, 2013 in Uncategorized
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There is little doubt that this post is likely to prove somewhat controversial, dealing as it does with one of the most consistently contested areas of education policy: setting by ability.

Before I begin I should make clear that what follows is a reflection of my experiences and those of the teachers with whom I work every day – I am well area of the range of evidence against setting, as well as the opposing views of educators for whom I have a huge amount of respect (such as Kenny Pieper). Despite this, however, my own experiences of setting by ability have been positive, for reasons that I shall now attempt to explain.

When I first arrived at Arran High School in August last year two of my classes were ‘bottom’ sets – one in S4 and the other in S5/6. As a consequence of the small school roll and the approach of my PT, these were also the smallest classes in each year group (with 8 and 16 pupils respectively).

The S4 class were the classic ‘bottom class’ – comparatively low ability and generally uninterested. The previous teacher (a phenomenally outstanding teacher who was retiring) sat down with me and gave me an insight into each pupil – during this discussion she suggested that two of the class be considered for Access 3 rather than Standard Grade and also demonstrated the level that they were currently working at, with only two achieving at General level (in understanding this it is important to point out that last year’s 4th year achieved the worse Standard Grade results that the school had ever seen across the board).

Over the course of the year, however, massive progress was achieved and, when the results came through, it appeared that a minor miracle had occurred – not only did every pupil pass a Standard Grade, but the entire class actually achieved 3s and 4s. Whilst every pupil performed above expectations, it is one of the two potential Access candidates who – in my opinion – makes the best argument for setting. Throughout S1, S2 and S3 he had never written more than 100 words for any assignment, regardless of the efforts of a range of teachers – being in mixed classes in S1 and S2 hadn’t helped (indeed, he told me himself that being so clearly the weakest member of the class had simply continually reinforced the belief that he couldn’t do well) and by the time I met him there was a very real risk that he would not pass his Standard Grade. To be honest, I did briefly consider the Access route, but in the end decided that there was simply no excuse for this approach in such a small class with a very limited spread of ability – I’m glad I did. Being in such a small class with a very limited spread of ability allowed me to focus a great deal of time on each pupil, eking out progress one small step at a time, and in the end he achieved something that just a few months earlier had looked utterly impossible.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that several of that class would not have performed so well in a class where they were not set by ability – I have had some great success with mixed ability teaching where the stronger pupils help the weaker ones, but for these pupils in this instance being able to focus solely in their level led to improvements that could not otherwise have been achieved. Despite being the weakest year group since the introduction of Standard Grade not a single pupil in the school achieved less than a 4 in English.

So what about the S5/6 class? Well, when I took them on they were an Intermediate 1 class with some pupils thought of as potentially being able to pass an Intermediate 2 – I told them from day one that they were simply my Intermediate class, and that if they worked hard I would get the very best out of them. Much like with the S4 some of the progress made was quite remarkable, and once again several of the pupils confirmed that they much preferred being in a class where the range of abilities was comparatively small as it helped them to develop the confidence they needed to enhance their own abilities. One girl in particular told me just before her final exam that being in classes with pupils that she knew were much more able then her had destroyed her confidence, and thanked me for my approach over the previous 9 months.

The results achieved by the class further enhanced my view that, done properly, setting by ability can be beneficial – in the end only 2 pupils sat the Int 1 (both passed) while the rest sat Int 2 (all but one passed) and, as a result, 6 of this ‘bottom’ class are now sitting a Higher English that seemed  utterly out of reach only 18 months ago.

In my experience so far, then, setting by ability can be a part of the overall solution for some pupils – there are, however, two more philosophical points that I would like to raise.

The first is that, if done carefully, for the right reasons, and with a genuinely deep knowledge of each individual pupil, setting can function as an extension of the sort of differentiation that we all know is absolutely crucial. I would not wish to teach Int1, Int2, Higher and Advanced Higher in one class just because they all happen to be the same age – by separating the pupils in relation to their ability I can focus on the needs of each group and differentiate within each group far more effectively.

The second is perhaps more controversial and concerns the idea of the ‘sink class’ – the collection of low ability, disengaged pupils of whom very little is ever expected. OK, if they were not set by ability then this sort of class would not exist, but given that setting can help pupils through providing more focused teaching is it possible that the ‘sink class’ mentality is an indictment not of setting, but of the attitudes of teachers? In my opinion it is our professional responsibility to have sky-high expectations of all pupils, not just the ones at the top. Neither of my ‘bottom’ classes last year were ‘sink classes’ because I simply would not allow them to become so, and there is a part of me that feels as though the whole idea is in fact just a self-fulfilling prophecy that has more to do with the teachers in charge of the class than the pupils in it.

This year at Arran we have continued to set by ability in S3 on the basis that we envisage three common ‘learner journeys’ for students in the new Nat4/5 system: some will sit a Nat5 in S4 and go on to sit a higher in S5; some will progress through Nat4 in S4 before moving into the Nat5 in S5; and others will achieve a Nat4 but will not progress into a Nat5. So far, the decision seems to be paying off – my ‘top’ S3 are producing superb work which regularly rivals (and sometimes even surpasses) that produced by my Intermediate 2 students; the ‘middle’ class are securing their abilities in preparation for a Nat4; and the ‘bottom’ class (which is once again extremely small) have been making hugely success use of the project-based approach to education to prepare them for their Nat4 as well. Crucially, the classes in which the pupils have been placed at this stage are by no means set in stone (if you’ll pardon the pun) – indeed, a number of pupils will potentially be moving based upon their progress, work ethic and overall potential.

Of course, none of this means that setting by ability is effective or appropriate across the board – there are many schools, classes and teachers for whom it does not work and it is important that schools (or even departments within schools) are able to decide on the approach that is right for them.


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