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Setting and streaming in schools

By Kate Hilpern

Ok, so you knew your daughter was unlikely to be in the top set for maths. But the bottom set seems a bit harsh.

Does it matter? It’s a question parents all over the country will be pondering as their offspring are put in their sets ready for the academic year ahead.

First things first, I should hold my hands up and admit I have mixed views about the very concept of setting. While politicians, Ofsted and many schools are all for grouping students according to academic ability, a growing body of academic research suggests it’s actually not effective in raising achievement among all students and that it can even damage the prospects of the children most in need of an educational improvement.

It’s not as if setting is a given. It went out of favour in the 1960s, when mixed-ability made a comeback, but in the 1980s it was back, with bells on – and by the early 1990s, more than four in five secondary schools used sets for at least two subjects, and three out of five for at least four subjects. Now, even extreme-setting – known as streaming – is popular in some schools. Here, students are grouped according to their overall ability across all subjects.

The problem with streaming is obvious – to me, anyway. What if a child has different ability levels in different subjects (as most of us do)? How can you possibly move up a stream? What about kids’ self-esteem? As for setting, multiple studies show that while small achievement gains may be made by top achieving students, the impact of those in lower groups is negative. In other words, lower-ability students who are put in streams or sets can have poorer outcomes. And even though setting has been shown to work well for some gifted students, studies show that’s only the case if they’re taught a special enriched curriculum.

Moreover, only this month, research found that black students are two-and-a-half times more likely than white pupils to be wrongly placed in lower ability sets for maths. Secondary schools should consider reducing the use of setting and streaming as there are ‘risks’ with the practice, according to researchers from UCL Institute of Education and Queen’s University Belfast.

No wonder many heads and teachers admit they’d do away with sets, given half a chance. Some have made the bold move to ditch it altogether and are reaping the rewards. ‘Watching children work alongside higher-achieving peers can be a great motivator – we see previously disinterested children coming on leaps and bounds thanks to being inspired by their classmates,’ one headteacher told us. Interestingly, schools that haven’t, but want to, get rid of sets are mainly deterred what parents will think, according to academics. It would, say these academics, be viewed as ‘unconventional’ by parents, who would consequently avoid the school as a result.

As for the impact of your child being in the wrong set right now, the answer is yes, it matters. Bearing in mind what we know the studies have found, it’s clear that being in the wrong set can be a de-motivator and, in year 9 upwards, sets determine which GCSE levels your child studies for.

That said, it’s important to remember that most schools put children into sets based on multiple factors, including background information from previous schools if relevant. They think long and hard about who should be in which set, rather than making any rash decisions.

But sometimes schools do get it wrong. If your child finds the work too easy, gets bored and races through homework, that’s a good sign you have a point. Your child’s work should be a challenge – although not so much that they really struggle.

So what can you do? It depends on the school. Some only move students up at the end of a school year and even then they might have a policy to only move one or two of the kids at the top and ditto with the bottom ones down from each set; others have more flexibility.

Ultimately, be led by your child. Some kids actually prefer to be at the top of a lower set; others will be as desperate as you to be moved up so they can be more challenged. And remember not to let your negativity rub off on them. If you’re still unhappy, talk it through with the teacher – either at parents’ evening, or if you can’t wait, beforehand. But listen to their reasons as much as you expect them to hear yours. And deal with the facts, rather than being led by your emotion.

I’d like to see more schools consider whether setting really is the best way of helping all children reach their potential. And as we know that parent power counts in this area, this could be your chance to make a difference. So if you are unsatisfied with how your school’s sets have worked out for your family, here’s a plea from me - consider using it a starting point to mentally address the system itself...

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