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Head to head

Is setting better than teaching children in mixed ability classes?

Jane Waters

Jane Waters

‘No,’ says Jane Waters, headteacher of Seven Kings School, Ilford

If you split children into different classes based on their ability – known as setting – you need data to justify which set each child gets placed in. That usually means testing kids to within an inch of their lives, particularly at the point where they enter the school. I don’t think that’s a positive way for children to start their new school life and while it can tell you about their prior attainment, I’m not convinced it actually tells you anything about their ‘ability’, let alone their potential. Instead, we spend the first half term of year 7 really getting to know our new students, then responding to them as individuals.

Indeed, the wonderful thing about not setting is that it forces a teacher to personalise all learning. As a school that has quite a few children with physical disabilities, we are used to constantly personalising learning to each and every child and thinking outside the box to help them succeed – and to me, teaching without sets is an extension of this approach.

Another thing that happens in schools with setting is that you have this curriculum and programme of study, complete with PowerPoints, which you churn out year after year for each set. But each cohort is so different that it can be apples and pears compared to the previous year. Again, I make my point that by not setting, you free up teachers to find the key to unlock that particular cohort – surely one of the joys and challenges of teaching.

There is increasing evidence that year 11 grades don’t, as previously thought, correlate to year 13 results and I’d believe the same is true for the so-called correlation between grades in year 6 and 11, where there is also often assumed to be a link. This further puts the whole concept of setting into question because this data is seen as pivotal to which sets a child goes into. Surely by putting kids on such a predetermined pathway, you put a ceiling on achievement.

This ceiling is in danger of becoming even lower when you consider that children self-identify with the expectations put on them, which is why there’s often a stigma around being in a lower set. Plus, lower sets are at risk of getting the weaker teachers and being set work which is less demanding. No wonder evidence shows the gap between low and high prior attaining pupils can widen even further as a result of sets and that those in lower sets come out worst of all.

Research has also found that children from more disadvantaged backgrounds – as well as summer born babies and newly arrived or those with behaviour issues – are more likely to be placed in lower sets. Are we really saying their ability is lower? In our school, disadvantaged pupils are doing so well that we’ve been asked to support two other schools.

Since we stopped setting in English our results have soared. We have a lot of children that speak English as a second language who – if we had setting – would inevitably go into the lower sets. But these kids need to hear English around them constantly. And across all subjects, we’ve seen the benefits of children being inspired by other children that enlighten them. We had one pupil who recently told us, ‘I sat in my class and watched this girl getting great grades and I thought, ‘I want to be that girl.’ I looked at what she was doing and I emulated it and now I am that girl.”

The problem is that setting has become so entrenched and normalised that I don’t think we always challenge ourselves as to why we are doing it; maybe it works for some year groups more than others. Plus, there are usually different viewpoints within one school. Even here, maths is still set because the head of that department firmly supports it and I am not arguing with her! @SevenKingsHigh

Russell Taylor

Russell Taylor

‘Yes,’ says Russell Taylor, headteacher at Robert Clack School, Dagenham

I inherited the setting system in this school, in which pupils are set in every subject from years 7 to 9, then in the core subjects of English, maths and science. I hadn’t really thought about it until the current debates but having since done extensive research, I firmly believe you can better meet the needs of pupils by having a smaller range of ability. Above all, it means you can really tailor your teaching and ensure nobody gets left behind. Since the ability range is massive here – with some children coming into year 7 with a reading age of 5 or 6 – this is particularly important.

Setting also means you can put pupils who are struggling the most in smaller class sizes, which gives them a greater share of teacher time. And because we have SEN specialists working in conjunction with teachers in these sets, we have developed a wealth of support strategies for pupils most in need.

I’m aware there’s a risk of lower ability classes not being challenged enough, leaving these pupils with lower expectations, but it’s possible to manage that risk. The way we combat it is every pupil being set challenging target grades. In fact, every pupil here is set both a target minimum grade and an aspirational grade and these are constantly monitored and reviewed. In this way, learning is completely personalised and no student is left unstretched.

In addition, the ethos of our school is celebrating achievement at all levels – not just academic ability and attainment but progress and success in the extracurricular. We have created a culture in which everyone counts and everyone is valued and I talk regularly in assemblies about how we are all unique as individuals – some might be the best mathematician, others might be the best footballer, and as long as we try our best and couple that with kindness to others we can regard ourselves as successful. If you widen out the definition of success in this way, you can deal with any self-esteem issues.

We know it works. In our latest Good Schools Guide review, it was pointed out that our results are well above the national standard for a school with such a big cohort, and pupils commented, ‘There’s no stigma about being in a lower set – it usually just means you learn in a more visual way.’

The review also highlighted the fluidity between sets at this school. We have four assessment periods a year and the outcomes to those assessments are used to ensure that anyone who needs to be, is moved across sets.

I know there is some research to suggest that certain groups, including black children, are more likely to be placed in the wrong set but the research is very basic and nowhere near comprehensive enough – and much of it is carried out in America. In our school, our black African children perform the most highly of all ethnic groups.

I don’t underestimate how important other pupils can be in terms of role models, but I think there’s room for that within setting. We have one year 12 girl whose target grade was 4 for GCSEs. In year 10, she was regularly getting 3s and was upset about it. But because she had a positive relationship with her teacher who encouraged her and because she was supported by the school ethos that values perseverance, she ended up with a grade 6. I asked her to speak in assembly because I wanted her to show others that if you persevere and are aspirational, you can succeed. The danger is when this goes too far and you tell anyone they can do anything – maybe the reality is they can’t and if they don’t get there, you set them up to feel like a failure. This, to me, is the biggest danger with having no setting at all. @RobertClackAlum  

What do you think about the setting debate? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter or Facebook with the hashtag #chalkandchat

Chalk & Chat 2019

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