Chesterton classThat isn’t the question… although it is one which is frequently asked with regard to HPL. The truth is, it isn’t how students are grouped which is the limiting factor in their success, it’s the way in which those groups are treated and the expectations of their teachers.  

If we create two sets and, in the expectation that both will attain high levels of performance, we provide challenging and stimulating opportunities for both, and ensure that we identify and address any barriers to progress, then the setting is largely irrelevant.

If, however, we have differing expectations of the two sets and assume that one set is of lower ability and will never attain highly, and so provide less challenge and make fewer demands, it is unsurprising that the “lower” set lives down to our expectations. They have had a diet of less motivating teaching, low expectation and reduced opportunity.

The research evidence suggests that ability is a measure only of what an individual can do at the current time. It isn’t fixed and with the right teaching and interventions, can be augmented so that new knowledge can be learnt and new skills mastered over time. If this is the case then what we term “ability sets” is a flawed concept since we are, in effect, setting based upon what we understand about a student’s current level of performance. It seems fairly obvious that if we then provide a stimulating and rich learning experience for those whose current level is high, their progress and “ability” will accelerate. If, at the same time, we provide limited, and limiting, learning for those whose current level of performance is in fact most in need of acceleration, we further retard progress and exacerbate the gap. 

This is not to suggest that that prior attainment isn’t important as are cognition and attitude to learning (in effect ACPs and VAAs) but, as we all know, these can be taught. Setting or grouping should enable a school to ensure that pupils with differing levels of current performance are both challenged and supported to progress and can help the teacher to provide tailored intervention for students to overcome any barriers to learning so that they move forward.  

The question isn’t whether or not to set students, it’s the underlying educational beliefs which underpin the setting arrangements and the way in which they operate either to promote, or hamper, the goal of high performance for all.

Melanie Saunders, March 2017

 

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