The Joy of SetsMay 20, 2007
I argued earlier that it wasn’t actually possible to teach in mixed ability classes. In all the discussions that followed, nobody actually managed to explain how it would be possible. But this does leave the question of why any school, even one run by rampant ideologues, still teaches mixed ability when it clearly doesn’t work. Of course, part of the explanation is simply that mixed ability can be used to spread out the worst behaved students so as to hide the problem in a way that might not be possible if too many of them were in the same class.
However the main explanation is, as ever in secondary schools, the sheer lack of people in positions of responsibility in schools who are capable of managing even simple logistical tasks. Where setting occurs it is haphazard, arbitrary and incompetent. It should be based on the objective use of assessment data. In practice setting invariably involves the following phenomena:
The Parental Request. It would be complete madness to set up systems of testing and setting and then move students at the whim of parents who call in. However, this is exactly what’s happened at some of the schools I’ve worked in. Common parental complaints are that their child isn’t being stretched enough and needs harder work (particularly when different classes are being entered for different exams), or that they haven’t had enough chance to prove their abilities, or that they are unhappy with the class they are in. The most odious complaint of all is the “Personality Clash”. This is where a badly behaved student finds they keep getting punished for their disruptive behaviour (because the teacher is good at managing their classroom, or because others in the class are well behaved and won’t join in with the disruption). The parent intervenes to declare that if their child is getting into trouble then it must be because they don’t get on with the teacher. They demand that their child be moved to a class where they are more likely to get away with poor behaviour. Incredibly they frequently get away with this, often complaining to members of senior management if heads of department are uncooperative.
The Excuses. Department managers are often reluctant to reset students. Usually this is sheer laziness, although sometimes it’s down to a desire to avoid having to teach students who are used to a less experienced teacher. As a result they develop a range of excuses for not resetting students such as:
- It’s too early in the year to reset.
- It’s too late in the year to reset.
- It’s not long since the last time we reset.
- They’ve got a test coming up soon.
- It’s now so long since their last test it’s not worth using it to set.
- The person in charge of setting is ill/pregnant/dead.
- There’s no point changing sets now it’s near their end of year exams or SATS.
- There’s no point changing sets now they’ve done their end of year exams or SATS.
- If we’ve gone this long without resetting then we might as well continue without resetting.
At Woodrow Wilson School, legend had it that there was one particular cohort who were set for maths at the start of year 7 and remained in the same classes until the end of year 11. While I was at the school I found myself doing informal swaps with other teachers. This was more likely to get students into an appropriate class than going through the official channels, even in those extreme cases where children had been put in a particular class due to blatant errors. Another approach I’ve seen teachers use to get classes reset is to cry until the Head of Department gives in.
The Cheats. In schools where teachers are judged heavily by their classes’ results they become keen to keep hold of the most able students in their classes and become equally keen to lose the least able. Dishonesty becomes the best policy. Teachers fake test results, invent reasons why certain students shouldn’t be moved, or if they are in charge of setting, move students with no reason or explanation and hope nobody notices (a particularly popular option if the class below is taken by a supply teacher). At Stafford Grove School it took me a term and a half to move a boy who was at least two sets too high, because the set below was taken by Mertha, the struggling head of department who was fighting to avoid losing any of her more able students. At Woodrow Wilson School one member of staff with responsibility for setting managed to arrange to have no badly behaved students in her set at all while filling up parallel sets with the lunatic element.
The Cock-Up. Even where there is no dishonesty or laziness to wreck the setting there are always stupid mistakes. The most common are:
- Children who have left the school remain on the set lists.
- Students who have missed a test are counted as scoring 0 and are moved down.
- Scores are muddled up due to misuse of sorting on Excel.
- New students never appear on the class lists.
- School registers for the sets never match the class lists the department has worked out.
The Time-Tabling Disaster. School time-tables are incredibly complex involving thousands of students, hundreds of rooms and staff and literally millions of possible permutations and combinations. Consequently they are usually put together by people with at most basic secretarial skills and a Grade C GCSE in maths. As a result setting can’t take place across whole year groups but instead is restricted to different bands and streams of the year group. Often these streams are so small that sets still contain a wide range of ability. Sometimes, particularly for year 7, it becomes impossible to set at all. Efforts to set across the entire year by streaming across two subjects (like Maths and English) are often doomed by interference from other departments (particularly SEN) and new students to the school being placed in the wrong streams.
I wish this list was just a few isolated examples of incompetence. However this level of ineptitude has been pretty much standard in every school I have ever taught in. The terrifying part is that it is used as an excuse not to set classes at all, in effect saying “there’s no point trying to do things well, we’re too stupid to get it right”. Perhaps should be adopted by Senior Management Teams as a motto.