Friday, 24 July 2009

Will the Tories let schools decide on setting?

The Daily Mail angrily reports another supposed betrayal in education. Only 45% of lessons are apparently set by subject ability in secondary schools, so a Labour pledge to encourage - not enforce or require - the practice has "not worked". Cue charges of betrayal.

Yet, if Nick Gibb, the shadow schools spokesman is to be believed, this is an increase from 37% in 1997. (For some reason, Gibb uses 2002 as a baseline for his Mail onslaught, not 1997). But a more accurate figure suggests it was only 34%, given that 1996-1997 should be the baseline. And given that the practice was on the wane before 1997, Gibb's earlier figures suggest that a fifth more lessons are being set; the actual figures imply a quarter more.

More importantly, a far greater proportion of maths and English lessons are set. Most schools don't take an ideological position on setting; they do so pragmatically in some subjects, and not in others. The 45% figure includes all subjects, and teachers are often reluctant to set when take-up of subjects is relatively small or in subjects like religious education. There are also big differences in year groups.

But all this poses a bigger question for Nick Gibb. Given that the Conservatives would not force setting on schools to which they are supposedly granting greater independence than Labour, how exactly would they insist on setting in every lesson in every subject?

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