So, why do we put kids in sets?

I am not unique in wishing to question the omnipresence of putting kids into different groups according to the teacher’s perception of their potential to achieve. Jo Boaler has been shouting this loudly for some time now (see The Elephant in the Classroom) and Anne Watson makes the case forcefully (see Raising Achievement …). So, how can it be that even primary school teachers feel unable to to teach a class of 7 year olds the same number skills at the same time – because there is such a great gap in their likelihood to succeed? Where has the child-centredness gone? My daughter moved from the middle group (apparently lacking in confidence) to ‘gifted and talented’ in maths within a year in her primary school. However, she would have remained there if she didn’t have school savvy middle class parents to take the school to task. We all have stories to tell like this.

My students meet these young people in year 7 after they have had 5 (and more) years to get used to the expectations placed on them. The bottom set kids perform to type after so much practice, when examined at the start of year 7 and quickly settle into a bottom set life. The work of Jaime Escalante should be compulsory for everyone in maths education. While we tinker around the edges of pedagogy, he went for the jugular. Everyone can succeed, all they need is ganas (roughly translated from the Spanish as ‘desire’. He was not going to let any of his students want for that … and famously they succeeded at the very highest level.

So, let’s see if we can have a pact. Secondary school teachers have to promise that they will treat everyone they meet believing (as Escalante proved true) that they can succeed at the highest level and should be taught accordingly. Then, the spirit of child centred primary schools can rid itself of the shackles of endless testing and levelling and get back to teaching everyone to be ready to succeed. It beggars belief that successive governments seek to drive up standards by selecting, in advance, groups of young people who you are denied access to the most important parts of the curriculum.


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