End ‘cruel’ sets for primary children - headmaster

Clifton Hall head Rod Grant, with pupils in the school grounds, believes children are being 'written off'. Picture: Jon Savage
Clifton Hall head Rod Grant, with pupils in the school grounds, believes children are being 'written off'. Picture: Jon Savage
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THE head of an Edinburgh private school has called for an end to the “outdated, indefensible and cruel” system of separating children by ability in primary classes.

Rod Grant, headmaster of Clifton Hall School, said many children failed to recover from being grouped at an early age for reading, spelling or maths.

And he said that teachers should be stopped from passing on information about pupils from one year to the next, allowing children to start each new stage of school afresh.

Often referred to as “setting”, the practice takes place in many secondary schools, where pupils are grouped within a class according to their ability in subjects such as maths and English.

However, Mr Grant said there was no place for the practice in primary schools, describing the system as “seriously flawed” and “quite cruel”.

“For more than 30 years, primary schools have been in the habit of grouping children according to ability,” he said. “In almost every primary, we find spelling groups, reading groups and maths groups with children being placed by dint of their ability.

“Now seems the perfect time for educationalists to be saying that this system is outdated, indefensible and entirely unfit for purpose.

“Placing children in groups according to ability is all about making classroom management easy and nothing to do with educational gain for children. It is management at the expense of performance.”

Mr Grant said grouping children by ability created “self-confidence issues” for those finding themselves in the bottom group and “over-confidence” for those at the top of the class.

Those in the middle group often ended up being ignored, as the teacher worked to challenge the brightest or support the weakest, he said.

“If we label children into ability groups, we remove the opportunity for growth and the willingness to take risks with their answers,” he said.

“Children in bottom groups learn to have low expectations and soon learn to accept their position as unacademic. The system is seriously flawed and is actually, in many ways, quite cruel.

“I am not suggesting all children are the same nor do I believe that children should be shielded from their own difficulties, but we should not be in the position of telling a child their ability is fixed in some way.

“We need to move to a situation that is fluid and open and provides opportunity. That will cause some classroom- management difficulty, but it will also re-engage those who have been written off far too early.

“The obvious answer is to stop the transfer of academic information from one primary teacher to another, so that each teacher makes their own minds up about grouping children if that is what they wish to do.

“However, the debate needs to commence now before another generation is mishandled.”

Last year, delegates at the Educational Institute of Scotland’s (EIS) annual conference criticised setting and passed a motion calling for alternatives to be investigated.

But Ken Cunningham, general-secretary of School Leaders Scotland – a body representing most senior leaders in Scottish secondary schools – said it was important teachers continued to pass on information about children, and that schools were allowed to set pupils. He said: “What we do is use all the information we have to get a youngster to the highest possible standard, but you have to use the information wisely.”

He added: “In secondary schools [the decision to use setting] should be left to subject professionals and the school leadership – some subjects lend themselves to setting.

“We want to progress individuals the best we can. Sometimes that means working with others of the same ability, or sometimes it means working in a mixed group. It’s about what’s best in the context of learning.”

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