Evidence for setting in schools – stone, scissors, paper?

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By Dr Elspeth McCartney

‘Setting’, grouping children with others of similar attainment, perhaps changing groups across curriculum areas, is widely-used in classrooms. This post is not about the de/merits of setting, but the forms of evidence used to justify and contest it.

In September The Guardian (3.11.14) announced the English Education Secretary’s intention of making setting virtually compulsory in secondary schools by having the inspectorate, Ofsted, award ‘outstanding’ ratings only to schools practising setting. This was denied that evening.

Its plausibility was however supported by citing earlier comments by the Prime Minister: ‘I want to see setting in every single school. Parents know it works. Teachers know it works. Tony Blair promised it in 1997. But it still hasn’t happened. We will keep up the pressure till it does.’ His rationale was ‘… because every parent knows that a high-quality education means engaging children at the right level.’

Failing to achieve

Similar views were reported from the Ofsted Chief Inspector: ‘… bright teenagers fail to achieve top grades in some comprehensives because teachers insist on mixed-ability classes and concentrate on weaker students. Able children are being held back in some schools that do not tailor teaching, tasks and resources to stretch their best pupils’.

Their evidence for setting is thus shared socially-constructed belief: what ‘everyone’ knows. Politicians understandably wish to support and enforce majority views.

In September, I also attended a conference presentation on early career teachers (ECTs) developing inclusionary perspectives within their classrooms. One teacher was reported to have used setting in her first year of teaching, but became uncomfortable and stopped using it in her second. Her pupils had said they disliked it, and the ECT was concerned about setting being discriminatory and stigmatising, reducing self-esteem for children in lower-attainment groups.

Enhancing social inclusion

She used evidence from personal reflection, considering children’s views, and collegiate discussion. She had the commendable aim of enhancing social inclusion, and acted in a sensitive and professional manner. However, her change of mind after a year of practice meant that, if setting has any effects (positive or negative) on children, pupils in either her first or second year of teaching had received a less than optimal experience.

The third form of evidence is ‘what works’ research. The Education Endowment foundation (EEF) summarised systematic reviews of controlled trials and concludes that on current evidence setting offers a small benefit to higher-attaining pupils, but is detrimental to the learning of mid-range and lower-attaining children, who fall behind by a couple of months. It may also undermine lower-attainers’ confidence, and have a long-term negative effect on their attitudes and engagement.

EEF findings therefore coincide with the PM’s view that parents support setting if he has listened to parents of higher-attaining pupils, and with the Chief Inspector’s worry about ‘bright’ teenagers. The ECT’s concern about lowering self-esteem also recognises a factor identified by the EEF. The use of setting will it appears depend upon which pupils’ educational outcomes and experiences are to be privileged.

What works research

However, the question here is about which forms of evidence are respected. Recent educational forums variously deride politicians’ social evidence as ‘political dogma’ and teachers’ as ‘blobby’ intransigency, but also report views that what works research is considered oppressive, dictatorial, theoretically naïve and stifling of reflective practice.

The points on social evidence have been widely rehearsed. Those on what works research seem stranger. Is using evidence that can be interrogated and challenged more dictatorial than a teacher setting one year of children but not the next because she changes her mind? Or more coercive than doing what a politician ‘knows’ works, under the sanction of poor inspectorate ratings? Understanding what works evidence might indeed empower teachers (and parents and pupils) to challenge policy enjoinders, and to short-cut some of the trial-and-error of reflective practice.

There appears to be limited discussion of ‘levels’ of evidence. Rather, Alexander (2014) gives an analogy of how forms of evidence are used as ‘   a three-way tussle between peer-reviewed evidence, political ideology and personal prejudice, and evidence as always is the loser.’

Complex situation

But perhaps the situation is more complex. The ‘tussle’ seems to me to resemble an educational-evidence game of ‘stone, scissors, paper’, with politicians’ common-sense assumptions (Alexander’s political ideology?) and their resulting edicts as ‘stone’; teachers’ reflections (which may curdle over time into Alexander’s personal prejudice?) as ‘scissors’, and what works evidence and resulting suggestions as ‘paper’.

‘Stone’ smashes ‘scissors’; ‘scissors’ snip ‘paper’; ‘paper’ wraps ‘stone’. Political views as ‘stone’ here have the power to smash the ‘scissors ‘of local social solutions, classroom social justice and teachers’ reflections. But these ‘scissors’ can cut the ‘paper’ of trial-based evidence, declaring it irrelevant or unsuitable in complex local contexts. And the ‘paper’ of randomised trials can wrap the ‘stone’ of policy edicts, refuting or sustaining their underlying assertions in scientifically validated ways, thus opening them up to inspection and challenge.

Such a tussle seems rather unhelpful. And the other analogy for this is Mexican standoff: no one can make the first move without fearful consequences, and no one can withdraw. Oh dear.

Article by Dr Elspeth McCartney, School of Psychological Sciences and Health University of Strathclyde.

nseeglasgow

nseeglasgow

We are the Network for Social and Educational Equity, based in the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change at the University of Glasgow. We work with governments, educational institutions, local authorities and teachers to promote educational change.

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About NSEE

The Network for Social and Educational Equity (NSEE) is part of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change (ROC) at the University of Glasgow.

It works in collaboration with schools, local authorities, Education Scotland and partner services to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap in young people’s education.

NSEE helps schools to use appropriate evidence and data within collaborative working approaches to critically examine context and current arrangements, make changes based on evidence, monitor the impact of these changes and reflect on what they learn.

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