Setting up failure?

We are moving to full mixed-ability in my school…we’re not there yet, but it is happening. There has been a mixed reaction from a few areas and, last night, I was asked why I agreed with it. As luck would have it, yesterday morning I’d had probably the best experience I could have had to answer that question.

We are not mixed ability in English in all year groups, just in Year 7. However, for a range of reasons a few students in upper school were moved from set 6 (of 6) to higher sets and one of them came to me in set 2. That’s a big jump, right? I mean, it’s 4 sets! If setting is the incredible tool some people think it is, this student should really not have been able to access the lesson, nor the essay task attached to it.

I’d prepared the students for the task, then went on a conference and left them with an analytical essay about the settings in The Lord of The Flies. Yesterday morning, I marked this student’s work. Going by the World According to Setting, he shouldn’t have really been able to do it, except at a very simple level, right? 

It was fine. It wasn’t amazing: it was lacking in depth of analysis, but it was, for a student at the start of a GCSE course, a decent attempt. It wasn’t even the lowest in the group.

I sat there, yesterday morning, and wondered how many students we have failed, over the years, bound by the crippling weight of low expectations, simply by placing them in a low set. It was a pretty unpleasant moment.

And that was my answer. Ok, this was only one student – I’m sure there are lots of arguments that can be thrown at me. But I won’t forget yesterday morning, not for a very long time.