Chief Inspector Urges More Setting in Secondary  Schools

In order to set for a subject (or group of subjects) a school needs a team of teachers from that subject (or group of subjects) free together to teach those subjects at the same time.  This means that in the rest of the timetable the school must aim to keep these teams working together so that they become free together.  If, for example, in year 10 (or 11) options, a few members of a subject-team are used and, in another option, different members of the team are used then, at these time the complete team is not available for setting in Key Stage 3.


When Options were first introduced in the late 60s, most schools offered choices by putting the subjects into columns and then asking students to choose one subject from each column.  Skilled timetablers used to construct the columns in such a way as to keep the ‘spread’ of a department across the columns to a minimum.  Thus an attempt was made to produce ‘faculty’ columns.  For example Column 1 would perhaps be almost entirely ‘humanities’ subjects while column 2 would be predominantly ‘Technology’ subjects.  This arrangement had three main advantages.  Firstly, within each ‘faculty’ option block, setting was possible.  It also kept subject teams working together (so that they would be free together for setting in KS3) and thirdly it imposed a sort of balance on the students’ chosen curriculum.


Over the last 20 years there has been a steady move towards offering pupils a ‘free choice’.  That is, pupils choose their subjects then a computer program is used to construct the option blocks. The logistics of trying to meet each student’s subject choices inevitably leads to each subject being spread across as many option blocks as possible.  For example if the numbers generate enough students for 3 groups of Geography, then the groups almost certainly will be placed in 3 different blocks.  Thus the possibility for setting in KS3 is reduced and each group within the options is likely to contain a wide range of achievement levels.


If we take a subject like Mathematics, setting in KS3 is not usually a problem because the Maths department teaches as a team in years 10 and 11 (i.e. they tend not to be fragmented by teaching odd groups in the Options).


If we look at Humanities (say) in years 10 and 11 they tend to get used in groups of 1, 2 or 3 to teach groups in different options.  This means that they are not free together for quite a bit of the week.  They can therefore not be formed into subject teams very easily to teach sets in KS4.


A number of schools have, in recent years, extended ‘Options’ down to include year 9.  This of course, increases the difficulty in introducing more setting.


Some schools achieve a degree of setting by using a device called ‘consistent setting’.  This is where a group of subjects agree on the composition of their sets in a particular year or years.  These subjects can then be blended together in a ‘mix and match’ scheme so that each set can be doing a different subject at any one time.  This of course raises two immediate issues – which subjects are combined in this way and what criteria are used to put children into these sets?  Those of us with long memories will probably think that such an arrangement is getting back to the old-fashioned idea of “streaming” which had its own detractors!


It would seem therefore that in order to create more opportunities for setting, schools need to consider how choices are offered to students in years 9 10 and 11 and perhaps reconsidering the pros and cons of ‘free choice’.



Mervyn Wakefield

16 June 2013