The Joy of Sets

Politics aside, there’s not a lot wrong with the idea of grammar schools.


That children of similar ability should be taught alongside each other, has obvious appeal. Progress is made more or less as one, whether it is achieved quickly or slowly. Crucially, the teacher does not have to divide her attention – impossibly – between 5 or 6 groups of learners occupying a single space. She can be on hand at all times to answer queries; whether to stretch her ablest pupils or reinforce some tenet that she has reinforced many times before. No-one is left foundering, no-one bored.


Proper setting in schools attempts to create this kind of environment. I am always amazed at the insistence that mixed-ability teaching, by contrast, is remotely effective. The idea of the brightest helping the weakest is a lovely one, but I don’t rate the chances of Little-Miss-Know-It-All having anyone turn up to her birthday party. And what about the put-upon teacher, trying to manage all her different-ability learning groups with her several differentiation lesson plans – all in the noisy presence of 35 hyped up teenagers crazed by hormones and starving for their lunch?


Private tutoring is the ultimate in setting, really. It involves a tiny set of one. Communication between tutor and student is unhampered. There is no requirement for the tutor to multi-task – which incidentally I read somewhere is actually a myth, it doesn’t exist: our brains can only do one thing at a time. Progress is made at the perfect rate for each student. Indeed, it is tailor-made for them.


Happy teachers beget happy pupils. Having the head-space to get to know the children under our tutelage and really care about them, makes us love our jobs; which in turn results in children who love learning.