Back in May, in my usual column in The Post, I wrote about the poor deal that children of lower ability get at the moment in our schools.
I deplored the fact that, in the headlong rush to push up the numbers of pupils gaining five good GCSE passes, lower ability children were, at best, ignored and at worst treated like "punishment" classes for teachers; taught by the incompetent teachers the school didn't want let loose on their best GCSE students or by an army of temporary supply teachers.
Now I read that a new report has taken this deplorable state of affairs, this parody of a setting-by-ability regime, as proof that setting by ability doesn't work.
One might almost believe that the practice of giving the best teachers the best sets and letting the lower ability children go hang was deliberately thought up by the devotees of mixed ability teaching in order to make sure that setting by ability failed to produce the right results: as it stands now the system certainly has failure built into it.
One can hardly expect to have a proper appraisal of whether teaching in sets of like ability works until all sets get the same high quality staff and the " egalitarians" acknowledge that all children do not have the same talents and aptitudes and therefore need different strategies to ensure they fulfil their potential, whatever it is.
Until we stream pupils according to ability we can never have different syllabuses to cater for the whole gamut of ability throughout the school. We have to accept that while the very top students will be doing calculus and trigonometry in maths many others of the same age may well not have yet mastered the basics of numeracy and to consider teaching them in the same class would be madness. What we need is teachers who are willing to lavish the same attention on the bottom as on the top: teachers who insist on children working and making progress, however modest that progress might turn out to be.
In spite of assertions to the contrary, made by people who seem never to have set foot in a classroom, the idea of putting all abilities in the same big class, with just one teacher to cope with them all and get all children to thrive, is a ridiculous myth.
Breaking up your different abilities into several small groups of equal ability and leaving them in the same room to work together, with a pitiful input from an overstretched teacher can, and does, lead only to chaos.
Not only is progress ludicrously slow, since the teacher hasn't time to actually teach each group anything before they work with their peers, but you can just imagine the disorder when the children wander round the room, looking at what the other groups are doing, calling the lowest group "thickos" and sneering at them, while also bullying the best pupils, who are labelled "smarty pants."
Hence we have civil war, while the hapless teacher looks on helplessly.
It is a fact, unpalatable that that fact might be, that GCSE is a gigantic fudge. Just as "one size fits all" doesn't work either. The ones at the top could quite easily take and pass the GCSE exam after three years in secondary school, so easy are they for the best pupils and the children at the bottom are not even entered for the exam and are left to rot in "sink classes," while the Holy Grail of a top place in the GCSE league tables is pursued.
Putting the lower ability in with the higher ability to do the same syllabus doesn't do right by any of the children.
They have to learn at a pace suitable to their ability, not shoved in with everybody else but working in a group of like ability, so the top pupils can fly ahead and take GCSE early while the lower groups are well taught by properly qualified and motivated teachers to reach their potential; forced, if you like, to achieve and rewarded with going up a set or two when they do.
This, surely, is what " comprehensive education" really means.