Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, was forced to deny suggestions that pupils would be set by ability in subjects after a former special advisor to her predecessor Michael Gove claimed the move was to be announced in the Tory’s election manifesto.
Prime minister David Cameron is known to be a supporter of setting and believes that such a policy would be popular with parents.
However, the suggestion, which first appeared in the media on Wednesday, September 3, in an article by the Guardian, sparked a huge backlash from teachers’ leaders, opposition parties, and teaching professionals.
On Twitter, the former special advisor, Dominic Cummings, said he had been informed that the prime minister planned to back the controversial policy because it would help bright children excel.
But he said setting was counter to the Tories’ commitment to allow academies to be independent from interference by the Department for Education (DfE).
Mr Cummings said on Twitter: “I was told by No 10 and two others in Whitehall a version v(ery) close to (the Guardian) story. Some had warned internally it was mad.”
He also suggested that Number 10 already had a launch plan in place for the policy.
However, soon after the story appeared, Ms Morgan told MPs that “there is absolutely no truth in these rumours”.
The idea of compulsory setting was also dismissed by DfE minister Nick Gibb this weekend.
Speaking at the ResearchED conference on Saturday (September 6), he is quoted as saying: “My view is that (setting) is the best way of raising standards. Ultimately, though, these issues have to be left to individual schools.”
The original article suggested that the government would be asking Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, to make setting a condition of schools receiving an outstanding ranking in an inspection.
Sir Michael is also a known supporter of setting and has said in the past that some bright children fail to meet their potential in mixed-ability classrooms because teachers concentrate on weaker students.
The rumours and subsequent media coverage sparked a flurry of statements from education unions and opposition parties attacking the idea.
A spokesman for the Liberal Democrats was quick to distance the party from the rumours.
He said: “We don’t believe it would be appropriate to tie schools’ hands in this way.”
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “If Nicky Morgan is committed to closing the gap for disadvantaged children the last thing she should do is to divide children into ability sets and to use Ofsted to enforce this.
“This is educationally unjustifiable. The evidence is overwhelming that this practice holds back poor children, denying them access to an appropriately demanding curriculum. Any claim that Ofsted is independent of government ideology will be shot to pieces if the agency is required to enforce ministerial dogma.”
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the organisation of teaching was “a professional decision for schools” and should not be subjected to “a political whim”.
He added: “There is a complete contradiction in terms of policy. The government promised autonomy, which means trusting teachers. Telling schools how to organise their classes completely flies in the face of this.”
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “After four years of rhetoric around autonomy for schools it is inconceivable that they should be forced to set pupils. This would be a gross interference in an area where the evidence of benefit is very weak indeed.”
Meanwhile, the shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt, said: “I believe excellent heads and great teachers know better than Westminster politicians how to deliver the best schooling for all pupils,” he said.