To set or not to set that is the question.
This issue is always at the back of my mind. We are a school that is run on fairly traditional lines, no creative curriculum or funny topic titles here!!! But we do make every link we can and our curriuclum was praised by Ofsted as being a model for others to copy. Part of our traditional ethos is that like many other schools we set by ability for maths. We began to set in KS2 about 15 years ago but it was about 6 or 7 years ago that it was also decided that we would set in year 2 as well (before I was maths coordinator I hasten to add).
I have always had very mixed feelings about maths setting, especially in KS1. A previous maths consultant who I admired greatly was dead against it and I’m probably influenced by his views to a certain extent. However matters came to a head when our year 1 staff decided that they wanted to set as well. My reaction was ‘over my dead body’ but I had to explain why.
I asked around but I couldn’t find any real evidence to back up my gut reaction that it was just a bad idea. Research seems to be inconclusive although there does seem to be evidence that it is bad for children’s self esteem, unsurprisingly. I managed to fight my corner and mostly they were OK with my decision which the head said was mine to make.
However yesterday I received my copy of There’s an Elephant in the Classroom by Jo Boaler and that has got my mind racing again. She is adamant that setting in primary schools is a bad thing and gives the damning statistic that 88% of children who are placed in a lower set in the early years remain in a lower set throughout their school career with very negative effects on their performance in maths and their attitude towards the subject. She argues persuasively and gives lots of evidence as to why setting is such a bad idea. Her theory is that you teach in a more open ended manner and provide lots of investigative work for the children to do rather than lots of exercises in a text book.
That sounds great but how would it work in practice? In my class in September I would have levels 1 to a secure 4 in maths. How could I support all of those different abilities successfully? Investigations are great but at some point you have to teach the skills that the children need to be able to do the investigation. Boaler herself says that there are areas such as multiplication that have to be learned and practised often before the ideas can be properly understood. That practice has to be targetted at the correct level so that it is useful to all the children.
So my dilemma remains unsolved. I feel that setting is not the best way to deliver the maths curriculum but until I can work out how to successfully teach a class of widely differing abilities I will not rock the boat……………….yet.
I have to say that the book is excellent. Very thought provoking and easy to read, unlike some that I have read recently! Definitely worth looking at for anyone interested in maths teaching.