Maths sets??????????????????

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.


3 thoughts on “Maths sets??????????????????

  1. Jan Pringle

    So pleased to read this as I’ve been wrestling with this idea since reading the same book last week. Like you, I think her arguments are very persuasive but it’s meant a real re-think for me as I’ve always been a real fan of setting in KS2. Our head is keen on mixed-ability teaching so last year I taught Maths to my class who were mixed Year 5/6 and had abilities ranging from L1 to L5A apart from in the few weeks immediately before SATS when we taught Y6 separately. On the whole the mixed-ability teaching worked better than I feared but I did find it a struggle to cater for the very poorest couple of children.
    Lots of food for thought in the book and I’m certainly keen to try some of her ideas this year when I’m going to have a mixed-ability Y5 group. Struggling at the moment with how I reconcile this with the constraints imposed by the Numeracy Framework, APP and a fairly rigid planning format which expects clearly differentiated work. All of this is pretty much demanded of us as an ISP school!

    1. Gill Knight

      If you have two classes in a year group, how about doing what a year 2 in my previous school did? They had a large middle ability group who they felt they couldn’t split, so they made up one group of the very top and very bottom, and had one middle group. The teacher who had the top/bottom split said it worked very well because she’d give one group an activity that didn’t need much explanation while she taught the other group and got them going, then she’d be able to teach the other group something completely different.

      I can see the full force of Jo Boaler’s arguments, but also struggle with the many implications of abandoning setting. As my school is split into 4 sets in a year group, I’m thinking about suggesting having a top, a bottom and two middles in years 3 & 4 (with the middles split alphabetically so there can be no assumptions about one of them being higher). What do you think? It would mean the SEN and most able would be separated out, but would allow the others to develop without the stigma/pre-conceptions that setting engenders. They could then be ability split for years 5 & 6.

  2. Sorry not to reply sooner. This sounds like a good compromise. I certainly do think that there are issues regarding SEN who often need more than a class situation can provide. It still doesn’t give the middles access to the full range though does it? I am no nearer any solution to the problem so probably not the best person to offer ideas.

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