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Headteacher's blog: To set or not to set, that is the question.

By Lisa Brown, Headteacher, Redmaids’ High Junior School

In an assessment driven curriculum, it is very tempting to group children by ability within classes or indeed, to ‘set’ children. In my experience, at primary school age, this can be limiting and potentially damaging.

By giving differing levels of work you are thereby defining the parameters of a child’s learning. When we know that the development of young minds can happen at different rates, shouldn’t all young children have equal opportunity and exposure to learning as they lay down the foundations of their understanding?

I have seen the negative impact that ability grouping children as young as 4 or 5 can have in mathematics. At Redmaids’ High Junior School, we are struck by how many girls join us at Year 3, already harbouring a negative attitude towards maths.

This is often due to being placed in a lower ability maths group, even when it hasn’t been explicitly labelled as such. The interpretation being that they aren’t any good at it, leading to feelings of demotivation and a lack of enthusiasm.

A BBC article in June 2018 supported this view where a deputy headteacher, Sean Macnamara, cited being placed in a low ability group from age 5 as ‘setting him up to fail’ and taking many years to overcome this perception.

Indeed, anxiety about maths can be very limiting, with some studies suggesting it can reduce short term working memory. According to a study by David Robson in 2015, girls, in particular, are much more likely to suffer from ‘maths anxiety’, partly due to cultural expectations and stereotypes. Furthermore, autumn born children who may be up to 11 or 12 months older than the youngest in the class, will also be more likely to be in the higher groups: is that fair?

In our Junior school, we set the bar high and teach to the top, giving whole class introductions that offer stretch and challenge. Focused practical tasks then provide concrete examples before learning is translated into written calculations. The use of mini whiteboards enable mistakes to be made without a lasting mark in books before independent tasks are offered.

Our girls are trained, even in Year 3, to evaluate their own understanding and select a task that reflects their comprehension giving them control. For children of a junior school age who are still developing their own ways of learning, we truly believe this is the best way to encourage their own self-belief.

Then, by the time girls start senior school, the foundations have been laid and it becomes suitable for them to be grouped with others of a similar aptitude so any questions asked will be closer to that pupil’s own train-of-thought.

Of course no system is perfect and a class teacher must always monitor and check that pupils complete appropriate levels. Usually, a little nudge here or there is all that is needed. The result is a class of motivated and keen mathematicians who believe they can do it, and they do!

Date Posted: 13 November 2018
Infant/Junior

Articles for: Infant/Junior

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Redmaids' High 
Junior School

juniors@redmaidshigh.co.uk
0117 962 9451

Grange Court Road
Westbury-on-Trym
Bristol BS9 4DP

Company number: 5165135
Registered charity number: 1105017 

Redmaids' High School
Senior & Sixth Form

seniors@redmaidshigh.co.uk 
0117 962 2641

Westbury Road
Westbury-on-Trym
Bristol BS9 3AW