To set or not to set?

There has been lots of controversy about the demands of the proposed new curriculum in maths but a lot less attention seems to have been paid to the fact that levels are being exchanged for “end of year expectations”. This blog is my initial thoughts on what that might mean.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I really do not like setting for primary pupils despite the fact that I work in a primary school which has maths sets from year 2 upwards. I hate the fact that children are labelled from the age of 6 upwards as being either good or bad at maths. Research has continually shown that over time, children who are put in lower groups stay there. We tell tham that they are less able at maths and therefore they are less able. Research also shows that setting doesn’t really benefit any group of pupils and can be detrimental to groups of children such as bright girls. Another worrying fact is that lower sets may be primarily made up of Summer born children. Not good at maths or just not quite ready yet due to being younger?

Setting does however make it easier for the teacher and with large classes and huge demands on teacher time, that can’t be ignored. With class of 35 spanning from level 1 to level 5, it becomes increasingly difficult to target each group of pupils accurately and so we have setting.

The new maths curriculum might change all that though. Levels are being abolished and the latest government proposals do away with the need to level in years 3 and 4 from September 2013. I recently watched a Hamilton Trust video in which Ruth Merttens stated that the new curriculum is a “mastery based” curriculum rather than “progress based” as at present. The intention seems to be that classes are taught together and move on together rather than groups of children being at different levels. This would seem to indicate that setting would not be required and children would work in class groups.

I’m not sure how this will work in practice. Children are not all the same and do not progress at the same rate. Will brighter children be held back? Will those who take longer to assimilate new ideas be forced to move on before they are ready? I am really not sure that you can pick up ideas from other societies such as those in the pacific rim where maths is taught in this way and assume that they will work here. Our society is different in the western part of the world with greater emphasis on the individual and I feel that this could mean that whole class progress is unmanageable.

As an academy, we do not have to implement the new curriculum but we need to do the best by our pupils and so may have to implement a lot of its requirements as they will surely appear in end of KS2 tests. I await the finished version of the new curriculum and will then try to think about the best way of implementing it.

Further confused blog posts on this and related issues are quite likely 🙂