So, why do we put kids in sets?

I am not unique in wishing to question the omnipresence of putting kids into different groups according to the teacher’s perception of their potential to achieve. Jo Boaler has been shouting this loudly for some time now (see The Elephant in the Classroom) and Anne Watson makes the case forcefully (see Raising Achievement …). So, how can it be that even primary school teachers feel unable to to teach a class of 7 year olds the same number skills at the same time – because there is such a great gap in their likelihood to succeed? Where has the child-centredness gone? My daughter moved from the middle group (apparently lacking in confidence) to ‘gifted and talented’ in maths within a year in her primary school. However, she would have remained there if she didn’t have school savvy middle class parents to take the school to task. We all have stories to tell like this.

My students meet these young people in year 7 after they have had 5 (and more) years to get used to the expectations placed on them. The bottom set kids perform to type after so much practice, when examined at the start of year 7 and quickly settle into a bottom set life. The work of Jaime Escalante should be compulsory for everyone in maths education. While we tinker around the edges of pedagogy, he went for the jugular. Everyone can succeed, all they need is ganas (roughly translated from the Spanish as ‘desire’. He was not going to let any of his students want for that … and famously they succeeded at the very highest level.

So, let’s see if we can have a pact. Secondary school teachers have to promise that they will treat everyone they meet believing (as Escalante proved true) that they can succeed at the highest level and should be taught accordingly. Then, the spirit of child centred primary schools can rid itself of the shackles of endless testing and levelling and get back to teaching everyone to be ready to succeed. It beggars belief that successive governments seek to drive up standards by selecting, in advance, groups of young people who you are denied access to the most important parts of the curriculum.


2 thoughts on “So, why do we put kids in sets?

  1. I agree.
    My school has just gone mixed ability in yr7 and also yr9 ’til xmas.
    Yr 7 will remain mixed into yr8 as well.

    I like the fact that the lower ability ones get to see and hear maths they would never otherwise experience. I also like the fact that higher ones have to think carefully about how to explain what they are thinking. I also think that the higher one will develop a better sense of their ability. I am also upset when a top set student says they aren’t good at maths. If possible, I get this sort of student in to see middle and low sets to get some perspective.

    Mixed ability is certainly interesting and I think it seems to be wtorking for us.


  2. I think schools are reluctant to do away with setting because they are afraid. A school with 80% A*-Cs will not want to break a system which ‘work’s well’ in their eyes and a school with 30% A*-Cs will be terrified that they will lose the few high acheivers they have. I suspect this fear stems at least in part from the marketisation of the school system and the exam driven culture in schools.

    I also really think tiers of entry should be abolished at GCSE. How can we as fallible human beings decide to deny children access to the highest grades and the full GCSE curriculum?

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