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Setting & streaming in school maths

Research summary & links to further information about issues surrounding setting and streaming in school maths.


In the UK, setting or streaming pupils based on their perceived ability is very common. Particularly when it comes to maths, pupils can be put into sets as early as age 8 to 9. This often leads people to believe from a young age that they either can or can’t do maths.

According to the 2012 OFSTED report, over 95% of UK maths lessons are taught in groups in this way. There are arguments both for and against setting groups in schools. In favour of setting, it’s argued that teachers can provide lessons to suit the level of the learners: ensuring that they are challenging higher attainers and not going too fast for students who may be struggling.

But in reality it doesn’t often work like this. Sometimes the lower sets are given non-specialist teachers, while only the higher sets have a specialist maths teacher. And even where this is not the case, it’s been found that setting is more likely to benefit the higher attainers than those in the lower sets.

Once put in the bottom set, students are likely to stay there for much of their time in school. This can have a huge impact on how people think about maths for the rest of their lives.

But in fact, research has shown that mixed-ability classes are more effective overall than sets. Lower-attaining pupils do better when they are in the same class as higher-attaining students, and higher-attaining students are able to challenge themselves by supporting their classmates. This also helps to avoid giving learners the message that they either good or bad at maths.


Links to more information on setting and streaming in school maths

A summary of the book ‘The Elephant in the Classroom’ by Jo Boaler, exploring the impact of setting, mixed ability groups, and how maths can best be taught in schools: https://www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk/elephant-classroom-helping-children-learn-and-love-maths-2009

An editorial about the negative impact of setting children: http://www.wwwords.co.uk/forum/content/pdfs/44/issue44_1.asp

A paper by Ofsted looking at maths teaching and learning in UK schools: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/417446/Mathematics_made_to_measure.pdf

A summary of evidence around setting by ability: https://ioelondonblog.wordpress.com/2014/09/04/setting-by-ability-what-is-the-evidence/

A study of the effect of setting on students in UK schools: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/csme/meas/papers/boaler.html