However, the way maths is examined has a big impact on how we organise our teaching groups after that. There are four tiers in the key stage 3 national tests and three at GCSE, with such a gulf between the most advanced work and the bottom end that it would be almost impossible to teach it all in the same classroom. But we have tried to find ways to avoid restricting the possibilities. In Year 9, we use banding with two top, two middle and two lower sets. This allows more flexibility when it comes to moving pupils around. But when they start Year 10, it's full setting. With the current exam tiers at GCSE, it's always a problem knowing where to put the borderline students, so we have created sets that are foundationintermediate and intermediatehigher so they have a chance of being entered for the next tier up.
I think the majority of maths teachers will breathe a huge sigh of relief when we start teaching towards the two-tier exam to be introduced in 2008.
Part of a teacher's job is to make students feel there's no limit to what they can achieve, and low expectations are something we have to fight against all the time. Self-belief is so important and I find they tend to regress a bit when they're put into a lower-ability group in Year 9. At the moment, I'm trying to address this with my own Year 9 by constantly telling them that, yes, they can get a level 6 and that's what I'm expecting them to do. With the way the tiers are at the moment, it's a battle to raise the aspirations of foundation level students. They are well aware that a C grade at GCSE is seen as the benchmark of competency in maths when it comes to applying for courses or jobs, but the best they can get is a D. I tell them that, if I were an employer, I'd rather take on someone with a D who worked their socks off to get it than someone who got a C by just coasting.
It's not just being put into a bottom set that can have a negative impact, though. Being placed in a top set can provoke a crisis of confidence in some students, particularly girls, and they often need support to get over their fear of failure.
In terms of lesson planning, we try to carry over our mixed-ability ethos into our setted groups. At KS3, some maths teachers tend to see the national strategy as the "bible" of good practice and stick to it rigidly.
However, we find it can be restrictive. Much of the commercially produced materials based on it seem to be designed for sets, so have a narrow focus and sometimes only scratch the surface of a topic. We produce our Year 7 and 8 schemes of work for the mixed-ability classes in-house and always adapt textbooks to encourage the students to delve deeper, explore and find links between topics.
Too often, students in sets get the impression that you have to move up a set to improve. All our lessons have core-level and extension work, and pupils know the expectation is that they will not just do the basics but will be progressing all the time. We also try to emphasise that it's not just about the exams; it's also about developing knowledge and understanding for the sheer pleasure of it. I often use the elastic band analogy and explain that I'm trying to challenge them and stretch them beyond their boundaries, no matter what set they're in. One boy recently quipped: "But what if we snap, Sir?" I thought that was a real "top set"
John Wilson is head of maths at Harrytown Catholic high school, Romiley, Stockport. He was talking to Caroline Roberts