Calculated move;School management

19th March 1999 at 00:00
One primary has succeeded in raising achievement by introducing setting in its maths classes. Julie Morrice reports

Gracemount Primary is on the south-eastern outskirts of Edinburgh where high-rise flats sit next to clean-cut developments of executive homes. The school has a very wide range of pupils on a roll of 450, and in 1995 it was decided to introduce setting in P7 classes in mathematics.

"We felt the more able children were not being given the opportunity of being stretched," says Myra Appolinari, assistant headteacher. "And the less able were not being given enough time for their conceptual development."

She feels that the introduction of 5-14 was at least part of the impetus to reintroducing setting, which has been out of fashion for some years. "There are certain strands to get through, a more structured course. With 5-14 there is a greater justification for setting. " To allot the children to classes for the first year of setting, Gracemount constructed a test, but also took into account the existing classroom groups and the class teacher's assessment of the individual child. Last year, setting for maths was extended into P6, and the school is considering its introduction for writing.

There are three maths classes in both P6 and P7, and the pupils move out of their usual classroom for an hour of maths each day. Appolinari feels the system works well for everyone: the top groups can push ahead, and are motivated by the mere fact of being at the "top", while the lower group, where the teacher:pupil ratio is lower (in P7 this year, 13 pupils compared with 26 in the top group), can spend more time on concrete learning and using materials to improve their basic understanding of mathematical concepts. Moreover the less able pupils can feel more successful without direct comparison with the high flyers.

In P7 the teachers swap maths classes every eight weeks, giving them the opportunity to teach at all levels and to come into contact with the whole year group.

"It means we can get fresh ideas about a child. We discuss individual children an awful lot more than we used to," says Appolinari. "The sense of the team is very strong, and it has filtered into other areas of the curriculum. There is more sharing of ideas and resources."

Flexibility is at the heart of the system, and children do move between groups. One month after the pupils have been set, there is a review when the teachers sit down and assess each child's performance, deciding whether they should be moved.

The secondary, Gracemount High, has an accelerated class in S1 which the top group are likely to feed into, and also a fast-track group for children improving their performance. "The thing to remember is that children change," says Appolinari.

Feedback from Gracemount High on the first group of P7 children, who went into S1 in 1997, is that the assessments made at the primary school were accurate.

Parents have been very supportive of the scheme. The general feeling is that the focus on maths - the different teacher, the new classroom - makes the children work harder. The school's national test results in maths have consistently improved and "substantial numbers" of pupils are attaining 5-14 levels earlier than specified in the guidelines. "We have not had one parent being upset or disappointed," says Appolinari.

"Obviously children are very important to their parents and they don't like to see them being categorised, but this has been accepted as a positive move. The parents of the more able are happy to see them being allowed to move on, and the parents with kids in the lower groups are telling us that they feel they are good at maths and enjoy maths. Obviously we have to be careful not to give parents a false idea of their children's achievements, but it does seem to improve motivation."

In the first year of setting, Gracemount had three classes in P7, but a falling roll has meant this year there are only two. Finding the extra teacher to take on the third set for maths looked problematic, but between Appolinari herself, who takes it for three hours a week, and the headteacher, they have managed to cover.

Asked for advice she would give to other schools considering setting, Appolinari puts this problem at the top. "If you are not a three-class school at each stage, then you need commitment from management. The teaching resources have to be ring-fenced or the whole thing collapses."


* Management support - the financial commitment to a three-set system at Gracemount is seen as absolutely central to the success of the scheme. The school has the support of the primary curriculum adviser and of the HMI * Communication - constructive discussion of individual pupils and of the progress of classes as a whole not only ensures the smooth running of the scheme, but can spill over into general team-building * Critical review - complacency is the enemy of any new initiative. It is important to keep assessing the effectiveness of the system, and ensuring the organisation is good

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