Could this be the answer?

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
St John's Primary in Portobello, Edinburgh, trialled maths setting in an attempt to combat poor performance. Ted Brack, Chris Coyle and Jim McDevitt report on the results

The performance of Scottish children in mathematics is simply not good enough: the Scottish Office, HMI reports, the Assessment of Achievement Programme and, most recently, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement all paint the same sorry picture.

HM inspectors of schools in Scotland were sufficiently concerned to visit high-achieving Pacific Rim countries such as Singapore, Korea and Japan. They also spent time looking at mathematical practices in primary schools in two educationally successful European countries, Austria and Hungary.

They have gathered together the lessons learned in a recently-released report called Improving Mathematics Education 5-14. This contains a number of recommendations which include a greatly reduced reliance on calculators, a return to regular practice in mental arithmetic and a suggestion that "setting" P6-S2 pupils for maths would have a beneficial effect for both teachers and pupils.

The idea of setting as a way forward was first suggested in the HMI report Achievement for All, which was published last October and recommended, among other things, that "large primary schools where there is more than one class at each stage should investigate the effectiveness of setting pupils for English and mathematics across the whole year group in P6 and P7".

The report defines "setting" as "assigning pupils to classes for a given subject on the basis of their achievement in that subject", and recommends three sets for each subject. It then pinpoints the benefits of this approach, such as enabling teachers to spend more of their time on teaching and less on class management; making it easier for each pupil to progress at an appropriate rate; and allowing more effective targeting and matching of teaching style and resources (including learning support) to pupil needs.

At St John's Primary School in Portobello, we investigated the ideas for ourselves. As head and P6 teachers, we undertook a pilot project in mathematics for six weeks at the start of the summer term. Maths was taught in one-hour, timetabled blocks four times a week. Three cross-class groups were formed on the basis of pupil attainment and each of us took complete responsibility for planning, delivering and evaluating our own group's work.

Each group worked on decimals and percentages, and then angles, at the appropriate level and pace for their ability. Groups 1 and 2 followed Heinemann Mathematics 6 as their core scheme, with adaptation and supplementing where necessary. Group 3 was composed mainly of children working on Heinemann Mathematics 5, but some were still working on Heinemann Mathematics 4.

Practical difficulties had to be addressed before the project could get underway. Three groups needed three rooms to work in. The two P6 class-rooms were obviously available, but finding a third room was more difficult, since the school has no surplus accommodation. The problem was solved by the third group using the gym when it was free, and when the PE specialist was teaching, moving into the rooms vacated by gym classes.

Another potential difficulty was the need for the head to be available to teach his group. Despite predictable problems with absence cover and other demands for his attention, he managed for the most part to adhere to his mathematics teaching responsibilities.

The groundwork was done before Easter, so the project was able to begin on the first day of term. Its success was soon clear to all involved, and an early decision was taken to extend it through to the summer holidays.

All three of us are now unanimous about the benefits of setting. There was a clear change for the better in the teaching and learning environment. In the third attainment group, there was a remarkable change in the whole classroom atmosphere, with almost all the children working with a greater sense of purpose and a calm, quiet concentration on the task in hand.

Management of the children's learning was also simpler. Each teacher found planning a clear sequence of progressive lessons for one group of children far easier than performing the usual juggling act of planning and preparing for three or more groups.

Far more time was spent on direct teaching and less on classroom management. Being freed from the responsibility of time-managing the rest of the class, the teacher was able to concentrate exclusively on his own maths group, which created extra time for checking children's work and feeding back to them on their progress - and giving quality help to those experiencing individual difficulties.

The final benefit was as predicted in Achievement for All. The maths tasks were more sharply related and the children responded well to working within a clearly defined time block. They had a clear incentive to match their pace to the rest of the group - an implicit peer pressure to keep up to speed - which, because of the nature of the set-up, they were all capable of achieving.

An objective endorsement came from two separate supply teachers who worked with the P6 maths groups - both said how much easier it was to teach mathematics to a set than to a normal primary class.

Nor was there any doubt that the children's achievement was enhanced at all levels through this approach. All three teachers found this in contrasting ways. Children in Group 1 often assimilated basic concepts with ease and were able to leave behind their textbooks and move on to more challenging extension assignments set by their teacher.

In Group 2 they tackled a comprehensive assessment test at the end of each teaching block and came through with flying colours. Most achieved a success rate of more than 90 per cent and none scored below 80 per cent. Group 3 made much more substantial progress than normal. This was due to the improved teaching environment and the increased opportunities for individual tuition, an appropriate learning pace and more leisurely exposition of new concepts by the class teacher.

At the parents' evenings in May, parents reported that their children were coming home far more enthusiastic about their maths work. They were also pleased at the quality and quantity of work which they were seeing in their children's jotters. Group 2 parents were "delighted" with their children's mathematical progress during the term and the boost their confidence in tackling mathematical tasks had received from the new approach.

The 51 children involved were overwhelmingly in favour of the setting. In response to a questionnaire, they reported that they: * enjoyed maths more (42);

* got more work done (45);

* could concentrate better (47);

* the teacher had more time to help them (44);

* understood their maths better (43);

* had fewer interruptions (40);

* worked at the speed that suited them best (44);

* found the classroom quieter and easier to work in (46).

Only three children did not want to continue working in maths sets.

Teachers, parents and children were happy. It would now be logical for us to extend setting to English and use it in P7 as well. But that is where problems of a logistical and financial nature arise. For the three sets for each subject, you need three teachers. This requires management team teaching in both subjects for P6 and P7, which results in a minimum management teaching commitment of 16 hours a week, plus preparation and correction time. No headteacher or depute of a large primary could possibly be available for 16 hours teaching a week, without neglecting other duties.

To make setting work, staffing budgets would need to be enhanced and, in many schools, the accommodation shortage addressed. The Government has pledged itself to raising educational standards in Scotland, and setting is a clear example of how this can be achieved. But unless the funding is there to improve staffing and accommodation, such initiatives cannot be sustained.

Ted Brack is headteacher of St John's Primary School, Portobello. Chris Coyle and Jim McDevitt are P6 teachers

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