At risk of setting traps in maths

13th September 1996 at 01:00
As the British Educational Research Association conference gets into its stride, David Budge reports on the main issues. The standard practice of placing secondary pupils in maths sets from the age of 13 is called into question by new research which suggests that children achieve better GCSE grades if they are taught in mixed-ability classes.

Most schools put pupils into maths sets to reduce the spread of ability within a class and make teaching more manageable. But Dr Jo Boaler of King's College, London, has found that setting can have many drawbacks.

Her three-year study of two secondary schools, a traditional comprehensive and a "progressive" school with mixed-ability classes, shows that pupils are often disadvantaged by setting.

She found that significant numbers of setted pupils experienced difficulties working at the pace of the class, resulting in disaffection and under-achievement.

Some responded badly to the pressure and competition produced by setted lessons, particularly girls and pupils in the top sets. Pupils in lower sets became disillusioned and demotivated by the limits placed upon their achievements.

Some children complained that a D grade at GCSE was the highest level that their set could achieve.

Dr Boaler, who will present her findings to the British Educational Research Association conference at Lancaster University today, found that social class appeared to influence setting decisions.

There was a tendency for working-class pupils to be allocated to low sets, irrespective of their attainment. Equally worryingly, three times as many middle-class as working-class pupils had "over-achieved", while four times as many working-class children had underachieved.

At the school with mixed-ability classes, however, there were equal numbers of middle-class and working-class children in both categories.

Dr Boaler, who tracked 310 pupils through Years 9, 10 and 11, observed about 100 lessons and interviewed 80 children. She discovered that pupils in the setted classes spent more time "working". However, this was not reflected in the GCSE results.

Pupils in the more progressive school were given a great deal of freedom to work, talk or wander around. But they achieved significantly more A to G grades even though they were of similar ability to the children in the traditional school at the beginning of Year 7. A high proportion of children taught in mixed-ability classes also achieved GCSE grades that were consistent with their Year 8 scores. In the more formal comprehensive there was more fluctuation over the three years.

The two girls who achieved the two highest scores at the end of Year 8, for example, obtained the lowest GCSE grades in the top set (grade E).

Dr Boaler concludes that being able and hard working was not a guarantee of success within the setted classes.

She says: "Pupils indicated that success depended upon working quickly, adapting to the norms for the class and thriving upon competition.

"The various forms of data from my research also seem to expose an important fallacy upon which many setting decisions are based. Students of a similar 'ability' assessed via some test of performance, will not necessarily work at the same pace, respond in the same way to pressure or have similar preferences for ways of working. The stress and anxiety reported by pupils in interviews is probably an indication of this phenomenon."

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