Is there a third way for S1/S2 maths?

As people all across Scotland are busy "re-imagining school education" I've been reflecting on my experience over the last 18 years as a secondary maths teacher, particularly on the two ways that classes have been organised over the years.

When I began teaching at Newbattle High School in 1990, S1 and S2 maths classes across Scotland were mixed-ability, and almost every school was using a resource called SMP Maths (my legendary PT Simon Smith at North Berwick being a rare exception). SMP consisted of a series of many small booklets, each of which taught a small bit of mathematical content. The booklets were only a dozen pages or so long, and pupils worked through them in a set order, at their own pace.

The big advantage of this system was that every pupil could engage with work at an appropriate level, and work at their own pace. The disadvantages were many: teachers spent hours marking tests and organising the booklets and very little time teaching; when they did teach, they could only teach one or two pupils at a time, as each pupil was potentially tackling a different topic from everyone else; and "at their own pace" often meant "at a snail's pace".

Maths departments tried to improve the situation by grouping pupils, and having them work together - setting within the class essentially - so that they could be taught in these wee groups.

The death knell for SMP came when folk from Scottish education visited the classrooms of the Asian nations which appeared to be outperforming us dramatically in mathematical achievement. What they found, amongst other things, was direct teaching from the front, and lots of it! This led to the Standards and Quality report in 1999 stating that S1/S2 maths courses needed "increased use of direct teaching of attainment groups."

So we began setting in S1 and S2, despite the distinct lack of evidence that this would improve mathematical attainment. From my perspective, the advantages of setting have been: that classes can work together as classes, all learning the same outcomes together; that teachers can focus on one specific learning outcome for each lesson and teach the whole class directly; and that opportunities for pair and group work are greatly enhanced by the simpler organisation of set classes (the teaching is not running around like a headless chicken trying to keep track of 5 different topics at once). The biggest disadvantage is that lower ability pupils end up in ghetto classes which inevitably have more than their fair share of behavioural problems.

So... mixed ability makes it very difficult for maths teachers to teach in the old-fashioned sense of that word, and I think this is a big problem, because I still believe that one of the greatest privileges in life is to be taught by someone who is passionate about their subject.

Setting solves this problem but introduces the huge problems of social division and the reinforcement of low expectations amongst low achievers, and has yet to be proved to improve attainment, as far as I am aware.

Is there a third way?


  1. Very interesting. What do you think the consequences would be on attainment in Maths if setting was removed at NBHS - especially in S1/2?

  2. Hi Don. I don't think it would make any difference, but I have no evidence upon which to base that opinion. All I can say is that I didn't notice a dramatic improvement in our standard grade results following our move to set classes in S1/2 at the end of last century!

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