Most schools set their students in or around Year 7 but there is still a large number of teachers who choose not to, some of whom are quite vocal on their reasoning. See mixed attainment maths, for example.

We discussed it in a recent #mathschat too, when we looked at plans for next year’s Year 7. The summary of that discussion can be found on a Twitter moment.

According to my Twitter poll following the chat, the majority of teachers, at least in my Twitterverse, set their students in Year 7.

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That 7% who chose ‘none of the above’ used a variety of alternative approaches to setting, for example one or two ‘top’ sets and the rest mixed, or a few support sets and the rest mixed.

I don’t have an issue with setting per se.  Particular parents like it, and some students like it.

My issue with setting is when it is done badly and these are my reasons why:

The language of setting

Do people still talk about high ability students, most able (or MABLES) and gifted students? I thought we’d agreed to stop that, but I still hear it.

Sets are based on assessments and assessments measure a range of things: current attainment or recall or reading or how well you take tests. Unless you can see into the future, they aren’t an accurate all-round measure of students’ ability.

The fixed nature of sets

When setting is done well, it should support pupils in doing their best, improving their skills and developing long-term working habits.

When it’s done badly, it can limit pupils because of how they fared in an arbitrary test taken when they were new to a school and worried about the expectations that were on them. If you have not read I’ll be a nothing by Diane Reay and Dylan Wiliam, do. It is a great and grating example of the construction of identity and agency through assessment.

Students learn at different rates, and if you set, your sets must be flexible to accommodate that. Timetables must be constructed around the subjects that use setting so that students are able to move between sets. To have sets, and then have to tell students that the timetable can’t accommodate them changing sets, means you should not have sets.

Setting as a behaviour management tool

Setting by attainment can be a proxy for setting by behaviour choices. I have no issue with determining sets by a range of factors, including attitude and agency, in fact I would welcome it. But it makes me uncomfortable when setting is used to punish poor behaviour.

In some set systems, students are moved down to a lower set to manage their behaviour, rather than being supported to make better behaviour choices in future. Then the link between ‘ability’ and ‘behaviour’ becomes causal.

What we use to set students

The final issue I have with setting is how the data that we use to set them is collected.  We have loads of wonderful SATs data from our primary schools. Some even provide copies of reports to us, highly detailed and personalised for each student.

But we don’t trust the SATs or the personalised reports, so we give them a 30-minute test and use that instead. Is that really a more reliable way to set students?

My argument is therefore not with setting, but with the artifacts surrounding setting.

However, the real reason I don’t set my students in Year 7, is that I don’t want my students’ early experiences of maths to be a test that then determines what I think of them.

I want to excite and intrigue them, to get to know them and find out what they find difficult and why. Then I can put them into groups determined by how I think they should be best supported.