Teaching bottom set Maths - aiming for outstanding

By Catherine Tighe 


“Miss, are we bottom set?”

A majority of even the non-tutor staff at Third Space Learning are former teachers and we recall only too well the common question “are we bottom set?”. It's usually quickly followed by other questions such as “how do I move up a set?” and “why is this group so small?” Regardless of your views of the pros and cons of setting, one day, you may be once again faced with teaching 'bottom set maths'.

Even from a young age, pupils show an awareness of the stigma of being placed in sets and our free Primary School Guide to Pupil Premium emphasises The Education Endowment’s and the Sutton Trust’s findings that placing pupils in sets actually has a detrimental effect on pupils of lower ability and reduces progress by 1 month. In fact, in Finland, sorting children into ability groups is illegal.


Free Primary School Guide to the Pupil Premium

Effective Strategies, Ofsted Checklist and 15-point success plan

Here are some of the strategies we find most successful in approaching the unique challenges of this group - all tried and tested in our own classrooms. 


  • Motivation

The main challenge with these low-attaining groups throughout the year can be to ensure that they remained motivated. This can be especially prominent if they are working towards separate goals to other pupils in their year group and are seated away from the other pupils; this contributes towards the feeling of demoralisation and segregation and teachers are left to convince these pupils that the effort they put into maths is worthwhile.

  • Context

If pupils don’t believe that what they are learning is useful in some way, they will be unable to engage with the mathematical content, therefore it was vital that pupils are aware of how the maths could be used in real life or how the lesson fits into their long term progression.

  • EAL pupils

A perhaps unexpected challenge that is prominent in many of the schools we work with at Third Space is the growth of EAL (English as an Additional Language) pupils. This does not necessarily reflect their mathematical ability and it is important therefore that they are still completing work that is challenging them mathematically whilst ensuring that key words and phrases are understood before embarking on tasks.

What works with low-attaining groups of pupils?  

  • Include higher ability questions in their learning

For higher achieving pupils in the group, giving them the chance to consolidate and test their skills is key to ensuring that they remain motivated. They may also enjoy creating and setting their own questions for other pupils based on the topic. By asking them to create differentiated questions the pupils can engage with the content in a different way, can enjoy helping other pupils in the class answer their questions and this will also boost their self-confidence.

  • Scaffold their work

One of the factors inhibiting progress within and between lessons for these pupils is often memory recall. Even if they can complete each step individually, many find it difficult to remember multi-step methods when solving problems. Therefore, to prevent the pupils from becoming demotivated with these types of questions, teachers can provide a high level of scaffolding that is then gradually removed. This allows pupils to answer these questions with minimal intervention from teachers, boosts pupils’ confidence and gives them practice in setting out questions correctly.

The aim by the end of the lesson should then be to answer these questions with no scaffolding in their books. Another benefit of this is that it allows for differentiation within the lesson; higher attaining pupils can be given less scaffolding earlier on, allowing them to work at a faster rate.  

  • Mark their own work

Due to the nature of these groups, many of these pupils need high levels of assistance, intervention and access to teaching assistants. Therefore, low-attaining pupils can really enjoy being given autonomy and independence in lessons.

A strategy that pupils respond particularly positively to is marking their own questions from a simple and accessible mark scheme. This activity gives them ownership over their work, they can see directly where they have gained and lost marks and where the marks are available for each question. This also allows the low-attaining pupils to realise that they can not only gain marks at the beginning of maths papers but also for at least attempting harder questions and scoring marks for their working out. 

Turning from Maths sets to mixed ability teaching

If you're currently teaching bottom set Maths but wondering if there's another way, then we've got two incredibly helpful blog posts for you. Firstly a look at the pros and cons: Mixed ability versus ability grouping in primary and then some practical advice and ideas: Maths activities to use with mixed ability groupings.

How to manage progress through to SATs

The new curriculum is particularly challenging for low-attaining pupils, so if you need additional support to help your Year 6 pupils revise for their Maths SATs, this Year 6 Maths Catch-up and Revision Guide is packed full of ideas to support pupils of all ability levels. For more personalised help, or to ensure learning gaps and misconceptions are addressed in struggling pupils from the outset, our Year 6 Maths SATs foundation programme - featuring weekly one-to-one each week with a personal Maths specialist tutor - might be for your class.

For other techniques on engaging pupils, building their confidence and promoting their independence, see this article by the NRICH team.

Do you agree with sorting children into ability groups? What strategies have you used to motivate and support low-attaining pupils?  


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