“Miss, are we bottom set?”

A majority of even the non-tutor staff at Third Space Learning are 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 or mixed ability teaching, 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.

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

Challenges of teaching bottom set Maths

  • Motivation

The main challenge with these low-attaining bottom set Maths 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. This is particularly pertinent when you’re teaching bottom set Maths It’s therefore vital that pupils are given a range of  maths investigations that show how it can 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.

The fact that these pupils may be place in the bottom set for Maths  does not necessarily reflect their mathematical ability. They should be given work that is challenging them mathematically whilst ensuring that key words and phrases are understood before embarking on tasks.

Most effective strategies for teaching bottom set low-attaining groups

  • 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. Low threshold high ceiling questions are the holy grail when teaching bottom set maths.

Whether teaching bottom set or mixed ability maths, these high ceiling low threshold activities will help every child reach their 'lightbulb moment'

CLASSROOM RESOURCES free

Mastering Mixed Ability Maths Resource

8 Printable Low Threshold, High Ceiling Activities for KS2 Maths

Some pupils may also enjoy creating and setting their own questions for other pupils based on the topic. By creating differentiated questions the pupils can engage with the content in a different way, and also have the confidence boost of helping others to get to the answers their questions.

  • 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.

Read this: 20 maths strategies KS2 that we use in our teaching every day to guarantee progress for any pupil

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?  

Catherine Tighe , Teacher , Third Space Learning

With experience teaching Maths in a secondary school, Catherine now works for Third Space Learning to ensure all our new schools have the best possible experience of our intervention!