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Closing the maths attainment gap

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Teaching ‘Low Ability’ Students Maths: “Are We Bottom Set?”

Teaching maths to the children some schools still call the ‘low ability students’ you will at some point hear the question  “Miss, are we bottom set?”

The question is 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 on teaching strategies such as setting or mixed ability grouping, one day, you may be once again faced with teaching ‘bottom set maths’. While ability based setting is more common at secondary school, it is also occasionally used in primary schools, particularly in the lead up to standardised exams. 

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 grouping students in sets actually has a detrimental effect on lower ability students and reduces progress by 1 month. In fact, in Finland, sorting children into ability groups is illegal.

In this article we set out some of the challenges of labelling students bottom set and how to overcome them when you’re teaching. 

Challenges of teaching low ability students maths


The main challenge with these bottom set Maths lower ability learners 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.

Introducing pupils to metacognition in the classroom can be one way of providing them with motivation. Many metacognitive strategies help frame problems as ‘something you can’t solve yet‘ rather than simply something you cannot solve, helping keep pupils’ morale up.


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 KS2 maths problem solving investigations on how the lesson fits into their long term progression, and effective questioning strategies are used to highlight how exactly the topic being learnt is useful to them.

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 placed 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.

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 with strong differentiation in the classroom, 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. 

TSL Online classroom multiplication questions
An example slide from Third Space Learning’s online maths intervention showcasing one example of scaffolding; in this case, tutor and pupil working together to solve a problem before the student attempts it themselves.

Scaffolding is an extremely versatile quality first teaching technique, and can be used to varying degrees with the whole class. Another benefit of this is that it allows for differentiation within the lesson; high ability 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.

Check out these 20 other primary maths strategies that we use in our teaching every day for more ideas on how to guarantee progress in maths for every pupil, and our post full of techniques to prevent the summer slide to ensure that progress isn’t lost between terms!

Or read through Clare Sealy’s series of six blogs on maths teaching, based on Craig Barton’s book ‘How I Wish I’d Taught Maths’:

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

Do you have pupils who need extra support in maths?
Every week Third Space Learning’s maths specialist tutors support thousands of pupils across hundreds of schools with weekly online 1-to-1 lessons designed to plug gaps and boost progress.

Since 2013 we’ve helped over 60,000 primary school pupils become more confident, able mathematicians. You can learn more about the maths intervention or request a personalised quote for your school to speak to us about your school’s needs and how we can help.

Primary school tuition targeted to the needs of each child and closely following the National Curriculum.

Catherine Tighe
Catherine Tighe
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!
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Mastering Mixed Ability Maths Resource

8 Printable Low Threshold, High Ceiling Activities for KS2 Maths

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Mastering Mixed Ability Maths Resource

8 Printable Low Threshold, High Ceiling Activities for KS2 Maths

Download Now!