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'Challenging' whole classes in Maths

Discussion in 'Mathematics' started by gillypearson, May 5, 2018.

  1. gillypearson

    gillypearson New commenter

    Just about all schools, I guess, nowadays have challenging students.
    But in Maths, because almost all schools 'set' in Maths and not other subjects, we very often have 'lower' and 'bottom' sets of students - which closely correlate with the most challenging classes.

    I realise that by posting here I'm asking a highly biased sample of teachers (Maths teachers), but doesn't this inevitably mean that Maths teachers are routinely expected to teach more challenging whole classes than most other subjects?
    I know that some students dislike P.E. with as much, or more, venom as they may dislike Maths, but P.E. classes do not routinely contain the same concentration of such students as occurs in some 'lower set' Maths classes.
    And of course, there's nothing like the pressure in P.E., or MFL etc. for these students to attain their target GCSE grades.

    I don't feel that this phenomena (the routine existence of challenging whole classes in Maths, specifically) is adequately recognised, discussed and addressed by either SLTs or Unions (the latter especially because they like to think all teachers have the same jobs and working conditions, and that Maths teachers are no different).
    armandine2 likes this.
  2. elder_cat

    elder_cat Established commenter

    I can't speak forschools, but some of the points you have raised would apply equally to where I taught in post-16 FE. I taught Computing rather than Maths, but it's pretty much the same across the board nowadays.Most colleges now offer a mix of courses for students at Entry, Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3. Just as in schools, the most challenging seem to be found in lower level groups. For many of those students. 'challenging' referrs to their general ability level, for others it referrs to their behaviour (or lack of). Either way it makes life more 'interesting' for the staff who have responsibility for teaching those classes.

  3. frustum

    frustum Star commenter

    Those hard-to-handle bottom sets are part of the decision when deciding to set. There are advantages too - we may be better able to cater for the weaker students because we are not trying to cater for all abilities in the same room - sometimes maths can be the best bit of their week because they are able to engage the work instead of being assisted to cope with something that is really a bit too hard. We can rig the numbers so that we have those weaker kids in a group of 20 instead of part of a mixed-ability group of 28-30. Most maths teachers should also have their fair share of easier-to-handle top sets - although they tend to carry a higher marking load.

    You then mention the pressure on target grades. I'm not convinced all is rosy in other departments. You try being the RE teacher, who needs the kids to hit their target grades in order to get their pay rise, when even the best kids are not putting in the effort you need them to, because "maths and English are more important".

    I think there are inevitable differences between subjects, but I don't think it's helpful to get into a "my job is harder than yours" argument. Should the teaching load vary between subjects? Maybe, but the reality is that there's little room for any slack, especially as other subjects might also make compelling cases. Should pay be higher for maths teachers - well, it would be interesting to know what the statistics are like now that pay is more a matter for negotiation. Maths teachers may be able to drive a better bargain as they are in shorter supply.
  4. pi r squared

    pi r squared New commenter

    Frustum raises the point that first came to my mind, that if we are arguing that bottom sets are more 'challenging' than the average non-maths-teacher's class, then the logical conclusion is that top sets are less. And unless the timetable is such that you are only ever allocated bottom sets, then all other things being equal you should end up with a mixture of 'less challenging' and 'more challenging' classes on your timetable.

    In terms of it not being recognised, discussed or addressed by SLT - I don't ever subscribe to the idea of "don't bring us problems, bring us solutions" but I am intrigued as to what sort of recognition or solution you would like from them. Realistically, the maths department chooses to set, and the maths department (in most schools) chooses how to set, so how would you like SLT to proceed? I don't see much SLT can do other than tell you not to set, if setting is causing an issue. Surely instead it is better for the maths department to have another look at the setting, having a discussion of whether setting is right for your school (for what it's worth, I am in favour of setting but if I was still leading the maths department at my school, I would be considering a 'top stream' and 'mixed ability stream' rather than Sets 1 to 5 or whatever), and if so ensuring that students are correctly set by potential and ability, rather than being allowed to fall down and down through poor behaviour rather than through academic struggle.

    As SLT and as a maths teacher I fully acknowledge that if a "sink group" is created then it's going to be a challenge - but then the department either needs to not create sink groups, or if it must then at least accept that one teacher's challenge must surely have made a few teachers' classes less challenging.
  5. Maths_Shed

    Maths_Shed Occasional commenter

    Blimey, an endangered species
  6. frustum

    frustum Star commenter

    There's sometimes something to be said for looking at the particular year group when deciding exactly how to set. Even in a school with only three sets, we had one year group where sets 2 and 3 were not hugely different in ability, and setting as normal gave some nasty combinations of kids. So we decided to have two parallel sets for that year group. Added to that, one of the teachers had a very confrontational style, which worked fantastically with some difficult students and terribly with others - so we divided them up with that in mind.
  7. pwc9000

    pwc9000 New commenter

    In my experience issues such as that suggested by the OP are usually as a result of poor decisions on setting, usually through allowing setting to happen by behaviour rather than ability. Note that I say ability and not attainment.
    hammie likes this.
  8. hammie

    hammie Lead commenter

    you quite often end up with a very weak but nice set and a naughty set. Interestingly, the top performing countries internationally for Maths very very rarely set in anyway. But they tend to have much smaller classes and much higher expectations of behaviour and individual responsibility for effort. As opposed to our system with huge classes and everything is down to the teacher.

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