Bottom Set Syndrome

What to do about professionals who complain about teaching ‘bottom sets’. They talk about having no patience left at the end of the week; that they feel the pace of lessons is too slow; that the subject content is too weak; they all but imply it is too demeaning for them.

Here is the the crux though: they do not have the resolve to build meaningful relationships with students; they repeat year on year the same lessons with the same powerpoints regardless of who is in their goup, or what ability child they are teaching; their subject knowledge is weak, and they have no desire to study to better their own understanding of mathematics; they have no interest in research into effective classroom practice, or pedagogy. Complaining is almost a way of life.

Why do these teachers think children in these sets deserve less? Why do they perceive these sets to be less worthy of them? Why aren’t they thinking about how their attitude is affecting their students?


So how do we get our bottom sets?

Our setting is based on

  • primarily achievement through summative assessment
  • combined with teacher assessment
  • expected 3 or 4 levels of progress at end of GCSE
  • social intervention through the pastoral teams
  • consideration given to individuals with particular needs

However, the year groups are split into halves or thirds, so quite often, one ‘bottom set’ in one of the thirds can have considerably different variation in ability range than a comparable bottom set in another of the thirds.


Dylan Wiliam(1) (2004) wrote “Because the day-to-day practice of a teacher is so intimately linked to the teacher’s personality, many aspects of teachers’ practice are difficult to change. Furthermore, because what teachers actually do in classrooms is so weakly theorised, attempts at reform have tended to concentrate on administrative aspects of practice, such as the number of episodes into which an hour’s instruction ought to be segmented, rather than addressing what, exactly, should be happening in each episode.”

A TRIPS study (2) on the effects of ability setting on teaching practices in a secondary school example highlighted

  • the best teachers being allocated to the top sets, despite evidence that high quality teaching is more beneficial to lower attaining pupils
  • curriculum polarisation, which meant that moving between sets was very difficult because they followed different syllabi
  • unreasonable expectations of the top sets, reflected in a fast, procedural teaching style
  • a lack of differentiation within sets, leading to many pupils finding the pace either too fast or too slow.

It’s not surprising then, that demotivated students (3) find their maths lessons are inaccessible and relate the top 5 major issues (in this research) as being

  • tedium
  • isolation
  • rote-learning
  • elitism
  • de-personalisation

Achievement at GCSE

These reports and others they cite conclude that the effect of being in a lower set on GCSE results may be about a half grade lower for students in groupings where teachers attitudes can stunt the potential achievement of their students. Perhaps far more devastating are the effects on self-esteem and unreported consequences of substantial loss of real functionality in mathematics for those students when they leave school.

So? How to change attitudes of teachers?

That’s the million dollar question! And sadly a challenging one for the rest of us – I don’t have any answers either at the minute.

Respect goes two ways – and everyone in school should respect each other. It gets round very quickly if you have little respect for some ‘particular’ students.

All children can learn mathematics – probably to a very high standard, but they might require more time to embed it, and more time to develop mathematically.

Not all teachers can teach. All students can learn.

Not all maths teachers can teach maths. All students can learn maths.

Many studies and research concentrates on why students of maths are demotivated and don’t reach their potential. How do you motivate maths teachers to reach their potential?

So? Any suggestions anyone?


1:  It’s not which school but which set you’re in that matters: the influence of ability-grouping practices on student progress in mathematics Dylan Wiliam & Hannah Bartholomew 2004

2: Themes: Pupil grouping and organisation of classes

3: Attitude and Achievement of the Disengaged Pupil in the mathematics Classroom (Updated)

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