Streaming maths classes at primary level has its advantages

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 9:43am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 April, 2015, 2:16pm

My son's primary school has recently started to stream for maths. He has always had good maths reports, and he is upset that he is not in the highest stream. Should I discuss the possibility of moving him to a more advanced maths group with his teacher ?

There are differing, and sometimes contentious, views about streaming students by ability in different areas of the primary curriculum.

Some schools stream for specific lessons where they deem it advantageous for the pupils' learning, and others do not stream at all, but cater for different abilities by grouping within the classroom.

This depends on the pedagogy and philosophy of the school, and also the resources available, human or otherwise. Whatever the system for grouping, it is imperative that children are being challenged at their level.

There must be good reason for your son being placed in his current group. I am sure the teacher would be happy to clarify some of your questions, and discuss his strengths and weaknesses in the different areas of maths.

As well as reassuring you, this should also be helpful in informing you how you can help him more effectively at home. Discuss this with your son, but be careful not to put too much pressure on him.

A common argument against streaming is that children feel that they have been labelled, or that they are "stuck" in a group. This can be very demoralising. Your son needs to know that with sustained improvement or building on a particular area of strength, he has a chance to move to a different group.

Maths is one of the subjects in which streaming is more common as there can be such a wide range of abilities in one class. It is in essence a linear subject where concrete knowledge and understanding of a particular concept are keys to moving to the next level. Therefore, gaps in understanding can hinder a child's overall progress.

It is also a subject in which pupils' abilities can differ in different areas. For example, some pupils may be strong at problem solving but weak at computation.

Others may be confident tackling shape and space activities but weak in data handling. If groups are formed in a school, it is important that they are flexible and that frequent assessments are carried out for different areas of maths.

Grouping students in their own classroom has several advantages. It is less disruptive to school life, as it is not necessary for large groups of children to move to different rooms. It can be more flexible in terms of lesson timing. A lesson can be extended if pupils are in the middle of an exciting investigation or concepts need reinforcing.

It also allows groups to be fluid. The class teacher knows the children better than other teachers in the school and can change groupings accordingly.

Parents do not have the detailed information to level their own child's ability as compared to rest of the class or year group. It would be unfair on your son and other class members to move him to an inappropriate group.

If he struggled in a higher group or felt under too much pressure from you or the teacher, it could knock his confidence further and certainly affect his enjoyment of maths. It could also hold back the children in the higher maths group if the teacher had to spend extra time reinforcing and explaining concepts to your son in order to progress with the lesson.

In a single mixed-ability primary classroom there can be a seven-year ability gap. All groups are mixed ability but some groups are more mixed than others. It is not an easy job for teachers to cater for such a wide ability so activities are often differentiated.

Some studies show that when young high ability students are frequently placed with lower ability students they can become frustrated and demotivated.

There is also the argument that if less able children always work with each other then they don't get to work with good mathematical role models. Whatever the system in place, whether streaming or grouping, success depends on the teacher.

Parents want the best for their children, and if they themselves struggled with maths at school, they can transpose their insecurities onto their children. Those who found maths easy can become frustrated with their own child and unrealistic in their expectations.

If you feel more informed, it may help you and your son to become comfortable with the situation. Hopefully, he will begin to enjoy maths again.

Julie McGuire teaches at a local primary school