Q & A

Jake Burnett

My son is in Year Eight and he has just received his end of year report. In it, we have been informed that next year he will be moved into one of the lowest sets in mathematics. As a result of this he is very upset and demotivated and although mathematics has never been one of his strongest subjects I would like to know how I can help him in this area.

Teacher Jake Burnett replies:

There are many subjects taught in schools where banding or setting is one of many effective forms of differentiation, ensuring that the academic content and challenge offered to students is appropriate for them at their own level of learning. Subjects such as mathematics and the sciences often choose to do this as it gives students a chance to progress at their own level.

Most secondary schools are quite flexible about how students can move between groups in these subjects and often use transfer between groups as a motivational force. This can help students to see that if they do indeed progress effectively then the outcome can mean that they may be moved into a group which will be working at a slightly faster pace or on more complex content.

The real point here is that students (and parents) should focus on personal progress rather then competition amongst peers. Teachers will always be looking out for students who are working as hard as possible, to the best of their ability and this should be the focal point for both you and your son as you look at his own progress in mathematics.

When schools do set classes in this way they are doing it with the clear aim of helping students within their subjects. However, it is difficult for students to always see this very valid educational ideal and it can be easy for them to have misconceptions about the make up and nature of these groups. A good starting point in this case would be to ask your son, or failing that, his mathematics teacher about his test scores and the targets he has been set in the last year. Once you have these it would be worth going through them with your son and, in particular, to look at the areas where he is finding the most difficulty.

These areas could then become the starting point for your son's revision or for him to start compiling some key questions he could ask his teacher if you are unable to help him at home. Remember too this is clearly a subject that your son does not find especially easy - as his teacher will be only too aware - so don't push him too hard or become frustrated with him if the help you can offer him doesn't seem to be having much impact. At this stage in his learning you want him to remain engaged and willing to learn and it might well be worth letting his teacher try to help him first before you offer some further guidance to him, if you feel equipped to do this.

You should also explain to him that he should not be upset about the group in which he has been placed. It is also worth noting that often groups which are made up of students who are weaker in a particular subject will have smaller class sizes so he will actually be placed in a group where he will have the potential to have more individualised learning opportunities

Of course it is also worth rationalising the fact that there will be some subjects which people will always find difficult. That is not to say he should give up on any subject but perhaps you could share with him these words, from one of the most renowned modern mathematicians, Albert Einstein: 'Don't worry about your difficulties in mathematics; I can assure you that mine are still greater.' This is a very fitting point indeed.