Posted on 08/10/2020

93. Why mixed-ability maths just doesn’t add up - Guest Blog By Sarah Delas, Maths teacher at FBS

Maths is like marmite. When people find out I teach maths, it usually generates one of two responses - a nod of the head or a contorted facial expression. In short, there’s rarely any middle ground with maths - it’s a subject that is often either loved or loathed. 

Anyone who knows me - family, friends, colleagues or students - need not ask which camp I sit in. From an early age, maths has always been a draw for me. At the start of each academic year my eyes would scan the timetable as I savoured the prospect of the double maths lessons that lay ahead. 

However, it wasn’t until I started a second career in teaching that I gave much thought as to why I had enjoyed my school maths. Was the answer simply that I had had good teachers and found the subject straightforward? It’s true that several decades later I can still remember the names and faces of every teacher who taught me maths. However, without taking anything away from these superb educators, I think the reason is less cut and dried. 

My memories of maths lessons are that they were fun. They weren’t “fun” in the sense that I had teachers with big, jovial personalities who cracked jokes, and had us make 3D polygons from origami. No, it was much more mundane than that. Our lessons were fun because they were crammed with practice that delivered fluency; challenges that presented desirable levels of difficulty; and, maybe most importantly, they gave us success that was tangible. 

From the moment I entered my secondary school, armed with an arsenal of times tables and secure arithmetic, I realise now with hindsight that I had been on an accelerated journey of maths learning. I was aboard a maths train with like-minded passengers, and together we devoured text book exercises and maths problems chalked up on the blackboard. 

It is no coincidence that this 20th century trajectory for maths success was built on setting students in different classes, according to their abilities. A policy that flies in the face of the mixed-ability ethos that is embedded into many schools including our own. 

There is no doubt that mixed-ability teaching is a perfect fit for many subjects and I have witnessed some fantastic learning in English and Humanities classes at Fulham Boys, where boys of all abilities collaborate and achieve success together. However, I have never been an advocate of a “one size fits all” argument, and I firmly believe maths deserves to be treated differently. 

First of all, I don’t subscribe to the view that a talent for maths is determined by the social status of your parents, their bank account or how many books you have at home. Neither of my parents is mathematically minded, neither has a university degree nor indeed any A levels.

Secondly, success with mixed-ability teaching invariably relies on planning teaching for the top student in a class. However, in a class of 25 mixed-ability students, there will always be at least two or three who grasp a maths concept within moments of an explanation having been given, whereas others may take months, or even years, before a concept is secure. 

No matter how skilled a teacher is at differentiation and scaffolding a topic, it is virtually impossible to teach consistently “to the top” when there are students in the same class who need continual recaps on the foundations of a topic before it is secure. A top-set maths environment is conducive to fast-paced learning and allows both the teacher and students to explore concepts beyond the constraints of the school curriculum. 

One of the criticisms of setting is that it doesn’t afford those from the most deprived backgrounds the same opportunities as their more affluent peers. The rebuttal for this argument is that by not setting in maths, we are doing exactly this. The social divide is being reinforced every time talented maths students from Pupil Premium backgrounds are being denied access to the same mathematical challenges and curricular extensions that are commonplace within the top sets of selective and independent schools. 

This is why we took the decision last year to stream our boys in Maths and Science from year 8. We also started running a dedicated weekly maths session for year 10 and 11 boys who are aiming for a grade 9 at GCSE. This term we will be enrolling our high-ability maths students, including those from our new year 7 intake, on - a new website created by leading mathematician, Simon Singh, which has been designed to expose students from year 7 to year 11 to age-appropriate “difficult” maths problems. 

Next summer will see another first for the maths department, with some of our high-ability year 11 boys taking a Further Mathematics GCSE, a useful stepping stone for A level Maths and an early introduction to the wonderous world of calculus! 

In November, Fulham Boys’ inaugural class of 2014 will submit their UCAS applications. A number of boys are applying for places at some of the country’s top universities. We have boys hoping to study maths, computing, science and engineering degrees at Oxbridge and Russell Group universities. As part of their preparation for this important part of their academic career, we have enrolled these boys on courses to prepare them for the entrance tests. 

These and other measures are being put in place because we recognise that our responsibility for our boys’ education does not just stop the moment they finish their final A level paper and walk out the door as current Fulham Boys for the last time. Within a couple of months of receiving their A level grades, many of them will be walking into university lecture theatres, where they will have to display the necessary critical thinking and academic rigour required of maths and science undergraduates. 

Since its conception, Fulham Boys School has been clear on its aspirations for our wonderfully comprehensive intake of boys. However, this vision will only be realised if we afford our boys ambitious teaching and opportunities through personalised learning, whether that takes the guise of mixed-ability teaching in English and Humanities or accelerated learning through setting in Maths and Science.

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