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Does setting in maths reduce student confidence?

By Cordelia Myers (September 2022)

I recently completed the Chartered College’s leadership qualification.

I recommend it! I learnt a huge amount, benefitted from the wisdom of many of the course leaders and was inspired and supported by my small group of peers that I was assigned to work with.

Why this project?

The final assessment was a small research project. While teachers are constantly researching in their own classrooms, I had never undertaken a research project such as this before. It was a steep but worthwhile learning curve. My research questions were:

  • What impact does setting in maths have on confidence levels in our year 7 students

  • How does this compare with a similar local school that teaches in mixed attainment groups?

  • Are the effects more marked for disadvantaged students?

Early in the course, I read Sobel’s book Narrowing the attainment gap and was deeply challenged by the assertion that setting students contributes to widening the attainment gap. Our school teaches maths in sets and the possible implications of this have weighed on us, particularly for our disadvantaged students. The aim of my study was to assess the impact of setting in maths through measuring levels of confidence. If the research pointed to marked low confidence for our disadvantaged students, we have a moral obligation to rethink how we group our students.

I need to state explicitly that I don’t think the project has any wider implications beyond our school. It may cause you to think again about your own system but the findings here relate only to our situation. I am very grateful to the other school that worked with me on this to enable some comparisons. I don’t believe the findings point to one school being “better” than another but in both schools, it informed our thinking.

This blog is a very brief outline of the research. If you would like more detail, please email the hub and we will send you the full version.


Data was collected from two schools. One teaches in mixed attainment grouping and my own teaches maths in sets. Both schools have a full complement of qualified maths staff. They also have similar levels of FSM (around 17% of students). The collection of data included:

  1. An interview with the HoDs to understand their context and rationale for grouping

  2. A student questionnaire. Key indicators for confidence levels came from two main sources, Trundley et al and Fogerty et al. The questionnaire included one open question.

  3. A focus group with students from my own school. Although I would have liked a focus group in the other school, it wasn’t possible due to the pandemic restrictions.

346 students completed the questionnaire: 298 non-FSM and 48 FSM.

The results

Student voice was considered: would students feel more confident in sets (as a Francis et al study indicates)?

Measures of confidence

I found these box plots fascinating and spent some time trying to analyse them. I won’t go into detail here but further information is available on request.

Key findings

  • Enjoyment of lessons is a key indicator of confidence. This is generally higher for our disadvantaged students than for our non-disadvantaged students. There was no marked difference between the schools.

  • Students in sets had higher confidence levels in both number and algebra (although possibly because we had just finished an algebra unit).

  • More students in both schools stated that they would prefer to be in sets than in mixed attainment groups.

  • Students in our school are not aware of their set ranking. Is this a possible reason for the contrasting results compared to Francis’ study?

  • FSM students in both schools seem to be unsure whether or not they are making good progress. This needs addressing; perhaps the teaching of metacognition skills needs further attention.

It was reassuring to know that, overall, our students enjoy maths and that they are confident and comfortable in the groups in which they been placed. As so often, it seems that high quality teaching supersedes other variables, in this case types of grouping for students. Further exploration of the consequences of students knowing their set hierarchy would be of interest. Is dropping the numerical labelling of sets an opportunity for transforming students’ self-confidence in maths? If so, it is a remarkably cheap, easy to implement and powerful intervention worth considering by other schools. I suspect it is a mixture of this and qualified teachers that make the difference.

There was insufficient evidence from this study for our school to justify moving from sets to mixed attainment. However, I felt that the time spent on the research was worthwhile. A move to mixed attainment would have been time and energy consuming with considerable added workload for teachers and we have avoided this. We may want to review the situation again in a few years when life is stable and outcomes post-covid can be re-assessed.

Further reading

The Teacher Gap, a book by Rebecca Allen and Sam Sims

Mixed ability teaching for mastery, a blog by John Dabell

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