How do you organise set changes?

22 April 2016
How do you organise set changes?

Most Maths departments around the country probably set assessments for their students at the end of the Spring term, most of which have now been marked and moderated, with data uploaded into various spreadsheets and systems to analyse. However, we aren’t done with all that data yet! Firstly, it should be used formatively for the rest of this term, to set targets based on students’ areas of weakness. Secondly, it should be used to determine whether students are in the right sets, and if not, who should move up or down.

This is a really difficult part of a Head of Department’s job, as even informing students that they are moving to a ‘smaller group, where you’ll get more time to make sure you understand’ can be detrimental to students’ confidence. There are two antithetical approaches to deciding who to move:

The data driven approach
This HOD ranks the students in order and regroups them based on their results in the most recent assessment. The benefits to this are clear: it is entirely objective, it is entirely transparent and it makes conversations with parents easier, once they accept the methodology. However, it requires absolute confidence in your assessments. Unless your marking and grading are spot on, particularly if different groups have sat different papers, you are making a big decision about a child’s academic life based on poor data. It also doesn’t account for mitigating circumstances, which may have made it impossible for a student to do their best on the day. It also doesn’t account for basic statistics. Treating students as a random variable, and given the inevitable variance in their marks, it would be a poor statistician who could make a judgement on the mean of a variable from one observation.

The qualitative approach
This HOD has in depth conversations with their teachers, and uses these decide who to move. This approach also has its benefits. Teachers know their students extremely well, and certainly have a wealth of knowledge on each one that transcends a simple percentage or grade. However, even the best teachers can’t overcome the fact that subjective analysis can lead to less confident students, or even students whose books are a mess, being perceived to be working at a lower level. This approach also struggles to compare between classes and so makes it difficult to decide whether changes are even needed.

As is nearly always the case, the best approach is somewhere in the middle. Data is crucial and can make difficult conversations with parents much easier. However, you need to make absolutely sure that your data is accurate and comes from a robust assessment system. Data also can’t tell you everything. It’s imperative that conversations with classroom teachers happen prior to decisions being made, so that teachers feel valued and nothing important is overlooked.

So, my top tips for a smooth set change process:

  • Create rigorous, robust assessments and make sure they’re marked accurately
  • Use the data to make an initial set of changes
  • Speak to every single teacher individually prior to making a final decision
  • Take responsibility for the decision and decide who to remove based on all of the information at your disposal
  • Inform all students who are changing sets
  • Speak to the parents or carers of all students who are changing sets
  • When speaking to students who are moving down, or parents of those students, emphasise the fact that there will be opportunities to move back
  • Also emphasise that it’s in everyone’s best interest for students to be in the set that matches their ability
  • Make parental phone calls at least a week before changes take place, to allow for meetings to take place if necessary

Hopefully this ensures a relatively painless process. HODs in schools with mixed ability sets, be grateful that you’re avoiding this process!

What do you think about setting or set changes? Contact us @createatest

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