Setting and growth mindset – are they really mutually exclusive?

At the start of half term, I read Debra Kidd’s blog post on setting and I’ve returned to thinking about it ever since, mainly for two reasons:

  1. The idea of setting posing limiting beliefs on students is depressing and I can see why it happens
  2. My experience of setting doesn’t match with the evidence that suggests it has no impact on outcomes and may even be detrimental to them

Essentially, this post made me feel torn. Everything Debra explained made sense to me as I read it and yet my reality has been different.

Let me explain. We set for maths in my school. It almost feels like a bad thing to admit these days, but there we go, we do. For the last two years, since I’ve been there, I have taken the year 6 group who struggle with maths – coming up to year 6 working at level 2 or 3, in old money. And, for the last two years, we have had 100% of year 6 achieve level 4 in maths and a percentage significantly above national got in level 5 and 6 maths too.

Now here’s the thing. This was not a case of me just aiming to drag the kids in my group up to achieving a 4C and be done with it for data’s sake. The truth is, several of my group each year have gone on to achieve level 5.

I’m also sure some people may be reading this saying well that’s all well and good, but it’s not all about the test how, how happy were they? etc. For this, I don’t have data (although that would be interesting), but I will say that I see their attitudes to maths change for the better and have lost count of the number of parents who have taken the time to tell me that their child was/is more confident in maths. At parents evening, just before half term, a mum came to find me to tell me that her daughter is liking maths this year.

Of course this is all sounds like major trumpet blowing, and while I’m very proud of what my maths groups have achieved over these past two years, that wasn’t really my intention for this post. The point I really want to make is that when it comes to setting, I think you can still have a growth mindset. You don’t have to aim to scrape through at best because some students are struggling at the beginning of the year. I’ve never capped any child at achieving level 4 because they were in my group. For the most part, though it often takes them a bit longer, they begin to realise their potential over the year too.

Having this group of children in a small set allows me to really target the gaps in their knowledge and have high expectations for them all. No one slips under my radar. It’s rare that I have to think, “ok, well 95% have got it, so let’s move on.” It enables me to help everyone to get it, most of the time. We do the same work as the rest of year 6, but sometimes in a different way and the atmosphere is very open and honest and if we don’t get something we say and we focus on it – and I don’t mean to suggest you can’t create this atmosphere in a mixed maths class. It just seems to work for my children.

This is not research, it’s not robust evidence, but it is mine and my pupils’ experiences of setting and I think it is possible to set and support the idea of growth mindset.

Flickr Photo: davis.steve32 – CC BY


  • Agree wholeheartedly with you Claire. I have done something very similar with a small group for several years and the improvement has been dramatic. I think it especially works for maths, at least in our school. A large proportion are very able mathematicians working way above their age expectations but this, I believe, makes those who find mathematical concepts difficult and they label themselves no good.
    When removed from the others they quickly come to realize they can ‘do maths’ and start to fly. It’s often a confidence issue that needs to be overcome first and the rest follows.
    Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks for commenting, Julia.

      You know, I think I’ve experienced something similar. Some of them seem to feel less inhibited and more likely to give it a go with the other children, who they perceive as being really good at maths, out of the picture. Either way, confidence is key.

  • Claire I have taught bottom set for the last 3 years in Year 6 too and am curious to know how many children are in your bottom set? I teach in a 3 form entry school, usually with between 10 and 12 children in bottom set and am lucky to get them to a Level 3 by ‘SATS’, but from reading your blog post that my classroom mentality is very similar to yours – no one is unable to say they don’t understand, we have a very open and patient mentality in our classroom, we often learn around what we call our boardroom table where we sit at one big table and work along side each other, have lots of play/games based work and definitely have a growth/challenge mindset.
    I find that I’m not able to teach the same curriculum as the children are missing so many basic skills (ie – I have one boy this year who lacks 1:1 correspondence and another 3 or 4 who cannot do basic addition without the use of concrete materials or using their ruler as a number line) and have no retention of information and strategies.
    I would love to know what I’m not doing for these children as we try so hard to get them there but they just don’t get it!
    Sounds like you’re doing a fantastic job – keep it up! Goodness knows our children often lack self esteem and can have a ‘bottom group’ mentality so it sounds like you are doing wonders for them.
    S 🙂

    • Hi Shauna,

      Thanks for commenting. I think you are, possibly, being quite hard on yourself. I wouldn’t think of it as ‘what am I not doing?’ but maybe ‘how can I do this differently?’ I had to do that just this week with my maths group as I taught them long multiplication – just blogged about it actually.

      At the end of the first lesson, I was trying to figure out exactly what it was that they hadn’t got. That for me is probably the key. I mean, there may be quite a bit of stuff children don’t ‘get’ at first, but I try to pinpoint, as much as possible, what it is about what we’re learning that’s stopping them from being able to grasp it. Then I work from there. I also repeat things with my maths groups a lot – keep going back to key facts and things they need to know and practise. Even just in bitesize snippets. Memory is often a key in all this. It doesn’t always go swimmingly though and I definitely don’t have all the answers.

      As you mention self-esteem can be an issue too. There is no one issue to tackle, which is what makes teaching so complex. 🙂

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