14/08/2014 16:54 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 10:12 BST

My Child's In The Wrong Set. What Can I Do?

Schoolboy sitting at the classroom and working hardly

You're concerned: you expected your child to be in the middle set for maths and he's in the bottom set. Or she's been moved up when you thought she was struggling.

Does this matter? It partly depends on whether they are dismayed - or just you. Don't let setting become a status symbol or a kind of competition between mums at the school gate.

Being in the wrong set can be a de-motivator for a child and, in Year 9 upwards, sets determine which GCSE levels your child studies for. So yes, sets are important.

Sometimes it's not obvious to your child – or you - which set they are in. Schools often use a coding system, far removed from the obvious A,B, C or 1,2,3. You might not know which set your child is in until you have a parents' meeting. More often than not your child will be in the appropriate set for their ability. But occasionally schools do get it wrong.
When I was teaching, children would be put into sets depending on several factors: background information from previous schools, entrance exams (in independent schools) and results from SATs and CATs. But none of these is fool-proof. Sometimes children do end up in the wrong set. As a parent, how would you know? What are the signs?

Your child's attitude to the subject is a good indication. If they are bored and find the work too easy, are always finished first in lessons and whizz through their homework, then alarm bells might ring.

They should, ideally, find the work a challenge but not so much of a challenge that they can't complete it and become disheartened. If your child really struggles with homework in a subject where they are in a high ability set, it's worth keeping an eye on the situation.

There is always an overlap with setting: a child at the bottom of set 2 may cope in set 1 and vice versa. Sometimes a decision is made on nothing more complicated than numbers and desks available.

If you think your child is in the wrong set and their motivation is being affected, is there anything you can do? It depends. Some schools will only move pupils at the end of a school year, taking their exams or tests into consideration. They might move the top three children up and the bottom three in a set down.

This can be very hard for a child who does badly in an end of year exam and is moved down a set for an entire academic year. Some schools are more flexible and monitor children once a term, moving them up or down when appropriate.

If you think your child is in the wrong set what should you do? Go by what your child feels to an extent. If they are coping well and happy, then the disruption of changing teachers may be counter- productive.

A colleague and fellow writer, Liat Hughes Joshi, author of Raising Children, The Primary Years, experienced this herself as a child. She recalls how disheartening it was but also feels that how parents react is important.

"I was put in the second maths set one year and I remember it being obvious that my parents were really annoyed about it. This rubbed off on me. I was disappointed but it definitely heightened my awareness that there was an issue.

"Sometimes I think it's important not to over-react as your child might not actually be as bothered by it as you think. This doesn't mean you can't talk to the teacher about it - just be subtle around your child and positive."

She adds: 'There might well be something you're not aware of and having the conversation will be useful anyway. For example a child could be strong at number and mental arithmetic but less so at more complex problem solving. There are lots of factors influencing a primary teacher's decision about who goes where and it's best to try and understand these."

Conversely, acting quickly when your child is at secondary school can be important. Some GCSE subjects – English and maths for example- have exams at foundation and higher levels. The set your child is in will determine which level they are entered for and which grade they are likely to achieve: at foundation level the highest grade achievable is a Grade C.


Knowing how your child feels is very important. Some children prefer to be in a comfort zone at the top of a lower set, whilst others prefer to be moved up. The worst case scenario is a bright child who languishes in middle or lower sets because they are not motivated and fail to reach their potential. Working alongside motivated and high-achieving peers is a great motivator for many children.


If you are worried, make an appointment to speak to the subject teacher. Be prepared for them to say, 'I'd love to move her up, but to do that another child would have to be moved down, due to numbers, and there isn't anyone who needs moving down.' They may promise to move your child as soon as possible. If your child knows there is the promise of a place in a higher set eventually, it will help maintain their motivation. A teacher may give your child targets: consistently higher grades in class or for homework.

But whatever you decide to do, be tactful and polite. No teacher will thank you for barging in and demanding your child is moved up or down. There is likely to be half a term or more of monitoring the situation and deciding what's in your child's best interests. Having said that, making your concerns known can make a difference.

If you are worried have that conversation with their school.