On the road to mastery

Blog: Helen Drury, Director of Mathematics Mastery

On the road to mastery

Posted: 5/11/14

In 2012, thirty brave primary headteachers decided that their schools would teach mathematics differently. Inspired by Singapore, Shanghai and other international success stories, these headteachers decided to adopt a ‘mastery’ curriculum in maths – whatever their perceived ‘ability’, every child in a year group would be learning the same mathematics at the same time.

Two years on, and not only have the Year 1 children (now in Year 3) astonished their teachers with the depth of their understanding and their skill in explaining their thinking, but the idea of a mastery curriculum is taking hold across the country. Three developments in 2014 are particularly note-worthy:

  1. Mastery in the National Curriculum

Our 2014 national curriculum states that “the expectation is that the majority of pupils will move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace” and that “pupils who grasp concepts rapidly should be challenged through rich and sophisticated problems before any acceleration through new content”. This is an exciting development that sees England joining higher performers such as Singapore and Shanghai in having high expectations for every child.

  1. Mastery has been defined and endorsed by the National Centre

The National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics (NCETM) has published this paper on mastery curricula in maths. In it they emphasise that countries with really high performing maths education have a mastery approach – “The intention of these approaches is to provide all children with full access to the curriculum, enabling them to achieve confidence and competence – ‘mastery’ – in mathematics, rather than many failing to develop the maths skills they need for the future.”

  1. Research indicatations that mastery works

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has released positive findings about the impact of a mastery curriculum. With a moderate evidence base, their study found that “mastery learning is a learning strategy with high potential”.

So what about those thirty brave headteachers? Nine of them were leading schools within the ARK network (including ARK Conway, where a fabulous 100% of children in this first ‘mastery’ cohort achieved level 3 by the end of key stage 1!). Twenty-one of the heads were from outside the ARK network, and we were able to support their transformation thanks to funding from the Education Endowment Foundation. The team at Mathematics Mastery have been supporting the schools in our partnership (now grown from thirty to 192 schools) through training, curriculum materials and collaboration opportunities.

And how have those thirty pioneer schools done? Impressively, all but three are still committed to mastery and to our collaborative partnership. We’ll be sharing their success stories over the next few months. The great news is that the vast majority of those original headteachers tell us that they’ve seen achievement improve since adopting our mastery curriculum – many have seen a lot more pupils excelling, as well as fewer falling behind.

But it certainly hasn’t been easy. The biggest challenge has been differentiation. As Director of NCETM, Charlie Stripp (who we are thrilled is an active member of our Advisory Group) says on his most recent blog:

“I think it may well be the case that one of the most common ways we use differentiation in primary school mathematics, which is intended to help challenge the ‘more able’ pupils and to help the ‘weaker’ pupils to grasp the basics, has had, and continues to have, a very negative effect on the mathematical attainment of our children at primary school and throughout their education, and that this is one of the root causes of our low position in international comparisons of achievement in mathematics education.”

He’s right. (Do read his blog if you haven’t yet had a chance). But transforming your approach to differentiation is far from straightforward. The success of those original pioneer schools is down to the impressive commitment of their teachers and leaders, who fully embraced opportunities to collaborate, engaged with training opportunities, and were bold enough to stick 100% to the ‘mastery’ curriculum structure. We’re so proud of all that they’ve achieved for their pupils, and so pleased to still be working with so many of them to transform mathematics achievement.