According to the maths hubs now growing in influence across the country, maths mastery relies on “carefully crafted lessons and resources to foster deep conceptual and procedural knowledge”. Shanghai’s maths teachers – all specialists in teaching primary maths – spend time “crafting” the resources given to children so that they can address their misconceptions.
Luckily, for the children they teach, they have ample non-contact time to do this as well as same-day opportunities to support the children who found it more difficult to understand the maths lesson first time around. We don’t have this in the UK.
And neither do we have an assessment system that means we can actually use mastery approaches fully. Indeed, it is a system that answers the simple question of why children in England have not been expected to master the curriculum in the past. Our assessment regime – and the consequences for schools when they do badly – prevents it.
Before 2014, we had a full, wide-ranging curriculum, but the assessment of it meant that for children to attain highly, we didn’t need to teach all aspects as thoroughly as we might. We now have a changed, but not radically different curriculum, alongside an assessment system that, in mastery’s name, claims to be taking a different route: out with “best fit” and in with specified skills that children have to secure in order to reach the new required standards.
Except that it hasn’t taken a different route. First, we are retaining a norm-referenced testing system. Even if every 11-year-old in England mastered every single descriptor in maths, reading, writing and Spag (spelling, punctuation and grammar), some of them will not reach the “expected” standard because they are in competition with each other. Having sat the tests, the top X per cent are deemed to be at the required standard, the rest aren’t.
Second, although we are learning to adopt a mastery approach to the curriculum in the ways that we teach, this will all be for naught if the people who write assessments and interim descriptors don’t understand the “do less, better” philosophy of the 2014 curriculum and the fundamentals of the subjects they are assessing. If we are to insist that children master every single descriptor in order to reach an “expected” standard, we need to choose fewer and better descriptors.
At the heart of mastery, in all its incarnations, from Bloom to Shanghai, is an ambition for good teaching that meets the needs of different learners and takes into account their current understanding. We cannot teach well under the present assessment frameworks.
It is a good idea to teach so that children master what they are taught. And we must have discussions about the best way to do that. But first, let’s be clear that the ways we assess this mastery match the values of the curriculum we teach.
Sinéad Gaffney is a primary teacher in Sheffield and an EdD student