'If headteachers want maths mastery to work, they need to invest in their staff'

The best way to make maths mastery effective is not to waste money on pre-packaged schemes, but to focus on improving access to quality professional development for those who have to teach it, says one primary maths lead

Jo Purkess-Beckett

Numbers, mathematics

At its best, maths mastery teaching can be transformative. The children we teach in this way develop a deep, meaningful understanding of maths, a sense of wonder about numbers, and a secure confidence in their own abilities – why wouldn’t we want that for our classes? Headteachers certainly want it – not least because, when done well, mastery teaching leads to accelerated progress.

There’s a problem, though: mastery teaching is hard. To completely transform your maths teaching from the traditional three-part lesson to an enquiry based, child-led journey to understanding is a massive pedagogical shift that involves change at every stage of the teaching and learning process.

Primary teachers around the country can see the benefits of mastery teaching, but they’re desperate for support with delivering it in their own classrooms. And so educational publishers, responding to the needs of teachers, have developed schemes that promise a mastery approach – including planning, textbooks and assessments – all in one handy package. These schemes offer teachers a "pick up and teach" solution to mastery. Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it might be.

A 'safe' option

True mastery teaching means engaging with the specific needs of your class. But these pre-made schemes are designed for any class. They’re often very prescriptive – and while they may seem like a "safe" option for teachers at the beginning of their mastery journey, they don’t allow educators to be truly responsive to the needs of their class. Schemes often represent a huge financial commitment, too – and are unaffordable for many schools in our current climate of budget cuts.

Several Maths Hubs and the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) have released a range of excellent materials to support the planning, teaching and assessing of maths in line with mastery principles. These materials offer guidance, structure and examples, which can enable teachers to select what their classes need on their journey to mastery. But, unlike published schemes, these materials do not offer what teachers often want: the "pick up and teach" approach. Frazzled teachers, often bewildered by the wide range of materials and guidance on offer, desperately trying to juggle their workloads, frequently pop up on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, begging colleagues to share their presentations and other activities based on the Hub and NCETM materials. This defeats the object of these materials, which are designed to be selected from and modified to suit a specific class.

Opportunities for CPD

My answer to the mastery problem is a simple one: CPD, CPD and more CPD. Teachers need the confidence to draw on their own pedagogical expertise and their own subject knowledge to create schemes of learning that are responsive to their children’s needs. That can only come as a result of extensive, good-quality CPD. My own mastery journey includes attending conferences and Maths Hub meetings, training on bar modelling and the concrete pictorial abstract (CPA) approach, and, most significantly, membership of a teacher research group (TRG) led by the GLOW Maths Hub.

The good news is that opportunities for CPD abound. The nationwide Maths Hubs provide an excellent starting place, often for free or at a low cost, while paid conferences and training often offer excellent value for money. These opportunities give teachers the chance to gain valuable pedagogical insight and to network with other teachers on the same journey to mastery.

If headteachers want maths mastery to work in their schools, then they need to invest in their staff. Only then will teachers gain the confidence and knowledge necessary to make mastery work for them and the children they teach.

Jo Purkess-Beckett is a Year 6 teacher and maths lead. She tweets @beejow

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