When the government began its latest national curriculum reforms, it said teachers would do a better job if they were given more room to innovate and do things differently. But organisers of a maths scheme linked to one of the country's biggest academy chains are suggesting that schools achieve more if they all teach topics in exactly the same order.
The Mathematics Mastery programme wants schools to collaborate on producing a curriculum "map" that will encourage teachers to introduce key concepts and methods in precisely the same sequence when the new maths national curriculum is introduced in 2014.
Helen Drury, director of the scheme, said that raising achievement in the subject was "a huge challenge that is best faced by working together as a profession".
"We have seen the power of teachers sharing the same sequencing of topics, even the same resources, so that their collaboration can be as productive as possible and best practice can be widely shared," she said.
The programme, part of the Ark Schools charity, has been trialled for the past two years and now has 36 participating schools. "We know this is working because of data we have gathered and our observations on the quality of teaching and pupils' learning," Dr Drury said.
Monitoring of nine primaries within the Ark network shows that the majority of teachers previously teaching "satisfactory" maths lessons have improved to at least "good" since adopting the shared curriculum, according to Dr Drury. At one secondary, Charter Academy in Portsmouth, the quality of teaching seen in formal observations improved from 33 per cent good or better to 83 per cent, she said.
But Bill Richardson of the Mathematical Association warned that the strict scheduling of mathematical concepts had its "limitations" and said "teachers must still retain the freedom to teach". "At one time, French schools used to have to teach the same page, from the same textbook, on the same day and that idea fills me with horror," he said. "Teacher collaboration is a good idea so long as it is a framework rather than a straitjacket."
Mathematics Mastery wants more schools to participate in breaking down the new national curriculum into a sequence of weekly or fortnightly chunks. Dr Drury said the approach would allow higher quality resources to be produced and that the "shared map" would identify exactly which topics pupils had covered at a particular point. Without that knowledge, resources would have to cover topics in isolation.
"Mathematics learning is essentially about building connections between concepts and procedures," Dr Drury said. "It's important that the teacher knows what the pupils have already mastered when teaching each specific topic area."
In 2011, Tim Oates, who headed the government's national curriculum review, highlighted an approach used in high- performing Asian systems that ensured that all primary pupils in a class progressed through topics at the same rate.
He said that research for the review showed that jurisdictions such as South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore achieved better secondary results by ensuring that primary classes "don't move on with a topic until everyone has 'got it' ".
"It means that you focus on the level of understanding of all the kids in the group," Mr Oates said. He backed the approach, but the remit of his review was confined to curriculum content rather than teaching methods.
Dr Drury said the idea of ensuring consistent progress for all pupils was also used by Mathematics Mastery and fitted well with the shared sequencing of topics. "It is not that every child gets to the same point and then the quicker learners have to sit around waiting for the others," she said. "It allows them to gain an even deeper understanding of the topic before the class moves on."
The new maths national curriculum has been criticised for being more prescriptive than the current one because of the extra detail it gives on content.
Topics are set out on a year by year basis, although this can be varied so long as they are taught within their allotted key stages.
The Mathematics Mastery approach could be seen as meaning even tighter constrictions because it sets out the precise order that topics should be taught in.
But Dr Drury stressed that the idea was not to impose the curriculum "map" on schools but to involve them in developing an approach that would continue to evolve.
"We want to engage all teachers in a discussion," she said. "They could try things out in the classroom, share it with everyone and the map will probably change in a few years' time."