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‘Teaching maths mastery is not a quick fix’

Maths mastery isn’t showing a huge impact on attainment yet – because it needs proper implementation, writes Helen Drury

How successful have UK school been in implementing maths mastery practices from Shanghai and Singapore?

Maths mastery isn’t showing a huge impact on attainment yet – because it needs proper implementation, writes Helen Drury

“Just to see it in action was quite amazing, because their subject knowledge is so incredible. The amount they cover in a lesson. The lessons are just seamless, which for us to do is hard, because our subject knowledge is not as good as theirs. We don’t have the time to spend on designing lessons that they do." These are the words of a teacher who experienced the Department for Education-funded Shanghai exchange, quoted in the final evaluation report by Sheffield Hallam University. 

This teacher’s excitement is palpable. Looking to places like Shanghai can clearly provide an exciting catalyst for a change in practice. Such higher performing jurisdictions can show us what’s possible, and that’s why Mathematics Mastery, the teacher development and curriculum support organisation I lead, carried out study tours in Singapore back in 2011 and 2012.

We saw pupils getting hands-on with models and representations in ways we hadn’t come across in the UK. We saw how sentence stems and an insistence on correct mathematical vocabulary could be empowering and inclusive.

But you can’t wholesale "import" a teaching approach. You can’t simply "borrow" pedagogy or curricula from an entirely different education culture.

So although – as the recent report on the efficacy of the Shanghai exchange project says  – mathematics mastery was the first to use the term "mastery" to describe a particular approach to teaching inspired by seeing East Asian approaches to maths, ours is not a "Singapore-based" approach. We think it’s unhelpful for the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics' (NCETM) Teaching for Mastery programme to be seen as "Shanghai-based".

It’s unhelpful to suggest that these approaches do not work, simply because one particular method of engagement with them – the exchange programme – was found not to make much difference. Because, without a proper implementation process grounded in the reality of school life in the UK, why would it?

Expanding maths mastery

The challenge is not working out the most effective way to teach maths – there is an extremely strong evidence base for this, much of it from UK researchers. Publications from Ofsted, and more recently the Education Endowment Foundation, amongst many others, have been consistently advocating these research-informed practices for many years.

Where higher performing jurisdictions have the advantage is not that they know how to teach maths effectively, while we do not, it’s that they have invested a great deal over a long period in connecting that knowledge with classroom practice. They help teachers to access that know-how, and to put it into practice every day.

Every teacher benefits from a coherent multi-year programme of professional development. This is underpinned by classroom materials that have been carefully crafted by expert practitioners and that consistently exemplify the evidence-informed practice that teachers are trained in.

It is this ongoing investment in primary and secondary teachers of mathematics that the mathematics mastery partnership is committed to achieving.

To do this in the UK context – where the vast majority of primary practitioners teach many subjects rather than specialising in maths, and where contact time is significantly higher than the two 35-minute lessons per day of Shanghai – requires a UK-specific approach.

So, at Mathematics Mastery, we only work with schools on a whole-school basis, with the support and commitment of governors, and we train the headteacher as well as the maths lead, as well as providing face-to-face training for all teachers in every partner school. We also provide schools with materials for weekly in-school professional development sessions, and provide all teachers with ongoing online pedagogical guidance directly linked to their classroom practice in each week of the academic year.

Importantly, we recognise that significant transformation takes time, so our partner schools usually begin by implementing in Reception and Year 1 (or Year 7 at secondary) and build up year by year.

Our maths leads – a community of over 500 practitioners – form a national network meeting termly to take their own pedagogy to the next level, share successes, inform our iterative design process and participate in training, which they then deliver to colleagues back in their own schools.

In short, we work tirelessly to offer the highest possible level of teacher development in ways that make life easier for teachers – reducing teacher workload and keeping training closely connected with classroom practice.

Ours is a cost-effective model for supporting the great teachers we have in the UK to become even more effective teachers of maths. That doesn’t mean the Shanghai exchange isn’t a really significant professional experience for the small number of teachers who get to experience it, but without the wider culture and training shifts, and the time to implement them properly, we should not be surprised that those few schools that made the changes in Years 5 and 6 didn’t see an improvement in key stage 2 attainment.

If pupils have had between-class or within-class grouping from age 4 to age 9, then at the start of Year 5, it stopped. It’s not surprising that these pupils didn’t see huge gains. A child who has been labelled as relatively poor at maths for five years is going to take some serious convincing that suddenly "success for all" is a real possibility. That doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do – if a culture of high expectations for all continues throughout their secondary education, these pupils may well experience greater success at GCSE and beyond than they otherwise would.

Two years is simply too short a time frame across which to evaluate impact on attainment. Teaching for mastery is not a quick fix.

Helen Drury is the executive director of Mathematics Mastery

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