In the latest international Pisa tests, carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 22% of 15-year-olds in the UK performed at the lowest level of mathematics proficiency. In practice, this means they may be unable to carry out simple tasks, such as recognising that travelling four kilometres in 10 minutes means going at the same speed as travelling two kilometres in five minutes.
There is a long-held belief – certainly in government – that when pupils have firm foundations in English and mathematics, they find the rest of the curriculum easier to access. After pushing the idea of synthetic phonics to improve literacy, the government has shifted its focus to numeracy, saying it it is "committed to raising standards in primary mathematics teaching".
The consistent success of East Asian students in the Pisa maths tests has not gone unnoticed (the top five places in the 2015 tables for maths were taken by countries from the region). The National Centre for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching wants mathematics mastery to be embedded across schools in the UK to improve standards; the government does too and is investing £41m to establish maths mastery in primary schools across the UK.
Mastery mathematics is based on the principle that, if taught well, all pupils can learn the content of a lesson. The approach involves whole-class teaching, taking pupils of all abilities through calculations in detail, supported by high-quality textbooks. Teachers are also provided with professional development, seminars and online training based on the maths mastery concepts developed in Singapore.
The key features of this teaching method are:
- Teachers reinforce an expectation that all pupils are capable of achieving high standards in maths.
- The majority of pupils progress through the curriculum at the same pace. Differentiation is achieved by emphasising deep knowledge and through individual support and intervention.
- Teaching is underpinned by methodical curriculum design, supported by carefully crafted lessons and resources to foster deep conceptual and procedural knowledge.
- Practice and consolidation play a central role. Carefully designed variation within this builds fluency and understanding of underlying mathematical concepts.
- Teachers use precise questioning in class to test conceptual and procedural knowledge, and assess pupils regularly to identify those requiring intervention.
Some critics say this approach boils down to little more than repetition and rote learning.
Charlie Stripp, director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, which runs the training programme for the mastery model, disagrees: "It is not about rote learning and drilling, though it certainly does result in pupils knowing and being able to recall times tables and other key number facts, which represent an important foundation for learning and using maths."
Does it work?
It is too early to say whether the mastery programme is having a significant impact on outcomes. The Education Endowment Foundation's randomised control trials of the programme focused on two successive year 1 cohorts and a single year 7 cohort. It found that the average primary pupil following the programme would make two months' more progress than the average pupil in the control group. This fell to one month's additional progress for secondary pupils. For a fair and more complete picture to emerge there needs to be more research and larger samples, but initial research looks promising.
The government is investing £41m to enable primary schools to introduce mastery teaching methods. The idea is to train a cadre of 700 specialist teachers and fund teacher release so they can train their peers.
The government has established 35 maths hubs to help with this. These are school-led centres of excellence tasked with leading the transformation of teaching based on best practice internationally.
Each hub is a partnership, led locally by an outstanding school or college. The lead school identifies strategic partners, who help plan and evaluate the hub's work, and operational partners, who help to carry out their work. The hubs are currently trialling two English adaptations of Singapore mathematics textbooks, entitled Maths No Problem and Inspire Maths.
They face a significant challenge: each will serve about 600 primary and secondary schools, and FE colleges.
Teachers and schools seeking support should contact their nearest maths hub to find out about its work and how it might be able to help. Similarly, teachers or schools may have ideas for work or expertise they would like to share. Contact details are available on the Maths Hubs site.