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Maths Mastery in Primary Schools

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Maths Mastery is a system of teaching Mathematics to Primary School aged children (see Mastery Explained | NCETM) rolled out to help tackle falling standards in Mathematics amongst our nation’s children (Nick Gibb speech on government’s maths reforms – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)). The essence is that children are helped to truly understand each topic they are being taught, digging deeper than previously taught and helping to lay a firm foundation for further Mathematics education. They are shown how to look at each topic from several different angles, encouraged to ‘reflect’ and ‘explain’ rather than just answer numerical questions. This helps them and their teachers gauge how deeply they have understood the topic, rather than whether they can just do the computations.

The idea in a classroom setting is that Mastery can work for the whole spectrum of academic abilities that may be found in a non-selective setting (i.e. most primary schools). For example, if the topic is addition in Year 1, some children may be learning why adding two units to ten makes twelve, whilst others may be learning how to add three digit numbers together.

The principles behind this are very sound. Simply being able to do the computations without understanding what you’re doing is only going to get you so far, and can be a lot of the reason that children find it hard to progress past a certain point in their mathematical career. Getting the core principles of Mathematics right from the beginning is, I believe, absolutely essential, and time should be spent ensuring that this happens before moving on to the next steps. As a concept, I think Maths Mastery is an excellent system, and taught at the level of the student, is the best possible way to ensure a student reaches their potential in Mathematics.

However, where I have a problem with the current system of teaching Mastery in primary schools is that I don’t believe it works in a classroom of vastly mixed ability – which is often the case in a mainstream school. For example, take the Power Maths series (which I think is excellent – Power Maths | Primary Curriculum (pearson.com)). Currently – at least in my experience – every child in each Year is given the same Power Maths set to work through. If you are in Year 3, you get Power Maths Year 3A, B, C to work through during the year. If your child is meeting expectations, or a little above or below, then this will be an excellent level of Maths for the year. However, I think it fails both those who are struggling and those significantly above average. Because teachers are now taught to teach everyone the same material, I don’t believe that the struggling students get the support they need to master the material (through no fault of the teacher, rather the system). And those at the top end who have mastered the material are prevented from progressing so as to stay in line with the rest of the class, leading to boredom and frustration.

There’s no reason this should be the case. The material is sound. But it has to be at the right level for the student. Of course it’s very difficult for a teacher of a class of 30 children to meet everyone’s needs. But the Mastery approach has been set up so that students can work through at their own pace, and the books are designed for the students to be able to read the material and work through themselves. Could it not be the case that within the class each student is given a book to start on which is at the right level for them? The teacher could take the group of students at the lower end of the class and provide further explanation and guidance, and those at the top end could work through the more advanced books, with occasional check ins from the teacher to make sure they are understanding the material.

I’ve seen this in practice. I have a whole range of students. Some are struggling for a whole host of reasons, and some are bored stiff at school because the work isn’t challenging enough. Actually, both of these are problems – it shouldn’t just be seen as a problem for the struggling children, but the HLP (high learning potential) children are also suffering and not learning resilience, which can lead to frustration and behavioural problems that can impact the whole class.

At the moment I am frustrated with the approach to teaching Maths Mastery in the classroom. It has the potential to be so helpful to students. But the struggling students need support and the HLP students need stretching. That has always and will always be the case. I believe in equality. But equality isn’t the same as equity – being treated equally means being given the same opportunity to succeed, not being given the same thing and made to get on with it. Meet students where they are at, help them whatever their starting point to progress and succeed, and then we are winning. But don’t try and fit everyone into the same mold. We are not all the same – thank goodness – so let’s accept that and make it work for everyone.

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