The evidence for mastery in maths is clear. Now we need to talk about how to embed it into UK schools.

Sue Lowndes

I was thrilled to see the results of a new University of Oxford impact study today, highlighting and confirming my belief that OUP’s mastery in maths programme Inspire Maths can make a very real positive impact on children’s maths abilities.

I have seen first-hand the difference that mastery can make when visiting schools in Singapore. My Pals Are Here! – which Inspire Maths is based on – is used in the majority of schools in Singapore, and I was hugely impressed when observing lessons, talking to teachers and meeting with educators at the National Institute of Education in the country.

My belief that the Inspire Maths programme could raise standards in the teaching and learning of mathematics in the UK was the reason why I became involved with this programme. Today’s study now provides clear, compelling independent evidence that mastery can engage children in UK classrooms, improve the teaching and learning of mathematics, and so raise standards.

Textbook use forms the foundations of the teaching and learning in Inspire Maths: offering a structure and a valuable resource bank, helping teachers understand the content they are covering, and giving them a platform from which they can extend their teaching. The textbooks support subject knowledge, aid lesson design and offer the children plenty of opportunities for practice and consolidation – either in the classroom or at home.

The professional development part of the programme also equips teachers to deliver mastery effectively. A particularly delightful comment from one teacher in today’s study was that when they tell their class that it is time for maths, the children cheer! This is what we want in all our classrooms for all our children, and pays testament to the skill and dedication of UK teachers who are bringing maths to life for a generation of UK schoolchildren. Maths can and should be accessible and enjoyable for all!

There is evidence that raising maths attainment can help improve children’s life chances; and given the benefits of mastery for mathematics teaching and learning, I believe it should be available to every child. Doing so could help to close the attainment gap in maths between children in the UK and those in high-performing regions such as Shanghai and Singapore.

However, this study highlights what my own experience tells me: that adopting a mastery approach requires a whole-scale change to teaching maths. Head teachers must have a clear vision and create whole school buy-in, not just the support of individual teachers. The study also confirms that sustained professional development is absolutely vital for teachers as they begin their mastery journey. In short, adopting a mastery approach to teaching and learning maths should not be seen as a Far East bolt-on, and there is no ‘quick fix’.

The UK government’s £41 million funding for the maths mastery specialist teacher programme, with its focus on professional development, is a fantastic step in the right direction. However, even with its ambitious targets, it will only reach 8,000 of our Primary schools by the end of four years – less than 50% of all schools.

There is a lot of “noise” about mastery for maths and there are also some questions that need discussing at a national level if we are truly going to give mastery the place it deserves in UK maths education. For example:

  • How do we define what mastery is for mathematics teaching and learning, to ensure the approach maintains validity and is not watered down?
  • How do we fit an approach that was developed to progress at the pace of each individual classroom into the year-by-year structure of the current maths National Curriculum?
  • What changes do we need to make in UK education that enable teachers to have the support they need, both in professional development and in maths classrooms to deliver the mastery approach effectively?
  • How do we best support this approach in a Secondary setting, where teachers are focusing on high-stakes assessment?

For Inspire Maths, we have evidence that it can deliver a Singapore approach to mastery in a way that works for teachers and learners in UK primary schools. Now we need to get together as an education community and have a serious discussion about how we support mastery across the UK, for the benefit of our children and the teaching and learning of mathematics around the country.

What are your views on mastery, and how do you think we can make the most out of it? Give us your thoughts in the comments section below, and join the debate on social media using the hashtag #UKmastery.

Sue Lowndes is a professional development leader for Inspire Maths School Improvement, based on the Singapore approach to mastering maths.

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