By former DfE Assistant Director, Vanessa Pittard
I recently led a session with Derbyshire schools on mastery teaching. Derbyshire is a rural county, like many in England. This group of primary headteachers and maths leads included several people from schools with mixed-age classes: a fact of life for many rural schools.
No surprise therefore that a question raised for discussion was: ‘How can we do mastery where pupils are in mixed-year classes’?
It’s not just about mastery. The national curriculum sets the expectation that ‘the majority of pupils will progress through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace’. That is, broadly the same pace for each year group with the aim of meeting end of key stage expectations in depth. This statement, just in itself, has challenged some received practice in schools with mixed-age classes, whereby the curriculum can effectively become ‘merged’ for co-teaching or pupils are placed into mixed-age sub-groups, reflecting differential progress through objectives – or ‘ability’.
A central principle of mastery is that pupils are taught in small steps, building their knowledge, understanding and skills systematically and securely. Ability is not inherent in the pupil – it relates to what they know already, what they’ve been taught and how well this has been taught. This matters for mathematics, which is a coherent and connected subject. Secondary age pupils with poor maths skills commonly have gaps from far earlier in their mathematics education. The idea is to prevent these gaps developing.
Mastery teaching is also characterised by whole-class, teacher-led dialogue – commonly daily maths lessons of around 30 minutes, often followed by a break and then practice. Teaching input is critical to successful outcomes: modelling mathematical language, posing questions at the right level of challenge for pupils to progress and smoothing the route from concrete examples and pictorial mathematical representations to formal and abstract mathematics.
For mixed-age classes mastery may require ingenuity. But approaches that enable progression through the curriculum in small steps and ‘whole-class’ (year-group-based) teaching are possible. Implementing mastery well requires school-level decisions, and nowhere is this more important than for mastery in the context of mixed-age classes. Every context differs, but schools should be open to reorganising the timetable or redefining how teaching assistants are used to ensure that pupils receive high-quality maths teaching input.
Teachers at Holywell Primary School in Devon, for example, provide separate teaching inputs to individual year groups with the help of teaching assistants. Teaching for a specific year group happens while the other group either undertakes an investigation based on what pupils have been taught earlier or consolidates prerequisite skills in preparation for the next lesson. Lucy Westley at Tiffield CE Primary School in Northamptonshire has the rare challenge of teaching Year 2 to Year 6 pupils in a single class but has implemented mastery successfully by reorganising the timetable and splitting the class into age-based groups.
Mixed-age classes are not a barrier to mastery. At least, not a barrier that school-level and solution-focused thinking can’t overcome.
Vanessa Pittard was Assistant Director for Curriculum and Standards at the DfE in 2011–2017, where she held responsibility for mathematics education and worked on STEM and literacy policy. Vanessa was central to the development of the Maths Hub programme and worked closely with the NCETM on the introduction of mastery teaching of mathematics in schools. Prior to that, Vanessa led the evidence and research function at Becta, the UK agency for technology in education, and was a subject leader and head of department at Sheffield Hallam University.