Deputy Headteacher and Maths Co-ordinator Katie Willis of Perton Primary Academy discusses the initial challenges faced and lesson learnt when implementing a mastery approach in her school, and the successes they’ve had as a result.
Our mastery journey began in September 2015. I had just started my job at Perton Primary Academy in Wolverhampton. There were no real concerns with results or a drastic need to make a change. However, there were high levels of inconsistencies with mixed approaches to teaching maths across the school. Many teachers were spending a lot of time trawling the internet to find resources and plan their lessons. This lack of consistency, combined with the pressure of raised expectations from the new curriculum, encouraged us to make a change and explore a mastery approach.
In February 2016, we trialled Inspire Maths with our Year 3 and Year 1 lower ability classes and from September 2016, we launched the programme across all classes (Years 1 to 4).
Initial challenges and lessons learnt
The school’s collection of maths resources was severely depleted. So, our first task was to order all the resources we needed and find a way to organise them. Workspaces quickly became busy with textbooks, manipulatives, pupil books, and maths journals, so we had to empty some cupboards, order more storage boxes and of course it took time for the children to develop their organisational skills.
Gaps in understanding
We noticed straightaway that children throughout the school had greater gaps in their understanding then initially expected. For example, children in Year 4, who we presumed knew what ‘greater’ and ‘less’ meant, didn’t or had misconceptions about it. There were also huge gaps in their understanding of place value even though it felt as though we’d spent a long time teaching it. Even the rapid graspers found it hard to reason and explain their mathematics. In fact, it was the middle ability children who were better at reasoning and explaining the maths they were doing. The benefits of this were that in identifying these gaps, we gained a greater insight into which children actually did have a greater depth of understanding and which children needed further support.
Teaching mixed-age and mixed-ability classes
Where we had mixed age groups in Year 1/2 and Year 3/4 classes, it was difficult initially to find the appropriate starting points for the children and ensure we covered both schemes of work from the curriculum. Also, I realised that my Year 3s were never going to be able to start on Level Inspire Maths 3, so we started on Level Inspire Maths 2. We learnt quickly that it was okay to use lower year group books to bridge those gaps in understanding and that the transition units were essential.
For maths buddy work, we use mixed-ability pairs: usually a higher ability with a middle ability child or a middle ability with a lower ability child. This has worked well and the children really benefit from having someone to talk to. It’s not about one child asking another “what’s the answer”. Instead, it’s created a real dialogue of explaining how you do the maths, what’s the strategy?, prove to your partner that it’s right, etc.
We had a wide range of different experience levels amongst the teaching staff and there were some who couldn’t see a reason for changing to a mastery programme when their results were good, which is understandable. So trying to convince every staff member to make this a whole-school approach and be consistent was difficult initially. We needed to ensure that what was happening in Year 1 was also happening in Year 4, not in terms of content but in terms of teaching methods. So the biggest learning experience was persistency! We always tell the children to be resilient, to persist and not give up. I had to say similar things to my staff: to make them realise that it was okay if they weren’t sure about something and that we are all learning together. In fact, this change created a space for a whole new level of professional dialogue which has been very positive.
Professional development and training
We’ve learnt that PD is essential. I wouldn’t recommend anyone implementing Inspire Maths without the PD. It allows you to fully understand Inspire Maths, improve your subject knowledge and have the confidence to train your staff and roll out Inspire Maths across your school.
To pass this training on and to upskill all the staff, it’s been essential to hold regular staff meetings to ensure that there’s consistency with teaching a whole-school approach. The online support with the new Getting Started Guides and videos, has also been invaluable for new members of staff and those who have returned from maternity leave.
At first parents found it a challenge to have to help their children with the homework we were setting. It went from a list of questions for the children to complete to: ‘Do this with your child’ or ‘Gather 32 items, arrange them in arrays and take photographs’. Parents weren’t too keen on this change and the extra homework time needed. So an initial hurdle was bringing parents up to date on the methods and reasons for Inspire Maths, and the benefits of it. It’s all about being honest and open, and sharing the impact Inspire Maths is having.
Assessment and learning
The biggest question for me at first was: ‘Where’s the data? When do they get tested? Where are the test results?’ I had to say: ‘Just leave this a bit. Let’s go with it. Trust us and we’ll come to that when we need to.’ Also, we realised that just because a maths lesson is more practical, it doesn’t mean that nothing has been learnt. In other words less written/physical evidence does not mean that less learning has taken place. Some lessons did just involve a textbook or place value charts, with the children working through the examples with their maths buddies. We did try photographing everything but who’s it for and what purpose does it serve? None. So, we put stickers in the books to ask: ‘What have you learnt in this lesson?’ And the children could answer or discuss what they’ve learnt even though there are no concrete things written down in their books. They’ve still learnt a lot. And, what I found most beneficial, and all the staff picked up on this to, was by allowing that guided practice time when children worked together meant teachers had more time to walk around the class and gain a deeper insight into their understanding than traditional ‘end of the lesson marking.’
So where are we now as a school?
- Children’s attitudes to maths have completely changed. They really love maths now! They talk confidently about maths being practical, about using the equipment and working with their maths buddies.
- We use a greater number of models and images. In every class now you can see the odd place value counter on the floor or a Diene rod in a pencil pot! We are really seeing the positive effects of models, images, and concrete materials being used in the classroom.
- One of the biggest successes we’ve had is really knowing which children actually had greater depth, and it wasn’t necessarily the ones we had originally expected. We have some great mathematicians in our school but actually, a lot of the children who can reason and explain their maths are just as good as those that sit and do lots of additional maths in their workbooks during a lesson. We also now use Assessment Books to support our greater depth children, providing them with an extra challenge that really makes them think.
- Our staff are more confident to revisit topics, look deeper and extend learning to suit the AFL. There’s no longer that pressure to teach certain topics for a certain number of days as Inspire Maths provides the flexibility to teach units for longer and ensure each child has a concrete understanding before moving on.
- We do regular peer assessments, so staff rotate round within their key stages to observe each other teach. It’s mutually supportive as there’s always lots to discuss and ensure we have a consistent approach.
- Results! The number of our children showing greater depth has increased.