Whole class maths teaching works

By former DfE Assistant Director, Vanessa Pittard

A major distinction between primary maths teaching in England and Singapore (and other high performing jurisdictions in the Far East) relates to whole-class (interactive) teaching. In the Far East everyone is taught the same maths together at the same pace, regardless of prior performance or how quickly different children ‘get the maths’. This approach, supported by ‘keep up’ intervention, prevents the achievement gaps that result from a constrained curriculum and lower expectations for ‘less able’ pupils. Here, once these gaps appear they rarely narrow. It’s a poor start for a significant minority of pupils and can result in a life sentence of low confidence in maths for some.

One of the most common concerns voiced by teachers considering mastery teaching – and it’s an understandable one – is that whole-class teaching ‘doesn’t fit well’ in the UK context whereby the pupil group is more diverse. Pupils at the ‘top and bottom ends’ won’t progress well. Some believe that a whole-class approach ‘just won’t work here’.

Well, it does. Putting aside mixed-age classes, which I tackled in a separate blog post, many primary teachers in England have ditched differentiated maths teaching and are taking children forward together. Successfully. This includes schools such as St Paul’s Primary in Sunderland, where 100% of Year 6 pupils met the expected standard in maths in 2017 and half met the higher standard. Assistant headteacher at St Paul’s, Jackie Graham, says that mastery teaching ‘provides challenge for our quick graspers [and] at the same time it has enabled our struggling learners to access their learning with the help of apparatus to consolidate their understanding’[1]

How? The secret’s in the method. That is, well-theorised methods supported by high-quality resources. Any teacher or school thinking about whole-class teaching without thinking about teaching methods would be running a risk – that they ‘teach to the middle’, leaving some pupils bored and others just lost, the result being that they’re back where they started, struggling to get all pupils to make good progress. But schools that succeed do so by giving teachers the means to:

  • leave nothing to chance – being thorough, taking small steps, focusing sharply on the point and covering off misconceptions, so that every pupil can keep up
  • mine a rich seam – accessing tasks that deepen pupils’ understanding of the mathematics, developing mathematical reasoning and providing challenge to pupils who ‘get the maths’ quickly, without the need to move them on in the curriculum.

Adding a safety net of ‘keep up, not catch-up’ interventions in the form of tuition support for small groups of pupils before the next lesson, and mastery for all through whole-class teaching is entirely achievable.  Put these together and there’s every likelihood that the large majority of children will meet the expected standard and a significant proportion far exceed it.

A school that just gets the message that ‘mastery is about whole-class teaching’ will miss the bigger picture. Schools succeed where teachers become skilled in these well-theorised approaches that leave nothing to chance and mine a rich seam of mathematics. It means adopting well-designed, comprehensive mastery resources supported by teacher professional development. It’s not left to individual teachers; it takes a school-wide approach and excellent curriculum leadership.

Vanessa Pittard was Assistant Director for Curriculum and Standards at the Vanessa Pittard imageDfE 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.