Closing the maths gap from year 1

Written by: HTU | Published:

Primary schools are invited to apply for funded places on Mathematics Mastery, a programme which helps schools to foster a deeper understanding of maths among pupils. Sara Castledine explains

I remember looking at my year 5 class and thinking: “If only I had got to them earlier.” They had one more year before (the dreaded) SATs and were making great progress, but there were so many gaps. And while some could be plugged, others were too profound. Many did not have a secure understanding of place value. Addressing that sort of problem took time.

Later on, as a mathematics lead and then assistant head in an inner city school, I began to think that it was not just about time or teaching, but more systemic. Even with fantastic key stage 1 teaching (of which I saw plenty), the pressures of curriculum coverage meant teachers rarely had the time they needed to let pupils get to grips with numbers.

And even if they wanted to, it was hard for teachers. How do you slow down, but keep things pacy? How do you take your time, but keep stretching all your pupils? It was certainly not something I felt I could do alone, even after studying for a Master’s in maths education. It would take a lot of time and team-work (and evaluation).

Luckily, it turned out some people had already started doing this, in particular internationally. Singapore, for example, had adopted fewer topics, greater depth approach almost 30 years ago and regularly topped international tables. Ironically, it turned out that much of the research Singapore used to develop this approach came from the UK.

But the UK context was different from Singapore. So I was pleased to meet Dr Helen Drury from the ARK Schools network, who had been working to combine Singapore materials and good practice in UK schools, in collaboration with several primary schools across the ARK network.

They had piloted this collaborative approach back in 2009 with some of their best primary maths leads and were now looking to grow it to include more schools in their network and beyond.

In 2011, they received a grant from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to do just this. Over the last year we have been working with 30 primary schools to implement this programme, and it has been a fantastic journey. We have one more year of fully funded places for primary schools to start in September, again courtesy of the EEF.

The approach

The fewer topics, greater depth ideal is at the heart of the approach and focuses on “mastering” concepts, not just learning procedures by rote. But there are also a number of other features involved, including:
• Mastery for all: we believe that every child, whatever their background, can succeed in mathematics.
• Deep understanding: children’s use of concrete manipulatives (objects) and pictorial representations (pictures), before moving to abstract symbols (numbers and signs).
• Language development: the way that children speak and write about mathematics has been shown to have an impact on their success. Every lesson includes opportunities for children to explain or justify their mathematical reasoning.
• Problem-solving: it is both how children learn maths and the reason why they learn maths.

None of this is rocket science and most are seen in good maths lessons. The challenge is ensuring they are in every lesson and that they are applied systematically throughout each topic. It is also a challenge for teachers often to make the shift to fewer topics, as it can feel like they are slowing down. That is why we provide a lot of support for teachers in the first year. There are three main types of support:
• Teaching and learning materials, including a task bank for every lesson for the year.
• Training: centrally held training, six local school visits and online training resources and videos of good practice.
• Peer support: we create collaborative local cluster meetings for you to share good practice, as well as online forums.

We are working with the Institute of Education to do a full evaluation of the programme (supported, again, by the EEF), but initially have had positive responses from Ofsted visits, schools and parents. In June 2011, the lead HMI for maths visited one of our schools pioneering the approach and concluded:“Pupils’ achievement in number is outstanding. Pupils are developing a high level of proficiency for their age in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.”

It has not been without challenges. For example, behaviour for learning can (initially) dip when introducing working with physical objects or paired language tasks. To make it work, it requires persistence, strong buy-in from the senior team, and external support.

Collaboration has also been a huge driver in success. Sharing and collaboration is certainly not new, but because all member schools are committed to exactly the same curriculum and tasks, the relevance of other teachers’ best practice is much more immediate.

These materials are not made to save time, but to shift the time teachers spend creating resources so they can spend more time adapting lessons and using our professional development training modules.

Funded places for pioneers

Thanks to the EEF, we are able to offer fully funded places to a limited number of primary schools to pioneer the approach from September 2013. We would look to these schools to collaborate and make a significant contribution to the curriculum and online bank of resources. The application deadline is March 20 and we will be holding an information evening on March 14 in London.


• Sara Castledine is the professional development lead for Mathematics Mastery, an ARK Schools programme.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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