Getting maths mastery right in your primary school

Written by: Chris Gallagher | Published:

Maths mastery is not a quick fix and takes time to implement and embed. Mathematics specialist teacher Chris Gallagher gives us his guide on how to introduce a whole-school mastery approach

You are keen to implement mastery in your school. You have heard of a great scheme. You give it to your staff to deliver because it is just maths right? Just about delivering curriculum to a deeper level or something?

This is one of the key mistakes that headteachers make when trying to change the maths delivery in their school.

Many schools are under pressure from impending inspections and need results to rise quickly, but unfortunately maths mastery is not a quick fix buy-in that can be ticked off with a series of INSETs. Understanding the demands on a school’s systems of changing to mastery is crucial.

The National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) Maths Mastery project, or indeed any such programme, demands first and foremost a huge commitment from the headteacher and senior leaders, but does not promise immediate raised attainment or indeed any quick fix in terms of raw data.

What it does deliver is children who can work fluently with number and interact and approach maths in a completely different way. Children who can express ideas about maths, be organised and articulate with their approach and understand that maths is about failing and needs effort to succeed. In short, children with a much deeper understanding of what they have learnt.

Unfortunately for teachers, maths mastery demands a huge learning curve, one which may take a year or two to assimilate the basics. So for this reason it needs a headteacher with a long-term vision and the capacity to embed a completely different type of approach, one which may also be at odds with the school’s shiny new assessment system. So, here is my guide on how to implement a whole-school maths mastery approach. First, be clear in your mind – ask yourself these questions:
n What maths experiences do you give your children?
n What type of mathematical child does your school produce?
n What is your maths vision?
Hopefully, you will not have just answered “I want good SATs results” – obviously you do but what do you want over and above that.
Does your school have a shared vision for maths?
What is it all about for your school? Have you ever had a conversation about maths and how your staff feel about it? If you want to create fluent confident mathematicians does everybody know that? Do your parents? Staff? Middays? What are the barriers to this?
Before you start anything hold a staff meeting with all senior leaders and talk about the reality of maths in your school, and do not assume that everyone shares the same views and ideas of what maths should look like. You could even use a questionnaire as a starter for the conversation (this would be a good impact measure further down the line). Some starter questions could be:
n Are mistakes okay in your school?
n Do you actively encourage staff to make errors in maths for example?
n What does it mean to master something?
n What is maths mastery and why do it?
Then get all staff to contribute and agree on a whole-school maths vision and make sure this is communicated to your whole-school community.
Furthermore, ensure you know exactly what maths mastery is and is not – do some reading and research and make sure you are absolutely clear on what maths mastery is and why your school is doing it.
Deciding where to start
Option one would be to start in the early years and year 1 and roll-out the programme year-by-year. This way there will be no angry teachers trying to teach in this “new” way to children who have never been taught to the depth required to access the curriculum in the desired way.
The pros of this approach are that you will have no children with huge conceptual gaps and there will be much less demand on CPD as you will not need to train all staff, but just those with the immediate children feeding up.
However, the cons are that this may be politically difficult as parents, governors and staff may question why their children should not benefit from the mastery approach immediately. It will also be costly to buy the resources needed all at once.
Option two would be to start all together – to go all-out from the EYFS and year 1 through to year 6.
The pros of this approach are that you can have the benefit of all staff being in the same boat CPD-wise and all parents being happy that their children are getting access to the new initiative.
However, the cons are that maths mastery will be a real struggle for anyone not in year 1. For example if you are teaching upper key stage 2, the pupils will never have experienced a mastery lesson and will not be used to the deep level of thinking required, but rather might still be focused on maths as a series of answers to complete.
Mastery is much more about the deep conceptual understanding involved and the vocabulary encouraged from discussing answers and the various representations that could be created for example.
Rebuild and rethink your CPD
n Try to think longer term – this will be an on-going journey. Plan out what aspects of mastery you want to cover every half-term – for example mathematical thinking could be a focus for a half-term with a series or part of staff meetings apportioned to it. Remember, it is a journey and the more care you take with the implementation the smoother the journey, and the more colleagues who will stay with you. As already mentioned, you must stick to it – do not be swayed by external events.
n Have small groups of teacher observe each other teaching a mastery maths lesson and then let them discuss what they saw in terms of the mastery big ideas. Arrange for cover for the class for the last 20 minutes so that teachers can have a discussion regarding what they saw, but try to keep it focused on the teaching and learning that was witnessed.
n Ban the phrase “in my class” – we only want to focus on the learning we just saw. Build this into your CPD plan for the coming year/s. Decide which parts you are going to focus on each term. It is far more beneficial for teachers to reflect on one small area of their own practice rather than the whole of maths. Create a Teaching Research Group model as per the NCETM project. A TRG is central to the success of a mastery approach in school and is rather like a Lesson Study.
Leavers and new staff
It is crucial to involve more than just your maths leader. Often NQTs, depending upon their route into teaching, have little or no experience of maths mastery. Or you may suddenly have a teacher who has never heard of the mastery approach. So, what systems will you have in place to ensure they get up to speed quickly?
Same-day interventions
Effective mastery includes same-day interventions. Many schools find this the most tricky aspect to fit in. There are many solutions to this but your solution will depend very much on your school – how much space you have, how many teaching assistants you have and how effective they are, class sizes and behaviour and the list goes on. There is no one-size-fits-all and many smaller schools with mixed age classes have found that splitting the timetable can work for them. Whatever the school there needs to be a mechanism whereby a school adult, preferably a teacher, can pick up the children who have not quite got that day’s lesson.
Monitoring and assessment
Give some thought to your monitoring system. Who will be monitoring maths? Are they fully equipped for this task? Will they still be expecting to see traditional differentiation? Or will they be looking for depth and challenge and opportunities to extend reasoning? If your governors are monitoring how will they have been brought up-to-speed. If possible bring governors along from the very beginning and invite them to pertinent staff meetings and CPD days, much better to have them on-board form the very beginning.
Assessment systems need careful handling. Most mastery resources, both paid-for and free models, offer assessment too. Unfortunately most bought-in assessment systems have yet to catch up or align with a mastery approach, so if your school has a three-point assessment system great care should be taken with the results. This is because the first two assessment points will not give an accurate picture of what has been taught as maths mastery spends longer on key topics. For example, an assessment test at Christmas may be looking to assess progress and attainment in maths but may be testing a child who has only covered a small part of the curriculum, thus making the data meaningless.
This needs to be communicated to all stakeholders and written into the school assessment policy, or at the very least noted on your Ofsted A4...
Your Ofsted A4
Have one piece of paper titled Maths at XXXX School and on it give a snapshot of what one might see as they walk around your school’s maths lessons. Include any recent INSETs and resources your staff have been using, including how you plan and teach maths. Headings like Planning, Assessment, Resources, Differentiation, Same-day intervention can be useful so that whoever comes into your school has an instant “this is what you will see” picture of what is happening. Moreover, it gives your visitor an instant feel that you are really on top of it. Just make sure that this is updated termly so that the picture is a current one, perhaps half-termly if you are expecting “the call”.

• Chris Gallagher is a maths specialist teacher, primary maths consultant and is teaching for mastery lead for the N&S Maths Hub. He has been in education for 25 years with 11 years as a headteacher. Visit or email
Further information & resources
n Information on maths mastery can be found from the NCETM maths mastery pages at For details of the DfE-funded Maths Hubs, see

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