Maths Mastery: A journey towards a new curriculum

Written by: Liam Donnison | Published:

A trip to Shanghai inspired one primary school leader and her team to transform maths teaching as part of an approach to a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum. Liam Donnison explains

A flight back from a research trip observing maths teaching in Shanghai proved a productive time for the team from St Mary and St Thomas CE Primary in St Helens.

Headteacher Kirsty Haw and colleague Lisa Bradshaw had travelled to the Chinese city as part of a Department for Education (DfE) funded national maths hub project. They spent 17 days watching maths teaching – an exciting experience that prompted them to use the long journey home to devise a new five-part maths lesson.

The lesson approach turned the teaching of maths on its head at the school, which later became part of Three Saints Academy Trust, a multi-academy trust headed by Ms Haw as executive principal and made up of St Mary and St Thomas CE Primary and St Ann’s CE Primary.

“Instead of teaching and modelling and the children then trying out the problem at the end we started with the problem,” Ms Haw explained. “For example, if we were doing a lesson on ratio and proportion then we started the lesson with the area the children would most likely come unstuck on. The idea was to take them straight to the hardest part of the learning and then go through the modelling and unpacking of strategies to help them solve that problem during the lesson.”

The new approach to maths teaching now forms a key part of the MAT’s knowledge-rich curriculum approach. Standards have risen, says Ms Haw. Key stage 1 data is the highest the schools have had in maths. Key stage 2 data shows that the trust is now second in the local authority area and seventh in Merseyside in terms of attainment. This is especially pleasing to Ms Haw and her team as a high proportion of St Mary and St Thomas children are eligible for free school meals and many begin their school careers with low starting points.

She continued: “It’s massive for us. The biggest indicator is that our children are speaking engagingly about what they have learned and experienced at primary school and what they have been inspired to go on to do.”

What was it about the experience of rolling out a new approach to maths teaching as part of a knowledge-rich curriculum that made it a success?

Ms Haw shared her perspectives for the National Professional Qualification for Executive Leadership (NPQEL), a new programme for aspiring and serving executive heads and CEOs leading across several schools, now being delivered by Outstanding Leaders Partnership.

Be the chief advocate

Ms Haw felt that it was important for her as a leader to be involved in the Shanghai maths hub visit: “I knew as a leader what would practically work for the school. I had a healthy scepticism about their system and how different it was to ours and wanted to see what they did to help their pupils be so successful and how their approach could be adapted to work in our setting.

“I also knew that I would have to sell it to other heads and leaders as the right approach. The key thing we saw in the pupils was excitement and enjoyment and a willingness to get stuck in, and how they dealt with problems and developed resilience.”

Selling the new maths teaching approach was a major challenge for Ms Haw because it required a big re-organisation of the timetable: “We are a church school and our daily act of worship is integral to everything we do,” she explained. “I wanted our daily act of worship to be at the end of maths because we’d seen in Shanghai that any child who didn’t understand the lesson was kept behind at the end so the teacher could do an immediate intervention so the child could continue learning the next day. I had to go to governors to ask to change the act of worship to a different time. There was a bit of a battle with some of the governors but they did allow me to do it and it has been vital to the success of this approach.”

Resource professional development

Ensuring that teachers had the subject knowledge to teach this new approach in maths was a major priority, Ms Haw said. “We’ve used the Teaching School to deliver a lot of CPD for our staff to get them up to speed over the past couple of years,” she explained.

“It’s been heavy on resources because even though the trust is the strategic lead for the St Helens Teaching School Alliance and the CPD is free to our schools we still have to cover supply costs. We’ve had to look at budget to make sure that we have enough to let our teachers go on these courses but we have prioritised that and the directors of the MAT have been very supportive because it has worked.”

Ms Haw says that teaching the techniques needed to deliver the new approach has been relatively straightforward. “How to teach the maths is almost the easy bit, but for this to work teachers must understand the nuts and bolts of maths,” she continued. “We devised our Excellent Maths Teacher programme a couple of years ago. The idea was to take good teachers and make them into fantastic teachers of maths. All of our staff have gone on this over the last few years and that has really helped.”

Consult widely

The new curriculum was informed by extensive consultation: “We spoke a lot to staff, children and governors on what we wanted it to look like,” Ms Haw said. “We have gone for a skills and knowledge approach but we wanted it to be fun and relevant. We do a lot of Forest School curriculum and outdoor learning and wanted to link that in along with a rich cultural element, including regular visits to cultural attractions such as art galleries.

“The curriculum was very much based on a mastery approach to learning and it was designed to be used by anyone in the MAT and was based on the premise that children need to develop different skills for the future so whatever we teach them they have to apply in different contexts.”

Get parents involved

The ability of parents to support their children with the new maths approach was an issue at first but this has now been addressed, explained Ms Haw.

“We have insight days where parents are invited into the classroom and watch lessons and have the opportunity to work alongside their child. They’ve found that helpful. We also have lots of family learning workshops throughout the year where we work with just the parents.”

Ensure continuity

Ms Haw’s step up to the role of MAT CEO towards the end of the first year of the new curriculum approach might have stalled momentum if a proper succession plan hadn’t been in place. Ms Haw’s assistant head at St Mary and St Thomas, Lyndsey Lewis, was a maths specialist so as she stepped into the headship she helped to identify a recently qualified teacher who was deeply involved in the maths hub as the new maths lead.

  • Liam Donnison is managing director of Best Practice Network. Kirsty Haw’s reflections form part of the new NPQEL programme, developed and delivered by Outstanding Leaders Partnership in partnership with Best Practice Network. Visit

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