The Introduction Of Mastery At KS2
The Introduction Of Mastery At KS2
Earlier this week (12.7.16) Minister of State for Schools Nick Gibb announced that £41 million was being made available for around 8000 primary schools to apply for in order to implement a mastery curriculum in England (click here to see the DfE press release); the money is to be used for text books and the training of staff. This mastery approach is based upon the method of teaching mathematics used in Shanghai, an area which regularly tops the Pisa league tables politicians around the globe reference so regularly, and whose position near the summit they prize so highly.
This must be a positive move in so many ways, surely…
Let’s have a look:
It sounds like a lot of money at a time when budgets are being cut left, right and centre. The trouble is that it’s not really a huge amount. That £41 million is to be shared between the 8000 schools, so that’s around £5000 each. This money is to be spread over 4 years which means that would be about £1250 per year; nothing to be sniffed at but already this is looking less impressive. When you consider that text books tend to be quite pricey (we have no idea at the moment but GCSE text books are £15+ each) and the going rate for a day’s training course for one member of staff is £200+, not-to-mention the cost of covering them for the day. So the money will amount to relatively little: a class set of books and some training for one member of staff?
It’s not all about money though; if it is good and delivers better results for our young people then cost is immaterial isn’t it? Absolutely, and I am a big supporter of a mastery approach but only when done properly. The key to the success of mastery is qualified staff and those staff having the time and ability to find/produce the best resources to deliver it. In Shanghai the teachers are all specialist maths teachers and only teach around half a timetable, spending the rest of their time planning lessons, helping those students who are struggling to catch up, and marking all the work they set. The downside, if that’s the way you see it, is that classes are large but with little or no behaviour management this boils down to weight of the marking, and logistically a space to fit all the students in. Mr Gibb has acknowledged that teachers in Shanghai get less contact time but feels schools in England can learn from China. He’s right but he fails to admit a desperate shortage of specialist maths teachers in England, and this is where the entire policy could fall down. There is a myth that mastery is purely doing lots of repetitive questions on a given topic. It isn’t, but if the curriculum is taught by teachers who aren’t fully trained or are not specialist that’s what it could become. The money promised to implement this will not train everyone who will be earmarked to deliver it; ideally every primary school would have a maths specialist or two who only taught maths throughout the school but the £41 million won’t cover this either and nor will dwindling school funds for the extra posts.
The whole point of mastery is to embed deep understanding of mathematical concepts so that those concepts can be applied in real, “ready for the workplace” contexts that industry repeatedly claims to desire from school leavers. Without quality resources or specialist teachers this deep understanding is unlikely to grow. Mastery, in simple terms, is based upon the question “why?” giving students the opportunity to explain their thinking, and this is where the understanding is rooted and embedded. The danger is that a non-specialist with be unable to ask the question “why?” at the appropriate times and draw out the explanations. I would add that this is not a criticism of teachers and that a good text book cannot (will never) replace specialist teachers who can react to the individual needs of the class.
The final issue could be cultural. Mathematical expertise is highly prized in Shanghai whereas it is socially acceptable, if not a badge of honour for some to admit to struggling in maths in the UK and the West in general. This is a major hurdle but as students become comfortable with having a go at the maths and are prepared to make mistakes whilst in search of an answer, the attitude towards the subject becomes more positive in my experience. It takes time and trust, so immediate results should not be expected but eventually the system should pay dividends, as long, and I know I keep banging on about this, as long as the teachers are specialists.
So in conclusion this is a great idea but typically for much education policy of recent times, it is being implemented without the infrastructure, funding or time for it to deliver the results desired by teachers and Westminster. At least the idea is right I suppose.