September 2016

The know zone

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Julie McCulloch looks at the government’s latest initiative to introduce the South Asian ‘mastery’ approach to teaching maths in primary schools.

Carrots, sticks and Shanghai maths

Julie McCulloch looks at the government’s latest initiative to introduce the South Asian ‘mastery’ approach to teaching maths in primary schools.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) in July, Schools Minister Nick Gibb announced that the government is investing up to £41 million over the next four years in establishing the South Asian ‘mastery’ approach to teaching maths in English primary schools.

So how does this latest initiative work and what does the government hope to achieve by it?

What is maths ‘mastery’?

One of the challenges with the move to a so-called ‘mastery’ curriculum in primary schools is that few people seem able to agree on what ‘mastery’ actually means. This initiative is based on a definition of mastery that, according to the DfE, “involves children being taught as a whole class, building depth of understanding of the structure of maths, supported by the use of high-quality textbooks”.

The initiative was inspired by a two-year exchange programme between teachers in England and Shanghai, which led to teachers from 48 English primary schools piloting Shanghai-style maths mastery teaching. According to an evaluation of the first year of this programme by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) (http://, most of the teachers involved thought that this approach had led to positive outcomes for pupils. These included increased enthusiasm for maths, deeper engagement, increased confidence and higher levels of attainment.

How will the funding be allocated?

The DfE’s claim that “8,000 primary schools in England will receive [the] £41 million” (and subsequent suggestions in the media that half of England’s primary schools will therefore be required to follow this new approach) is slightly misleading. The money will be channelled through the network of 35 Maths Hubs coordinated by the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM). These hubs, first established in 2014, are partnerships of schools and colleges, led by an outstanding school or college, which seek to develop and spread best practice in maths teaching.

The £41 million will be used to expand the Maths Hubs’ existing Teaching for Mastery programme. Specifically, it will enable the hubs to:

  • continue to train primary teachers as Mastery Specialists, and equip them to pass on their expertise to teachers and schools in their areas (so far 140 teachers have been trained in this way; the additional funding will enable a further 560 to be trained over the next four years)
  • fund teachers and schools to join work groups, led by Mastery Specialists, with the aim of spreading knowledge, experience and expertise about mastery approaches (8,000 schools are anticipated to have joined these groups by 2020, hence the headline that this number of schools will benefit from the funding)
  • subsidise schools participating in these work groups to buy textbooks based on mastery approaches

How can schools get involved?

Places on both the Mastery Specialists programme and the work groups for the academic year 2016/17 have already been allocated. Details of how schools and teachers can get involved in 2017/18 will be published on the Maths Hub website ( in the autumn term.

In the meantime, the NCETM website ( contains a range of free materials, guidance, information and case studies about teaching for mastery.

What else may we expect in this area?

This attempt to influence the way in which primary schools teach core subjects bears some similarity to the phonics match-funding programme introduced by the schools minister a few years ago. In that case, the funding ‘carrot’ was accompanied, of course, by the phonics screening check ‘stick’. Will there be a similar accountability measure to further ‘encourage’ schools to adopt a mastery approach to maths?

Probably. As Nick Gibb made clear in his speech to ACME, he sees number knowledge and fluency, and times tables in particular, as “the royal road by which complex mathematical thinking is achieved”. The Conservative manifesto included the expectation that “every 11-year-old [will] know their times tables off by heart”.

Primary schools may be forgiven for thinking that a National Curriculum that requires children to be taught all their tables by the end of Year 4 plus a Key Stage 2 arithmetic test in which this year nearly half of the questions required children to perform multiplication or division may suffice to deliver on that commitment. The government, however, has other ideas, and is currently piloting a new on-screen ‘times tables check’, which may be introduced alongside the Key Stage 2 SATs in May 2018. The stick, it seems, is never far behind the carrot.

ASCL guidance: More information on mastery approaches to maths can be found in ASCL’s guidance paper, Mathematics Teaching for Mastery, here