Why maths mastery is like driving a car: an interview with Rosie Ross

|10 min read

“I was in one of those classes where we were boosting and boosting children, trying to get them where they needed to be when they left primary school, trying to get them through these exams that we have, the SATs in England, and it was soul destroying. I thought, there has to be a better way.”

Rosie Ross, Assistant Headteacher and Maths Lead at St Bridget’s CofE Primary in Wirral, was one of the first teachers in the UK to adopt Maths — No Problem! in her school. That was in 2015, shortly after the award-winning Primary Series was published, and she hasn’t looked back.

As she tells hosts Andy Psarianos and Robin Potter in episode 107 of the School of School podcast, embarking on the maths mastery path required a leap of faith, but the risk has paid off for the hundreds of pupils, including her own daughter, whom she has guided through the Maths — No Problem! Programme.

The misconceptions around the term 'maths mastery'

“Mastery is a really beautiful word actually when you apply it to maths,” Rosie told Andy and Robin. “It's about everybody being able to do something. It's about everybody feeling, ‘Hey, I can do that. I can do that maths. I'm a confident mathematician. I'm a competent mathematician.’”

Rosie says there are some misconceptions around the term ‘mastery’ that even she was guilty of believing at first. She thought it was all about kids becoming what they’d call in the UK ‘high attainers’ or ‘greater depth,’ or what in other countries might be called ‘high achievers’ in maths.

But that misses the point, she says. “It's about really understanding and knowing maths deeply, about enjoying maths and feeling a sense of satisfaction. It's about every single child in your class feeling satisfied when they're doing maths, feeling, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’”

It goes even deeper than that. “It's also about children really thinking about the language of maths, making the connections between different aspects of maths, being fluent in the language of maths and having a coherence in their thinking.”

She makes the analogy of how mastering maths is like mastering driving. “We can get in our car and we can do it without thinking. Yeah, we have to check things. Maybe there’s a new road sometimes, but we can do this. It's giving every child that sense. And that's quite a big ask.”

‘There has to be a better way’

Rosie first came across the idea of teaching for mastery back around 2015, when she heard a talk by internationally acclaimed trainer and maths mastery pioneer Dr Yeap Ban Har. She knew immediately it was what she’d been looking for.

“I was in one of those classes where we were boosting and boosting children, trying to get them where they needed to be when they left primary school, trying to get them through these exams that we have, the SATs in England, and it was soul destroying. I thought, ‘There has to be a better way.’”

“I mean, I don't mind hard work, but slogging kids through tests is just dismal. It's grim. That's not what you go into the job for.”

The first step in managing the change was to stop and think about what needed to change, she says. After discussing it with colleagues, they came to the fundamental question: why are so many children who are about to leave primary school still not where they needed to be in maths?

They recognised many of the children weren’t enjoying maths partly because of the old idea that maths is a series of exercises to be performed as quickly as possible. “Our children see maths as a speedy thing, not a beautiful creative subject,” she says.

“So we had to think about, ‘Well, okay, we want our children to love maths, we want them to enjoy maths, we want them to see it as a creative subject, we want them to retain things. So why is it that maybe we are not building incrementally on things?’”

The next question they needed to ask themselves was, “are we expert mathematicians? Actually we are not. We're primary school teachers and we're highly educated people, but we are juggling a lot of plates here.”

That’s when Rosie went to listen to Ban Har and learned about Maths — No Problem!

She knew she’d found what she needed. “It's going to provide the script, it's going to provide the structure, the progression that we need. It's going to take some of the heat away from us because we are trying to be these really skilled mathematicians and skilled teachers and it's really hard for us to be planning lessons progressively.”

Huge culture shift

Adopting the Maths — No Problem! Programme represented a “massive, massive change” because it meant moving away from a structure where individual teachers planned their own lessons and picked what they were going to do, to a textbook-based structure where all of that was planned out for them, says Rosie. “That was a huge culture shift.”

The next part of the process was forming a very clear idea about what they wanted to change and how they wanted it to look. So they started with the end in mind and worked back through the steps they would take.

What was the most important thing they had to do as a school? “We had to acknowledge that if we are going to change things, it's not going to be plain sailing and it's not necessarily going to start well.”

It can be frightening for schools who already have good data to make such a huge change, but in many of those cases, the data is misleading. “Actually your children's knowledge is shallow. They haven't mastered maths. It's shallow knowledge.”

Her advice? “You’re almost going to have to risk that period when that change is happening. It may seem like things are getting worse because actually you are asking people to stop and learn again. So that's about trust and space and this is when SLT needs to sometimes go away for a bit. Just let people have a go.”

The right way of doing things

Rosie says there were many considerations to take into account for managing the change, including making sure she and her colleagues had the training they needed. They had to think about CPD as part of the change management process and about budgeting because it would have a cost implication.

Communication was also key. “We had to communicate long and hard and wide with everybody,” she says. That included governors, trustees, parents and with the children as well. “This was going to be a very different approach for the children. And they needed to know why we were doing this and how we were going to be doing this.”

Schools that have been successful in introducing mastery would say it's at least a five-year plan, she says. “This is not something that happens overnight. You have to be prepared that this is going to take time because you're going to have to move those children through.”

At the beginning, there were some parents who were concerned about the change. Rosie’s response? Open classrooms. “People understand when they see it.” She invited parents in, explained to them how it worked, doing a lesson with the parents. “I've had a call full of parents and I've taught them as if they're my class.”

Often, parents are themselves dealing with maths anxiety. “A lot of that pushing back sometimes is because there's an anxiety that they bring themselves because of the way they were taught and it is different or that fear of doing something wrong at home.”

Rosie also recommends ‘pupil voice,’ which means getting children to talk to their parents about their maths and showing the work that they're doing. “Gradually that builds that understanding of actually this is the right way of doing things.”

‘I wouldn't teach any other way now’

Rosie recalls that, at the beginning, things didn’t always go smoothly. “We had to be kind to ourselves because we had lessons that were just going on forever, because we slowed everything down.” But she says with practice and over time, things got better. “We got better as colleagues because we worked together, we talked to each other and we knew we weren't under the hammer.”

Still, there were some rough patches. “There were times when we were thinking, ‘What on earth have we done here? Because actually when I was planning my own lessons, I could make them work because I kind of knew what the children could and couldn't do. When I'm using teaching for mastery resources, there's no hiding. And I think that was the scary bit that first term.”

She also says switching to the mastery approach often highlighted the extent of the problem. “You start discovering holes and gaps in the children's knowledge and learning because they haven't maybe been taught as progressively as you want, and that's dispiriting. We had moments in the staff room where we'd be sitting there going, ‘Oh my goodness, this is awful. What are we doing?’”

“But actually I wouldn't teach any other way now. I can't imagine not teaching that way. I was lucky in that there were other schools at the same time doing the journey at the same time. So we weren't just in our own bubble feeling this pain.”

‘It works for the children’

How have the children who have gone through the Maths — No Problem! Programme fared after they left primary school?

“My youngest daughter was one of those pioneers in another school where it all started at the same time,” Rosie says. “So now maths is her thing. She does the maths A-level.”

She says one difference between her daughter and a child who might not have taken the mastery journey is the effect of journaling, which is a pillar of the mastery approach. Pupils at GCSE level have to write down all of their work to get full marks. “If they've been through that process of journaling, that's not foreign to them.”

She sees more of the children who were part of the mastery journey seem to be deciding to take A-level maths. “They seem more confident in that. We are seeing our children when they go onto secondary, we're getting really good feedback from the secondary schools about their confidence as mathematicians. And it's nice when they come back to see us and their confidence and they talk about, ‘Oh, do you know what? We can do this.”

Rosie recalls her Year 6 cohort from last year, the ones she called “our mastery babies, our Maths — No Problem! babies” because they've never known anything different. “Our end of year test was lovely because we really didn't have to do much extra with them. We just taught the maths and they came out really, really strong and despite all the gaps that we'd had with Covid.”

She explains that because of the way Maths — No Problem! lessons are structured, they were able to keep teaching them online during the pandemic, and because of the obvious progression of the curriculum, it was very easy to identify any gaps in the pupils’ knowledge. “That really supported us getting back on track.”

Would she do it again?

“Without a second thought,” she says. “Absolutely. I'm in my third school now teaching for mastery. I would never move anywhere else that didn't have that passion because it works, and it works for the children.”

Editor’s note: If you'd like to learn more about the approach taken by Rosie and her colleagues at St Bridget's, check out these blog posts based on an extensive interview from 2022:

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Chris Fournier