Leading Change Towards a Mastery Approach in Mathematics: 5 Tips for School Leaders

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In April 2016, our school was placed in Special Measures. It goes without saying that since then, the process of improvement has been incredibly challenging. But it also presented the leadership team with an opportunity to up-skill our staff and train them in how to deliver a mastery approach in mathematics. We decided to do this through Maths — No Problem!

Fast forward to February 2018, just under two years since our school was judged to be ‘inadequate’, we were inspected and given a rating of ‘good’ in all areas. The report outlined how our school radically changed teaching and learning, directly leading to accelerated progress for our pupils. Our story is one of success and we’re all incredibly proud of the work we’ve done and the changes we’ve made in our school.

Along the way we’ve learned valuable lessons about implementing whole school changes. Regardless of Ofsted gradings, here are some tips for any leadership team considering implementing maths mastery:

1. Commit to the changes

Being in Special Measures forces you to change your approach. The interesting thing is, this position is arguably more freeing for a leadership team than a school judged to be good or outstanding. For leaders who feel their school may need to change their approach yet are satisfied with their current results, they should consider some important questions:

  • Is it worth changing?
  • Will we risk the quality of teaching we are already delivering?
  • Shouldn’t we just carry on as we are?
  • Will our results improve?

This position can be dangerous — if the leadership team doesn’t fully commit to this new approach to teaching mathematics, it may result in a muddled approach.

I’ve asked some teachers if they use the MNP scheme. They reply with comments like, “our year 5 teacher uses it I think” or “we use the workbooks as a challenge at the end of our lessons” or “the KS1 staff did some training on it and I think they are using parts of the scheme”.

I’ve even heard headteachers say, “yes we spent the money on it but it didn’t have much impact”. My first response is to say that I’m not surprised.

For this approach to be successful, all teachers must teach it. The scheme has been carefully designed to be used across the whole primary phase – not just for one year group. One of the biggest reasons for the impact it has had in our school is because we insisted on a consistent approach.

2. Know and support your staff

Supporting your staff starts with encouraging the belief that what they’re doing is meaningful. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a headteacher and deputy head who have carried this out brilliantly. Since bringing the scheme to our school, they’ve been the key driving force behind making sure all teachers know why they’re teaching mathematics this way.

To teach MNP effectively, teachers must be given full training. Teachers need to know how the lessons are designed and how they should be delivered. Every teacher that works in our school is given three days of training from Deep Learning Teaching School Alliance. This has been especially effective because after three days, the Teaching School come back and continue supporting our staff through Development Days across the academic year.

Children no longer go months, or a year with ineffective mathematics teaching. If you’ve identified that a teacher needs support, it’s essential that it happens swiftly. At our school, we do this through coaching sessions. We don’t sit at the back of the classroom and take notes before delivering a verdict. Senior leaders are given time to study a lesson with a teacher and then work through the process as a pair. This allows for essential professional discourse throughout the entire process — during the lesson study, the delivery and on reflection. We hope our teachers feel empowered and that they see the value in working collaboratively rather than alone.

3. Meet the needs of your learners

By ploughing on without reflection, teachers miss out on how learners are engaging with the scheme. For us, two of the most important questions were: how are we ensuring our advanced learners are challenged? And, how do we make sure we support struggling learners access the scheme? Once the scheme was fully established across all year groups, we asked teachers to work with manipulatives and questioning techniques in order to make sure pitch for all learners is correct.

Having a critical eye on how we best meet our learners’ needs was a key component of our sustained improvement.

4. Don’t make decisions for Ofsted

Having been in Special Measures for the past two years, it would be unrealistic to suggest that we don’t consider Ofsted when making decisions. Of course we do. But it’s equally important that when implementing the MNP scheme, the core values aren’t washed out by fear of what Ofsted may think.

It’s worth considering that most Ofsted inspectors aren’t trained in this approach, so leaders need to engage in a dialogue with them before showing them lessons. We gave each inspector a short document, outlining what they were about to see in our maths lessons. During our inspections, it was promising to see how much time they took to listen to our decisions over marking, timetabling, lesson structure and resources.

5. Give teachers time to study their lessons

It makes me shudder to think that NQTs and less experienced teachers are asked to just go away and plan their maths (I was). Blank paper. Little training. No support. Poor resources. It’s highly unlikely that this approach will deliver effective mathematics lessons.

MNP lessons are designed by expert mathematicians and ensure a deep understanding of maths through a clear lesson-by-lesson structure. All lessons are planned out for teachers. They don’t have to spend time planning, they study them. They’re given enough time to read through the lessons and fully understand them before they start teaching.

To us, this is one of the most important elements of delivering effective maths lessons. It’s a big part of our continued success.

is the Mathematics Lead and Assistant Headteacher at SS John Fisher and Thomas More since 2017, and is a blogger.

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