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The Trick To Seeing Every Child In Your School Achieve? Making Mastery Work

A system where all children progress at the same rate sounds great – but how do you get them on a level playing field to start with? Nick Hart thinks he’s cracked it...

  • The Trick To Seeing Every Child In Your School Achieve? Making Mastery Work

Right, time to mark those books. The lessons seemed to go well, so I’m looking forward to this!

As Ms Jacobs reaches for her trusty green pen and feverishly scribbles down feedback, she barely looks up until an hour has passed. She leaves school confident that as soon as the children see what she has written, any misconceptions will clear right up.

Only the next morning something unexpected happens. Assembly runs over. There’s a fire drill. The school photographer is in. There’s no time to get children to look at the marking – we have a curriculum to cover, after all…

Skilful scaffolding

Rather than various groups of children working to different objectives in class, a mastery approach exposes all children in a year group to cover the same concepts. But it’s also much more than that. It’s the expectation – one that should be shared by all adults in the school – that through careful scaffolding, every child can achieve. It’s the way in which curriculum design is influenced by a thorough understanding of how pupils learn. And it’s responsive teaching from moment to moment – across days, units of work, terms and years.

Working in this way can be tricky in terms of subject knowledge. Teachers need to know the underlying concepts of what they are teaching back to front, especially if they are to give children who grasp concepts quickly the opportunity to deepen their understanding. Contrast this with the ease of giving children who are struggling or excelling at a related objective from a year below or above.

With expert teaching and skillful scaffolding (including planning for the removal of those scaffolds) children are able to learn. But of course, some children aren’t yet secure in the prerequisite knowledge or skills needed to work at age-related expectations.

At my school, supporting these children has become a priority – following the introduction of our mastery curriculum – so they can access the appropriate learning.

Short, targeted interventions

This is done in a number of ways Some pupils come into school early to work with an adult on basics, such as internalising number facts, vocabulary development or sentence building. They’re invited to do so based on need, and only for the required number of sessions. Most children only need this support for a short time before they’ve caught up and are then capable of working without that scaffold – but of course, some children need that scaffold for longer.

Children unable to be in school early work with a teacher or TA daily for a short period, or maybe even a few times each day, depending on need. Just 10 to 15 minutes at a time can be sufficient to explain, model and then work on some areas of weakness. By doing more frequent, shorter sessions we’re helping those children who have difficulty retaining knowledge or procedures. We’ve often found that if the gap between bouts of practice is too long, then it increases the amount of learning that’s forgotten.

When children who need to catch up are withdrawn from class, they miss out on the lesson and key concepts. As such, they are perennially behind. Gaps need to be addressed, but those children need to stay in the classroom – otherwise you’re just creating different gaps in their knowledge.

Take action immediately

Once all children have caught up, some will naturally find it harder to keep up. Any misconceptions or misunderstandings need to be addressed quickly in order for everyone to maintain the class pace. Teachers and TAs should analyse work during lessons or immediately after and diagnose each pupil’s needs, quickly providing short interventions where necessary to get a child or group back on track and ready for the next session.

This doesn’t mean an intervention will be required for every child who makes a mistake – minor errors are addressed through marking and feedback, with dedicated time to act on these assessments.

Something we do, which is great for ensuring this system is sustainable, is to have a small number of experienced TAs who are not assigned to classes. They have a more flexible timetable, which allows them to intervene with children across the school or to cover the class while the teacher intervenes. This is additional support to that which teachers and TAs are already providing in their classes.

This has had a huge impact on teachers’ expectations and how quickly and accurately they diagnose children’s needs. Teachers know that looking through children’s books as they’re working or during a breaktime will be enough to see which pupils need a little more help to be successful. The expectation is that something is done about it on the day, and as such teachers know exactly which children to release to our intervening staff and for what reason.

In the long-term, we expect that with timely and effective intervention the need for these practices will decrease. At that point, the focus will shift to more subtle interventions.

This could be supporting children to work on a greater depth of task. It could mean checking in with children who have had additional support in the past, to ensure they are retaining knowledge and learning on par with the class. Or it could be working with vulnerable children, such as those with SEN, challenging them further to ensure an attainment gap does not appear between them and their peers.

Instant feedback
How to assess quickly and efficiently in a mastery system…
Returning to Ms Jacob’s stack of books, useful formative assessment is not simply writing feedback then trying to get children to act on that advice. You need incisive analysis and quick action, with children then correcting their work or carrying out further practice – which clearly shows that the process has happened, should anyone wish to scrutinise or inspect.

Feedback also needn’t just be from teacher to child. Scanning through their books should reveal plenty about how you need to tailor the next lesson for different children – who needs more practice? Who needs more input? Who needs a scaffold removed? Who needs to work at greater depth? Assessing how children are doing today determines what they do tomorrow.

Nick Hart is Deputy Head at Penn Wood Primary and Nursery School in Slough, and blogs at thisismyclassroom.wordpress.com

Rising Stars Mathematics is a new mastery textbook programme that contains suggestions for supporting and broadening understanding in every topic, to help teachers provide immediate intervention; download a free unit at risingstars-uk.com/rsm

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