Truths, Myths and Misconceptions About Maths Mastery

Tony Staneff lifts the lid on five of the most common misconceptions around this much-discussed approach to maths…

Tony Staneff
by Tony Staneff
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Does mastery have to be East Asian? How do we cover the whole curriculum if we are teaching topics in greater depth? How can we afford to change our approach to maths?

These are just some of the questions I hear time and time again in relation to the teaching of maths mastery in England.

In my work with schools across the country, I know that when taught well, the mastery approach to maths can empower pupils to work hard and succeed by tackling the same concepts at the same time, leading to deeper learning and understanding for every child in the classroom.

That said, there is still varying levels of understanding as to what the approach actually entails.

Here I address five of the most frequently asked questions on maths mastery, so that you can make your own decision on whether it’s the approach you would like to embed across your school.

1 | Does mastery have to be East Asian?

The term ‘mastery’ is used to describe various approaches, but in the UK it has in recent years become almost synonymous with South-East Asian approaches from places like Shanghai and Singapore.

These jurisdictions perform consistently highly in international league tables, so it is not surprising that the UK and other countries want to learn from them and replicate their success.

However, it isn’t the only way to achieve mastery. Mastery is all about equipping children with a deep understanding of mathematical concepts and, ultimately, developing a generation of competent and curious mathematicians.

2 | What exactly is mastery?

When people talk about ‘mastery’, they are often talking about a mastery curriculum, mastery teaching and mastery goals – all of which can mean different things to different people.

Although there are many different descriptions of mastery in maths, there are some common features, including an emphasis on success for all, development of conceptual understanding and a focus on mathematical structures.  

Many mastery definitions would also advocate keeping the whole class together, not moving on until ideas are understood and using a concrete-pictorial-abstract (CPA) approach.

3 | Is there any differentiation in mastery?

It’s true that, when using a mastery approach, your whole class should be working together, on the same concept and exercises – but that doesn’t mean there is no differentiation.

Children who struggle to grasp the concept may need more support by presenting them with different representations and methods that represent the concept until they find something that makes sense to them.

For example, this may mean using a slow but reliable method, which doesn’t involve having to hold too much information in their working memory.

Meanwhile, their peers who grasp a concept quickly should be challenged through rich, deep questions such as more open-ended problems for them to investigate the same concept on a deeper level.

4 | If I spend longer on each concept, how can I cover the whole curriculum?

Many mastery schemes organise maths into topics, so children can spend longer on a concept.

While this might invoke concern about how to ensure coverage of a packed curriculum, if done correctly, this approach will give them a deep and flexible understanding of each concept, enabling them to make connections to other areas of maths.

For example, teaching multiplication is much more straightforward if children have already built up a secure understanding of repeated addition, which in turn is more successful if children understand basic addition. Sometimes you have to slow down in order to speed up.

5 | Is it expensive to change your approach to maths?

Changing to a mastery approach doesn’t have to cost a fortune. There are plenty of good low-cost and free resources out there – such as the free-of-charge schemes of work from White Rose Maths.

You can use equipment you already have in your classrooms like counters and dice, and look for real-life examples of maths concepts around you to bring ideas to life.

You can also apply for DfE matched funding through your local Maths Hub to help you embed a mastery approach in your school:

Tony Staneff is the mastery team leader at White Rose Maths and series editor of Power Maths Key Stage 1, a whole-class mastery programme that has recently joined the list of recommended textbooks supporting teaching for mastery in maths in England.

Power Maths Key Stage 1 & 2 have been written to comprehensively deliver the National Curriculum and fully align to White Rose Maths progressions and schemes of learning – they are available to order now.

For a handy, free guide on maths mastery, please visit and for more information about Power Maths, head to

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