A survey and report by academics at the University of Brighton has shed surprising light on the legacy of a 2016 government initiative to introduce training and textbooks to revolutionise primary mathematics teaching.
The 2023 Nuffield Foundation-funded research publication finds evidence of significant problems in the communication, uptake and commitment to the textbook funding initiative. In some cases, the rigidly-textbook-based system was even seen as a threat to teacher autonomy and professionalism.
What is ‘mastery teaching’ in maths and how do textbooks feature?
In 2016, the Schools Minister, The Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, Minister of State (Education), announced a ‘major expansion’ in the drive to make the South Asian mastery approach to teaching maths a standard fixture in England’s primary schools. To that end, £41 million of funding was allocated to help half of England’s primary schools - some 8,000 schools - to adopt the approach. A key element of this approach was matched funding for primary schools to purchase new textbooks specifically designed to deliver a mastery curriculum.
The textbook approach was based on how maths is taught in high-achieving south Asian jurisdictions, including Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong. The system promised the benefits of careful government-directed planning, "ensuring no pupil’s understanding is left to chance". The funding allowed a wide roll out to follow initial, pioneering teacher exchange programmes between England and Shanghai, alongside textbook funding and teacher professional development.
Mastery system touted as a renaissance to help children with maths skills
The government press release on maths mastery teaching scheme (12 July 2016) recognised the benefit of maths mastery for pupils through "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 expansion was to be led by 'maths hubs', 35 school-led centres of excellence in maths teaching. The Rt Hon Mr Gibb had visited Shanghai to see maths teaching in practice, and of his British scheme said: “We are seeing a renaissance in maths teaching in this country, with good ideas from around the world helping to enliven our classrooms... The significant expansion of the south Asian maths mastery approach can only add to the positive momentum, with thousands more young people having access to specialist teachers and quality textbooks."
Research into resources for teaching maths in primary and secondary schools
The government initiative meant that, from 2016, £41 million earmarked for those 8000 primary schools would see teachers trained in using the ‘maths mastery’ approach. Schools would also have access funding to purchase Department for Education (DfE)-approved mathematics textbooks.
In 2022/23, University of Brighton researchers in the School of Education led a Nuffield Foundation-funded project to examine this textbook initiative, its uptake, longevity, and integration into an already saturated market of curriculum resources in primary mathematics.
The headline finding was that, while we have seen changes in primary school maths and how primary schools approach mathematics teaching – with many primary schools incorporating elements of a ‘mastery’ approach – schools have not embraced the desire to support teaching with the use of textbooks, turning instead to a range of worksheets, online activities, and other resources, with 107 different curriculum resources identified by the report.
Awareness of mathematics mastery maths textbooks in teaching Key Stages 1 and 2
The report, The Prevalence and Use of Textbooks and Curriculum Resources in Primary Mathematics, showed that, in fact, less than half of primary schools in England were even aware of the government’s textbook initiative, resulting in just a third of eligible schools taking up the funding and purchasing textbooks for their schools.
More concerning, in those schools which did buy into the scheme, 37 per cent had already largely or fully abandoned the use of the schemes, while a further 24 per cent were using them in only a partial manner. These textbooks, set to transform mathematics education in England at significant cost, were in 2022–23 found in just 5 per cent of primary schools, with sets gathering dust or being offered for sale on eBay and Twitter.
Despite the laudable effort to raise standards, schools have found the ongoing costs insurmountable, the pedagogic change too big, and, in many cases, the textbooks and their rigidity a threat to teacher autonomy and professionalism.
Root problems for maths textbook use in primary classrooms
The lead academics from the University of Brighton, Rachel Marks, Nancy Barclay and Alison Barnes, found that issues around textbook use had their roots in the complex ways in which teachers in England make careful, professional, decisions about the resources to use in their mathematics teaching. This decision-making responds to the multiple needs of the non-homogenous classes of children they care for. Primary classrooms in England are quite unlike the classrooms of south Asia which the initiative was intended to replicate.
Among the recommendations of the report, it is suggested that the Department of Education could extend the Textbook Assessment Criteria to cover a wider range of curriculum resources and tailor initiatives to ensure accessibility and applicability for smaller schools; that the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics might support schools to match or tailor existing resources to their pedagogic approach and support schools to adapt curriculum materials for mixed-age teaching. Publishers, the authors recommend, might investigate why teachers adapt materials and provide support for this, while school leaders could enable teachers to be involved in decisions about which scheme to adopt and how to use it, and examine teacher workload involved in curating, creating, and adapting curriculum resources.
Ruth Maisey from the Nuffield Foundation said, “The vast array of mathematics resources provides choice. However, it can also be overwhelming and quality assurance of these resources varies. We would encourage school leaders to consider the impact on teacher workload, and how best to help staff identify which resources will most effectively support their school’s approach to maths.”
Co-author Dr Rachel Marks said, “This report suggests that far more is needed to be understood about the professionalism and workload of the primary teacher in England, and that we should examine where we can bring about our own culturally responsive ‘renaissance in maths teaching in this country’ as alluded to by Nick Gibb, rather than cherry-picking from other jurisdictions.”
Read the full report: Marks, R, Barclay, N & Barnes, A 2023, The Prevalence and Use of Textbooks and Curriculum Resources in Primary Mathematics. Nuffield Foundation.
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