A deputy head’s perspective on mastery

With thanks to Michael Tidd for this very thought-provoking guest post

It’s funny how quickly words become ubiquitous, isn’t it? I can’t even remember ever using the word mastery before about two years ago, and yet now all of a sudden it’s a hot topic. Except, it seems to be one we can’t quite pin down.

But where did it come from? Up until 2013 it seemed to be used to describe skilled craftsmanship – including that of teachers. Then, all of a sudden, we started talking about pupils mastering things and a mastery curriculum. Then the waters were muddied further by the draft performance descriptors published in 2014 that showed the highest level of attainment being described as “mastery”.

So which is it? Is mastery related to a particular skill? Or is it a type of curriculum? Or is it just the new label for ‘Gifted & Talented’? Or for ‘depth and breadth’? It seems that the answer could be all or any of the above depending on who you talk to.

Let me shoot one down straight away. There were many flaws of the draft performance descriptors – so many that even the DfE didn’t feel they could march ahead with them. One of the greatest failings of the descriptors was the misuse of the label ‘mastery’. It seems there had been confusion between the principle of a mastery curriculum and mastering the curriculum.

If we start saying that mastery is only for our most able pupils, then we have missed the point altogether. Of course, even though the drafts were withdrawn, the labels – as labels so often do – seem to have stuck. That’s a real shame, and something we need to abandon.

In fact, if anything, mastery should be about quite the opposite. In the original Expert Review of the National Curriculum in 2011, the panel of 4 experts referred to the mastery curriculum model used in East Asia, and preferred an adaptation which they described as “high expectations for all”. Rather than being about the attainment for the élite minority, mastery should be about the achievements of the vast majority.

If mastery is to be about ensuring that the vast majority of pupils reach given expectations, then we need to consider how we approach curriculum design, setting and grouping, intervention and support – everything about the way we teach is affected.

The clearest examples of designing a curriculum for mastery have come – so far at least, from maths. Indeed, in the National Curriculum itself, the maths section includes a paragraph which explains the principles of a mastery approach quite well:

The expectation is that the majority of pupils will move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace. However, decisions about when to progress should always be based on the security of pupils’ understanding and their readiness to progress to the next stage. Pupils who grasp concepts rapidly should be challenged through being offered rich and sophisticated problems before any acceleration through new content. Those who are not sufficiently fluent with earlier material should consolidate their understanding, including through additional practice, before moving on.

I’ve not found many teachers who would disagree with that approach for any area of the curriculum, not just maths. We’ve long complained about having too much to fit in, and pace being driven by the march through content. Taking a mastery approach to the curriculum should allow us to do what we know makes sense: slow down and focus on ensuring that everyone is reaching the intended outcomes.

For the fast-graspers in any subject (which is notably different to the high attainers) there are opportunities to study in more depth and tackle more complex problems or challenges, enriching learning in contrast to the old ways of constantly pushing on to new content.  But it isn’t this additional challenge or depth that constitutes the mastery; it’s the mastery that allows us to tackle such things.

For those who initially find it harder to secure the knowledge or understanding, a mastery approach allows us to pinpoint the necessary interventions to plug the gaps before they form a chasm. The old system of levels often left it too long before those falling behind were identified; an approach aiming for mastery, focussing on fewer things but securing the knowledge for all, should highlight those needs sooner.

So, what does the word mean? Well, it may be too late to save it now – the quagmire in which it finds itself may make the word irretrievable. But if at the heart of our thinking we have the principle that our aim is to ensure that as many children as possible reach the common expectations, then we can call it anything. We just mustn’t leave it as the preserve of the talented few.


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