Posted on 1st March 2023

Fluency and Practice in Maths at High Performing Primary Schools

11:14 AM, 1st March 2023
Fluency and Practice in Maths at High Performing Primary Schools

Fluency and Practice in Maths at High Performing Primary Schools

Helen Drury
Dr Helen Drury is Director of Curriculum Programmes at Ark Curriculum Plus and founder of Mathematics Mastery – a pioneer of teaching and learning for mastery in UK schools.

When I joined Ark Curriculum Plus, we were working with three primary schools on research-based ways to improve attainment, achievement, and enjoyment in maths. Now, over ten years later, we have a network of 373 primary schools across the UK. I’m in the fortunate position to be able to share what we have learned from this network about the highest leverage approaches making the biggest difference to young people.

One of the schools who joined the Mathematics Mastery primary programme in 2020 is in the top quintile for pupil premium and had 65% of their students achieve the expected standard in KS2 SATs, with 14% at greater depth in 2019. Two years after joining, this increased to 77.5% of pupils achieving the expected standard, with 40% at greater depth.

By looking at this school, alongside others who adopt the approach faithfully and who are also achieving well in KS2 SATs, we identified three key things they are doing:

  1.  High expectations for every child
  2.  Learning maths is an authentic experience
  3.  Practice is purposeful

Let’s delve deeper into what I mean by each of these.

1. High expectations for every child

This is the belief that everyone (teacher, Head Teacher, pupils) holds around what is possible for every child. It is THE most important thing that makes the difference.

Flexible groupings:

Groupings in a classroom need to be flexible and for a specific purpose. The reason that those children are together should be based on an assessment, however informal, i.e., a conversation you overheard. We don’t recommend assigning a group of pupils to a certain group for a whole term. 

MMP Blog final (1)


This can take different forms – informal or very structured. In some schools it focusses on vocabulary, in others the use of concrete resources. Some pupils who have trouble with reading are introduced to key vocabulary prior to a unit. They then feel confident with the vocabulary when they see it in a maths context.

Differentiate through depth:

Not by content. That means making sure the maths is low threshold. Everyone can access the maths, but the option of additional challenge is still open to every child. One of the Maths Leads in our schools described how they ensure there is a safe learning environment for every child:

“We encourage mistake making in our lessons … ensuring that children enjoy maths.”

Maths Lead in Mathematics Mastery Partner School

2. Learning maths is an authentic experience

    At the heart of the Mathematics Mastery programme are the Dimensions of Depth. The three dimensions are important because they specifically address two key questions about how pupils learn maths. MMP   image 2

    1. What is it that pupils who succeed in maths do really well?
    2. What is it that is holding back other pupils from doing well?

    There are three key areas to address when answering these questions:

    The power of talk:

    A lack of mathematical language can be a huge barrier to progress for children who have low prior attainment, so helping them gain confidence in talking about maths is vital. Building those communication skills is also incredibly beneficial for high attaining pupils. Pupils must be encouraged to talk mathematically in each and every lesson. In our Mathematics Mastery programme, we have taken a radical approach to this by following the research and encouraging discussion in every lesson plan. However, we acknowledge that sometimes by having such open-ended discussions, the gap can widen. To ensure there is a balance and avoid the gap widening, we have built in time for more structured talk that guides pupils to the language expected from them.

    Meaningful maths:

    The objects, pictures, words, and symbols that are used in maths have to have meaning. Pupils need to make connections between these so that the maths they are working on is meaningful to them. For high performing, high attaining pupils, deepening this conceptual understanding is hugely important, i.e., shifting beyond their comfort zone, for example, showing the maths in a different way.

    Thinking mathematically:

    We recognise that this skill is innate from early years where young children want to pattern seek, want to generalise, want to find the answer or find out if there is more than one answer. We support children to develop that ability throughout early years, KS1 and KS2 by integrating rich thinking tasks throughout our Mathematics Mastery lessons.

    Very often, we hear in schools that these three Dimensions of Depth are seen very clearly in early years and KS1 but are perhaps not given the attention they need in KS2. The lesson structure and resources in Mathematics Mastery support teachers to continue this best practice throughout KS2.

    3. Practice is purposeful

    Maths Meetings: 

    We advocate for a deep focused approach, where each maths idea, as well as its maths focus time, has additional coverage in Maths Meetings. For example, the concept of time cannot just be taught in a one-two week unit and needs to be repeated regularly. The Maths Meetings are ideally daily, about ten minutes, separate to the maths lesson. In those sessions, teachers prioritise:

    a) Making sure that number sense is kept on the boil.

    b) Interleaving concepts that need a little and often approach and revisiting these across the year, alongside an effective opportunity to identify common errors or misconceptions and reinforce them regularly.

    c) Providing a bit more focus on fluency rather than reasoning.

    Arithmetic practice:

    In some of our schools, these can start to take the place of Maths Meetings for 1-2 days each week. In other schools, borrowing some time from the maths lesson and homing in on the arithmetic practice is needed.

    Use every moment:

    Some of the fluency practice can be done outside of the maths lesson at other times of the day, such as transitions. For example, skip counting, practising times tables, as they move around the room from tables to carpet and more! Lots of our schools have also begun to use time outside of the classroom: while queueing for lunch, assemblies, etc., and making sure these moments count.

    Successful schools, those that are really making a difference for their pupils, are seeing the high attainment in SATs as a part of an overall high-quality maths education. It isn’t easy to do. The schools that see this success have a willingness to really engage with their own school setting and make a call about how best to faithfully adopt the Mathematics Mastery approach, despite tensions that will present themselves.


    I’m thrilled that we’ve received DfE funding through the Education Endowment Foundation to help more schools across England to join the programme at a heavily discounted rate – just £1110 for Reception and Key Stage 1 (usual price £5550).

    Learn more or book a call with a member of our team to discuss your school’s context and your ambitions for pupils.