King Solomon Academy visit. Mastery-based learning in action

On 13th December 2013 I was fortunate enough to visit King Solomon Academy in Central London. This small school has been cited by the Education Secretary as a contemporary model of excellence and when their first year 11 cohort sit their GCSEs this summer the results will support the claim. How are they doing it? I went on a visit to find out.

Their secret recipe is reassuringly simple:

  1. Culture of genuine high expectations and academic excellence. No child slips through the net. Do whatever it takes. No excuses tolerated by pupils, parents or the school.
  2. Manageable, efficient systems that create perfect behaviour for learning.
  3. High quality teaching based on research findings of what is effective, not what is fashionable. Working Memory considerations are built into lessons and schemes of work. A mastery-based curriculum is used.

Mastery-based learning is reasonably uncommon in UK schools and perhaps the only thing I saw that was revolutionary. However, without the behaviour for learning sorted, it would be no more effective than a conventional high-pace, spiral curriculum. A cake does not taste good unless all the ingredients are blended in proportional harmony.

Strategy does not change anything; policies and systems do. Here’s a summary of the key policies that are in place at KSA:

School ethos

The school’s aim is to get every child to the university of their choice. It is a culture that is truly embedded. Classes are named after universities rather than numbers. Traditional academic study is the focus. Every child learns a musical instrument in years 7, 8 and 9. Motivational messages such as “work hard, change history” and “100% every day” line the corridors. Year groups are referred to as “the class of 2018″ rather than “year 9″. Behaviour for learning is the core of every policy; lunch is served by a child to their peers at each table and at the end of the meal the pupils wipe down the tables.

The pupils receive seven, one-hour lessons a day. The school day runs 7:45am-4pm.

The culture

The culture

Pedagogy, working memory and mastery learning

The progress of pupils in KSA is remarkable. They gave me free reign of the school for 30 mins saying I could go to any classroom I liked. I saw their bottom set 11s who had come in KS2 level 2 and 3 with varying SEN. In the recent mock, this class they had achieved Bs, Cs and a D.  The mastery-based curriculum was introduced when the current year 10 cohort started KSA and they are already on par with the current year 11s, having made more rapid progress.

Pupils generally receive 7 hours of maths lessons per week (and 7 hours of English). This tails off to 5 hours per week in upper school for the higher attainers, but remains 7 hours for the lower and mid ability. The Head explained his view that getting pupils numerate and literate early paid off in them making more rapid progress in the humanities when they picked them up in year 9.

More time in core subjects isn’t the only ingredient to their success. What was happening in lessons was effective too. They view their maths curriculum as a single 5 year course and design it as such. They spend a whole half term on topics and have a number-heavy year 7 curriculum. They don’t introduce algebra until the end of year 7 as they argue kids younger than this struggle with the abstract nature of it due to their brain development. The emphasis is on depth of understanding, not breadth in years 7-9. The first lesson of each term is a ‘pre-learning test’ so the teachers find out what the kids already know and the final lesson is a ‘post-learning test’ to assess progress and inform interventions. If a child hasn’t learned something they come back for intervention.

Kris Boulton is a name to watch out for. He is their 2nd in maths and an expert in Working Memory. He is going to publish a book in the future on this topic. We received a 90 minute talk by Kris about what research tells us is effective pedagogy in teaching maths to minimise cognitive load on pupils. This is the reason bottom set year 11s at KSA were able to learn B and C grade topics; it was the way it was taught to minimise their cognitive load and for them to remember it.

After a series of exercises where we calculated the extent of our own working memory and learned what it feels like to be in cognitive overload, Kris went on to share academic and action-based research with us about how to teach maths in a way that reduces cognitive load as far as possible. In short, explicit instruction of a high standard is the way forward. Self-directed and discovery-based learning are strategies that increase cognitive load and have been shown to be worse than explicit instruction from a memory retention (and a learning) perspective. The mastery curriculum supports minimising cognitive load as fewer concepts are taught over any period of time. Go deep, once is his message and focus on skills only in years 7-9 and don’t move on until they can solve questions with automaticity, system 1 thinking. Although they may forget things, they come back a lot quicker is his argument avoiding the need for complete reteaching. You never forget how to ride a bike… They design their curriculum with interleaving, which means that topics are ordered to ensure previous skills are relearned. For example, if they studied fractions last term and are now studying perimeter, they make sure they put in perimeter questions where some of the lengths are fractions…

Further strategic decisions resulting from their working memory philosophy includes the application of “The Law of Disuse”. This is based on research findings that recall, not utilisation builds memory storage strength. Getting pupils to practice 1 or 100 angle fact questions makes them no better at remembering angle facts. Giving them an activity like matching pairs where they have to recall the angle facts, or categorise them is what makes pupils able to remember them. That’s not to say that pupils at KSA are not doing lots of time on questions. Bruno Reddy, Head of Maths ( explained that teachers help pupils to face a range of problem types from AO1-style questions (carefully atomised and sequenced for a given topic) to AO3 questions and rich tasks. I was so pleased to hear this. The point Kris was making was that if you don’t do the recall activities too, all that time on practise is not as effective as it could be. There is a difference between memory storage strength and retrieval strength and you need to do activities that address both.

They structure the curriculum to have minimally-different-concepts separate. For example, mean, median and mode are taught at different times during the course. Area is taught with multiplication, perimeter is taught when they study addition. By keeping area and perimeter in separate terms and linked to the topics that they are closely related to the kids don’t confuse them.

Minimally different concepts are kept separate, but minimally-different-examples are common. Kris demonstrated how progression in commonly used textbooks and electronic resources is too rapid and unsystematic resulting in cognitive overload. He showed us examples of in-house designed worksheets that focus on making questions minimally different, particularly during the very early stages of pupils learning a topic. It is important teachers do this during explaining new topics.

I saw an excellent reverse percentages lesson with a mid ability class taught entirely through diagrams, similar to the concrete-visual-abstract Singapore Maths approach that I have been researching and using in my own teaching recently, with a plenary where pupils could successfully take what they had learned to solve an abstract exam question.

Singapore maths diagrammatic approach to reverse percentages

Singapore maths diagrammatic approach to reverse percentages

He gave other advice for reducing cognitive load on harder topics so as to make them accessible to lower ability pupils. For example, getting pupils to write their workings on the diagrams in angle fact questions so they don’t have to map their workings below the diagram onto it in their mind, freeing up working memory to concentrate on the problem.

They have come to the same conclusion as myself, that timestables and four operation mental arithmetic is key and must be automatic before we even try to teach pupils the secondary curriculum. They audit every year 7 and do timestable exercises and monitoring/ intervention everyday, using Times Tables Rock Stars, a programme they developed in-house four years ago (


The engagement in lessons and the progress those children are making is a league above most schools. I never thought I’d see a school in current times where kids transition so efficiently across the school and served each other lunch. The kids took pride in all being successful learners and all had a life plan. The staff said it was the most rewarding school they’d ever worked in because of the progress all abilities of kids made.

Depth-before-breadth needs more curriculum time to work well. I feel surer than ever that mastery-based learning is the way forward. Kris Boulton’s work should be followed closely in the future. We do need to focus on mental numeracy with our year 7s and ensure no kid slips through the net otherwise they’re in for four more years of cognitive overload.

I’d never seen a school where the pupils work as hard as the staff. It’s getting results. No shortcuts is the message I left with. Hard work by all, perfect behaviour for learning, no excuses and making learning deep before building off of it is their winning formula.

A very effective school with much we can learn from. Wonderful.

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6 Responses

  1. Imran says:

    Sorry to sound negative but there are other elements at play that have been overlooked, namely, budget for their maths dept, qualified staff, number of hours afforded to maths- how much money has been pumped into this school? This is not a miracle but an experiment.

  2. mrsoclee says:

    That sounds like a fantastic experience in a fantastic school! Hopefully we can all learn something.

  3. Really good read and great to pick up some excellent ideas. Sounds like a fantastic place to work and teach.

  4. Horsham Tiger says:

    I really like the ideas in here, but if all lower ability students were given 7 hours a week for 5 years you would see a massive jump in results across the country.
    Currently we have 200 minutes a week compared to KSA 420 minutes a week. This works out to be 715 extra hours of maths teaching in the secondary school.

    Our more able students would only get a mere extra 559 hours of teaching.

    Kris and KSA have excellent ideas etc but the extra hours must make a huge difference to any research findings.

    • I couldn’t agree more. More time spent doing the right things seems to make all the difference. KSA certainly combine the two. If you can’t get the extra time, there’s a limit to what can be achieved…

  1. 20/01/2015

    […] became interested in the role of memory in maths education following a visit to King Solomon Academy where I met Kris Boulton. I learned about how this school, and it’s maths department under the […]

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