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Opinion24th May 2017

Introducing English Mastery – bridging the gap between academic and cultural literacy

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Nick Wallace is the Senior Curriculum and Development Lead for English Mastery and has been with the team and project since its inception. He is an experienced English teacher and a Teach First alumnus.

“Over the past few years, a ‘mastery’ approach has become something of a buzzword in the education sector. There’s a pretty good understanding of what it means in maths (just ask our cousins over at Mathematics Mastery!), but for the past four years, we at Ark have been trying to work out what exactly a mastery curriculum looks like in English.

“During this time, there’s also been an increasing realisation that the first few years of secondary school – Key Stage 3 – weren’t setting students up to succeed with the new, more challenging English GCSEs, nor for studying English at A level and university.

“Which is where English Mastery comes in. It’s a knowledge-based Key Stage 3 curriculum currently being taught in 14 of Ark’s secondary schools by over 100 teachers to over 5000 students.

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“The English Mastery curriculum is fully resourced, with an exhaustive bank of teaching and support materials on every unit, ranging from Oliver Twist to the apostrophe. The curriculum is delivered by schools’ English departments, and we offer them the necessary support to teach with intellectual and pedagogical rigour.

“In our shared curriculum, students consider whether Bill Sikes is an archetypal Victorian villain, examine the events of the Russian Revolution that inspired Orwell to compose Animal Farm, and study A. C. Bradley’s lectures on tragedy to explore how Juliet’s hamartia leads to her infamous demise.

“I can’t remember ever studying grammar at school; it was just something I kind of picked up by reading lots. But crossing our fingers and hoping for the best isn’t enough to get students to learn how to write accurately time after time now and in the future. So, as well as key works of canonical literature, students learn the rules of grammar – gradually, rigorously and explicitly. And they absolutely love it. Visiting a school recently, a group of boys entered the classroom and realised that they had walked into a grammar lesson. “Yes, grammar!” one of the boys whispered under his breath, and there was not a hit of sarcasm or facetiousness in his voice. He truly enjoyed getting writing correct at last.[[{“fid”:”175281″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:”English Mastery”,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:”English Mastery”,”field_tags[und]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“alt”:”English Mastery”,”title”:”English Mastery”,”style”:”width: 270px; margin-left: 5px; margin-right: 5px; float: right; height: 270px;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]

“One of our guiding principles – and one of the key tenets of mastery learning – is that all students can achieve and make progress. We think that this is best achieved by exposing students to the best of what’s been thought and written in order to bridge the huge gap in students’ academic and cultural literacy.

“So far, we’re delighted with the results this shared, knowledge rich curriculum is having on the students across the Ark network. Empirical evidence and our ongoing discussions with teachers and students show that English Mastery is leading to sustained and significant progress across Key Stage 3.

“From a pilot group of seven schools within the Ark network in 2014, we’re currently working with 14 Ark schools this academic year. And from 2017, we’re delighted to welcome four Inspiration Trust schools and five Oasis Community Learning schools into the English Mastery fold. We’ve still got much to learn from our schools, teachers and students, but we’re really excited about what the next phase of the programme is going to bring.

“This is just a snapshot that barely scrapes the surface of what English Mastery is and how it works across our expanding network of schools. Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be sharing of just what we’ve been up to and how you can find out more about the programme. We can’t wait to tell you more.”

If you’d like to find out more about English Mastery, you can follow Nick on Twitter @mrnwallace or email him on