• From the Director

Reflections on the Ofsted maths subject report

Charlie Stripp shares his thoughts on ‘Coordinating mathematical success’

Reflections on the Ofsted maths subject report
  • Published: 27/10/2023

Since the publication in July 2023 of Ofsted’s Coordinating mathematical success report, I’ve been thinking about how best to use its findings to inform our work to improve maths education in England.

Ofsted, the NCETM, the Maths Hubs, schools and individual teachers of maths share a common goal to improve maths education. Evidence from the Ofsted report provides everyone involved in maths education with valuable insights into how maths is currently being taught in schools that we can use to help inform improvements.

The report is positive, and I’m reassured that it cites the value of the work of the NCETM and the Maths Hubs. 

It highlights improvements in both primary schools:

“In the last few years, a resounding, positive shift in mathematics education has taken place in primary schools.”

and secondary schools:

“Notable improvements have taken place in mathematics education in recent years. Widespread weaknesses identified at the time of Ofsted’s last mathematics subject report, around deficiencies in curriculum guidance and weaknesses in ongoing professional development for staff, are now much less likely to be evident in schools.”

It’s encouraging that successes have been identified, but the report also highlights important deficiencies and challenges, including:

“Recruiting and retaining high-quality, specialist maths teachers is a challenge for many schools.”

“Pupil practice is sometimes limited in quality and quantity in both primary and secondary schools.”

“The teaching of disparate skills to enable pupils to pass examinations but not equip them for the next stage of education, work and life, and weaknesses in the teaching of mathematical problem solving, remain areas of weakness across many schools.”

I was particularly struck that Ofsted recognised that focusing excessively on preparing pupils for external assessments is damaging to the quality of maths education that pupils receive.

For primary schools they highlight: 

“Accountability measures and wide spreads of attainment tend to influence leaders’ decision making and resource allocation for Year 6 cohorts. Allocating additional resources to year 6 leaves leaders with fewer resources to invest in pupils’ earlier education. Further, a goal of true proficiency is superseded by ‘age related expectations’ which roughly equates to 50% accuracy in end of key stage tests. As a result, many pupils aren’t as prepared for the rigours of secondary education as they could be.” 

and in secondary schools they mention this issue several times, including:

“A high quality of education leads to strong pupil outcomes, but this is not necessarily true in reverse. Strong exam outcomes do not, necessarily, indicate a high-quality mathematics education because, in some schools, pupils are taught a narrowed curriculum that allows them to be successful in exams without securing the mathematical knowledge they need to be successful later. These decisions are made because leaders and teachers are acutely aware of the impact of pupils achieving certain threshold grades in terms of post-16 opportunities, and implications for school accountability.”

As I said in my previous blog post, exam success is a side effect of good education, not its purpose. I’m delighted that Ofsted’s maths report acknowledges this. Too strong a focus on external assessment distorts and damages learning. It results in pupils thinking that the reason for learning maths is to pass maths exams, which is demotivating for both pupils and teachers. The ideal solution would be to have external assessments that were able to genuinely capture the quality of maths education, but that’s probably wishing for the impossible. The key message is this: Teach the maths well and exam success will follow!

The teaching for mastery pedagogy encouraged by the NCETM and the Maths Hubs is fully consistent with the recommendations of the Ofsted report. Through the NCETM and the Maths Hubs, we want to support schools to address the weaknesses identified by the report. To that end, over the coming months, the NCETM team and the Maths Hubs will be working together to identify key themes for improvement from the report and develop guidance on how schools might address them. Initial thoughts on themes include ‘problem solving’, ‘practice’ and ‘looking forwards and backwards to ensure curriculum coherence’.

One crucial recommendation from the report we are already working to address is that secondary schools should:

“…make sure that non-specialist teachers receive the necessary professional development, including subject knowledge and subject specific pedagogical knowledge, to teach mathematics effectively.”

The NCETM’s Specialist Knowledge for Teaching Mathematics – Non-Specialist Teachers Programme is aimed at teachers who did not train in secondary maths. It has already proved very effective and offers secondary schools an ideal route to address this recommendation.

By focusing on addressing weaknesses identified in the report, we can build from the progress we have already made. By teaching maths well, we can help pupils to learn the maths they need for the next stage of their education, for work, and for life. They can enjoy learning maths and appreciate its value, AND succeed in their exams.

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