Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted)
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Maths doesn’t add up for thousands of children, reports Ofsted

Pupils should be taught to make sense of mathematics - so that they can use it confidently in their everyday lives and are prepared for further study and the world of work - according to a new report by Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills.

The report, ‘Mathematics: Understanding the score’, reveals that there has been a steady improvement in test and examination results, and mathematics is good in around half of schools. In the best schools, mathematics is much more than routine learning of methods, rules and facts.

However, many schools - particularly secondary - are not teaching mathematics well enough because they place too much emphasis on routine exercises and on ‘teaching to the test’. While this style of teaching prepares pupils to pass examinations, and gain necessary qualifications, it is less effective in promoting the required understanding to apply mathematics to new situations, solve problems and communicate solutions.

The report contains examples of high-quality teaching, so that schools can learn from the best available practice. It also highlights the need to shift from a narrow emphasis on disparate skills towards a focus on pupils’ mathematical understanding. Teachers need encouragement to invest in such approaches to teaching, adds the report.

Christine Gilbert, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector said:

“Too many schools are not teaching mathematics well enough. The way mathematics is taught can make a huge difference to the level of enthusiasm and interest for the subject. As well as developing fluent numeracy skills to deal with everyday mathematics, children and young people need to be able to think mathematically, model, analyse and reason.

Mathematics has so much relevance to our everyday lives – for example, younger children learn about number systems and their use in money, weights and measures and time”

Teaching was good or better in just over half the lessons surveyed and satisfactory in around two in five. According to the report, teaching and learning, the curriculum, and leadership and management are all stronger in primary schools than in secondary schools. Primary teachers’ strength was in their knowledge of the needs of individual pupils although in some schools their subject knowledge was weak. Many secondary schools face significant challenges in finding good mathematics teachers. Pupils’ progress was inadequate in nearly 10% of secondary mathematics lessons.

The report shows that effective mathematics teaching is characterised by good subject knowledge and understanding of the ways in which pupils learn mathematics. It highlights the main areas for improvement explored in the report - the subject knowledge of primary and non-specialist teachers, the pedagogical skills of secondary teachers, and the recruitment of suitably qualified staff, particularly subject leaders.

Christine adds:

“We all benefit from the advanced mathematics that underpins our technological world. We need children to be equipped to use mathematics with confidence in and beyond the classroom to play their part in a rapidly changing society. And we need more of them to reach the highest levels - these are the mathematicians heading for future careers as scientists, designers, engineers and statisticians, to name but a few.”


Ofsted’s recommendations are:

The Department for Children, Schools and Families and the National Strategies should: promote the improvement of teachers’ subject expertise, providing guidance for schools and teachers, and find ways of giving it recognition; enhance the role of subject leader in primary schools and help secondary schools with appointing and developing subject leaders; and reintroduce separate reporting of pupils’ attainment in ‘using and applying mathematics’.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority should: ensure current and future developments in external assessment place increased emphasis on pupils’ understanding of mathematics and avoid forms of assessment that fragment the mathematics curriculum.

Training providers and the Training and Development Agency for Schools should: ensure initial teacher education courses for all teachers of mathematics include relevant enhancement of subject knowledge and key mathematical concepts.

The National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics should: further develop diagnostic tools for teachers’ self-assessment of subject knowledge. Work with other partners to ensure all teachers of mathematics have access to training on subject-specific pedagogy and improve opportunities for networking to share good practice.

Schools should: improve subject leaders’ expertise so that they are well placed to lead improvements in the teaching and learning of mathematics and the curriculum; encourage teachers to focus more on developing pupils’ understanding and on checking it throughout lessons, ensuring pupils have a wide range of opportunities to use and apply mathematics; identify and tackle underlying weaknesses in teaching, providing well targeted professional development; and take pupils’ views on learning mathematics into account.

Primary schools should also: provide greater depth and challenge in lessons for the higher-attaining pupils.

Secondary schools should also: make use of flexibilities in pay and incentives to help mathematics departments; enhance schemes of work; and improve pupils’ use of ICT as a tool for learning mathematics.

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Notes for Editors

1. Mathematics: Understanding the score can be found on the Ofsted website

2. The report is based on evidence from inspections of mathematics between April 2005 and December 2007 in 192 maintained schools in England.

3. It also draws on evidence from routine school inspections from September 2005 to July 2007; from visits relating to the evaluation of the National Strategies during the same period; from Ofsted’s previous reports and from discussions with teachers and others.

4. Further sources of evidence include the annual reports of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector for the three years from 2004 to 2007 and other reports published by Ofsted including Evaluating mathematics provision for 14-19 year olds.

5. The evidence was also informed by discussions with those involved in mathematics education, including teachers and pupils, subject leaders and senior staff in schools, academics, policy makers and others within the wider mathematics community.

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