Maths education in English schools is “broadly” more positive than it was a decade ago, but recruitment is impacting provision, Ofsted has said.
The findings are included within a new subject report looking at the strengths and weaknesses of how maths is taught in school.
The maths document draws on Ofsted’s 2021 maths research review and finds leaders prioritise adopting high-quality curriculums in the subject.
Findings come from 50 research visits to schools between September 2021 and November 2022.
Chief inspector Amanda Spielman said “the picture for maths education in England has continued to improve”. But the report added there are still some areas in need of improvement.
1. ‘Resounding’ shift in primary maths …
It said the curriculum was “at the heart” of leaders’ decisions and actions, with greater collaborative support for teachers and a focus on the teaching of the subject.
But there were “some deficiencies” in the quality and quantity of practice that pupils undertake, with gaps often centred around addition facts.
The watchdog added that such early gaps in knowledge may not become obvious “until a significant amount of time has elapsed”, leading to issues with their ability to access the curriculum “later”.
Leaders also tended to allocate additional resources to year 6, due to accountability measures and “wide spreads of attainment”. But this meant fewer resources to invest in pupils’ earlier education.
2. … and ‘notable’ improvements at secondary
In its 2012 report, Ofsted identified “widespread” weaknesses at secondary including deficiencies in curriculum guidance and ongoing professional development for staff.
These were now “much less likely to be evident” in schools, but other weaknesses identified 11 years ago continued to “limit pupils’ learning”.
This included a lack of curriculum planning to ensure pupils had practice solving mathematical problems, which was an area of weakness “across many schools”.
Curriculum planning around the teaching of facts and methods was “usually strong”, but was weaker where it took less account of what pupils had learned previously and what they will study later.
3. But schools struggle with recruitment
The report acknowledges a “challenge” for many schools in recruiting and retaining specialist maths teachers.
All schools had some classes split between two or more teachers, either due to timetabling constraints or to make sure no classes were taught entirely by non-specialists.
But some schools did not “take steps to develop the subject knowledge and subject specific pedagogical knowledge” of less experienced and non-expert teachers. This led to “a weaker mathematics education” for pupils.
Meanwhile, Ofsted also witnessed “misconceptions being introduced by teachers”. Errors usually occurred in lessons taught by less experienced or non-specialist teachers, who lacked subject knowledge when responding to pupils’ questions.
Ofsted recommends non-specialists receive the “necessary” professional development “to teach maths effectively”.
4. ‘Strong’ exam results don’t always reflect ‘high quality’ maths
The watchdog found that strong exam outcomes did not “necessarily” indicate a “high-quality” maths education because in some schools, “pupils are taught a narrowed curriculum”.
This “allows them to be successful in exams without securing the mathematical knowledge they need to be successful later”.
It also noted that some schools’ focuses shifted from identifying pupil needs to exam preparation towards the end of primary and secondary phases.
“The need for significant ‘last-minute’ intervention in some schools suggests deficiencies in the curriculum, teaching or rehearsal earlier on in pupils’ mathematical education,” it said.
5. Schools make ‘good use’ of maths hubs
Leaders were said to “make good use of support and resources” from government-funded maths hubs, the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) and commercial providers.
Many teachers “receive high quality, subject-specific” continual development, while the training could reduce schools’ “vulnerability to quick-fix approaches or unevidenced ‘fads’,” said Ofsted.
Ofsted said professional development, alongside high-quality curriculums, “appeared to be the key driver” of improvements to maths education.
6. Teaching assistants should understand curriculum
Schools where maths provision was the “strongest” ensured that other adults working with pupils, such as teaching assistants and tutors, “understand the curriculum and its implementation”.
TAs who worked directly with pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) were “most successful” in supporting their development where they had a “secure” knowledge of the maths curriculum and pedagogical approaches being used by the teacher.
Ofsted recommended all schools should provide continuing professional development (CPD) for teaching assistants, and other adults working with pupils.
7. More ‘appropriate’ to set tiers in year 11
The watchdog found most schools made decisions about GCSE entry tiers based on levels of attainment at the end of year 9 rather than “more appropriately in year 11”.
It said early decisions, which determine the curriculum pathway for key stage 4 pupils, “limits the mathematics that some pupils learn”.
Ofsted encouraged the Department for Education (DfE), Ofqual and awarding bodies to “explore” if the current design of the maths GCSE, including tiers of entry, contributed to “practices in schools that are not in pupils’ best interests”.
8. Teaching moving too quickly
In all schools visited by Ofsted, leaders said teachers routinely made sure pupils had “securely” learned conceptual knowledge before starting new learning that built on it.
“However, this assertion was consistently accurate in very few of the schools visited,” the report said.
It added that in just under half of schools visited, teachers’ focus was on covering the curriculum, rather than on securing learning.
This was despite the maths national curriculum underlining that decisions about progression should be based on “the security of pupils’ understanding”.
“Moving on when pupils are not mathematically ready gives the illusion of progress but creates ever greater gaps that will take more time to address in the future,” said Ofsted.
9. Tutors sometimes have ‘limited success’
Among secondaries, several schools said external tutors had “limited success” with their pupils.
This was because the tutors’ work “was not always aligned with the school’s curriculum thinking”.
Schools had instead been more successful through employing tutors directly or “spending time” to ensure external tutors understood and applied their maths curriculum.