The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

Aftermath: What followed the Ofsted maths review

The Ofsted research review on mathematics proved controversial when it was published in 2021. Elizabeth Holmes examines some of the responses and describes the direction of the ongoing discussion.

Every now and then, the relative peace of the world of education, such as it is, is shattered by a new policy, edict or report. The Ofsted research review on mathematics, published in May 2021, was just such a moment.

After triggering immense consternation from a wide range of experts on the teaching of maths, it is fair to say that this Ofsted report was not at all well received in specialist circles.

The context for the debate

This review is part of Ofsted’s series of curriculum research reviews, which form part of its approach to reducing gaps in attainment. The maths review, however, has been so strongly criticised that there were calls for its immediate withdrawal, as a result of fears that it was so disconnected from current research and evidence that it could lead to poor teaching in the subject.

Many felt that the apparent focus on the memorisation of facts and then application exercises would not be an effective way of teaching maths, and that the plentiful research on the teaching of maths would not be fully utilised if the review was to be followed.

Strong criticism and anger were not uncommon

Interestingly, the review highlights in its ‘context’ section that ‘England performs well in mathematics compared with other countries, and mathematics continues to be the most popular subject to study at A Level’.

So the subject is doing well. However, Ofsted felt that ‘despite English pupils achieving, on average, higher attainment than pupils in many other countries, the attainment gap between low and high achievers in England is wide.’

The review sought to highlight ‘how we might prevent struggling pupils from falling further behind their peers’ as well as to shine a light on approaches that ‘could raise the attainment of all pupils still further’. 

Responses to the review

Yet the review was poorly received. To get some idea about how badly it scored among maths experts, it is worth taking a look at some of the responses to it on Twitter (search for ‘Ofsted maths review’).

There are tweets referring to the apparent misrepresentation of research, and the observation that the review does not conform with typical university protocols for literature or research reviews. Strong criticism and anger were not uncommon.

One significant response to the review came from the Association of Teachers of Mathematics and the Mathematical Association. Their ‘Practical Guide for the Classroom Practitioner’ focuses on each of the main points in the Ofsted review, stating that maths is a creative and interconnected discipline but that it is ‘often misinterpreted as having a narrow, arithmetic focus’.

Have systematic plans to build models of instruction and rehearsal over time

Both associations uphold the current National Curriculum (NC) aims of fluency (conceptual understanding), reasoning (following a line of enquiry, conjecturing relationships and generalisations, developing an argument, justification of proof using mathematical language) and problem solving (non-routine problems)'.

The response explains that ‘one of the purposes of this document is to remind practitioners of the importance of these aims in interpreting the Ofsted research review.’

The guide is written to support interpretations that teachers on the ground may develop. The writers engaged with the content of the review and ‘considered how the recommendations might translate into positive mathematical experiences for early-years and primary-aged children’.

Their aim was to stimulate thinking by educators and leaders about, ‘the nature of mathematics learning and teaching in their settings’. They hoped, too, that it might ‘act as a springboard for further practitioner research’.

A further ATM response

The Association of Teachers of Mathematics also produced a document entitled ‘How research findings can be used to inform educational practice and what can go wrong: The Ofsted Mathematics Research Review 2021'.

This concludes by saying that ‘we strongly caution teachers and school leaders against putting weight on the recommendations for practice based on any poor or biased review of research, such as the Ofsted 2021 review.’ Harsh words indeed.

Practitioner perpectives

Dr Helen J Williams, a primary and early years maths learning and teaching expert, highlights the many issues with the review including the fact that it ‘completely ignores reasoning and misrepresents problem solving (one of the three main strands of NC) as word problems.’

Dr Williams also points out that the review ‘oversimplifies to the point of the inane the complexities of the causes of and solutions for maths anxiety’.

Assistant headteacher Marc Hayes has highlighted some of the key implications for school leaders to emerge from the maths review. Hayes acknowledges that ‘there is significant disagreement by EYFS and maths specialists and academics with some of the report’s conclusions. The report makes these based on the studies the authors have considered, which might contradict findings from other research and theories, and with people’s experience within the field of EYFS and maths education.’

With that in mind, Hayes suggests that the report has implications that leaders should be aware of:

  1. Be ambitious and expect all pupils to be successful.
  2. Ensure sufficient, dedicated time for maths.
  3. Ensure that bookwork is of a high quality.
  4. Methods and presentation rules should be taught explicitly to all learners.
  5. Problem solving needs to be taught explicitly to all learners.
  6. Support novice teachers to teach maths effectively by providing robust support. Do not leave them to develop their own ways of teaching from scratch.
  7. Have systematic plans to build models of instruction and rehearsal over time.
  8. Teachers across phases benefit from renewing and improving their subject knowledge.

The discussion continues

In short, the overwhelming concern by many experts in the field of mathematics teaching was that the Ofsted Maths Review could lead to poorer teaching of maths.

In the context of the global pandemic that we are all still attempting to navigate, and the immense disruption this is continuing to cause to education, it is understandable that many feel that the teaching of maths needs a review that is not found wanting.

In the meantime, the maths community continues to discuss, debate and carve a path forward that helps to ensure every child has a chance of success in maths.

So what is mathematics?

For a perspective beyond the restricted view of mathematics currently being portrayed within the media and in state-funded communications, register for an online discussion on Wednesday 9 February, organised by Maths is More.

Speakers will offer a broader and richer view of both the subject and research-informed ways it can be taught.


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