Children are leaving school unable to apply maths in their everyday lives, despite exam results improving significantly over the past decade, Ofsted has judged.
Pupils are drilled to pass tests instead of gaining a proper understanding of the subject. Overall, one in 10 lessons in secondary schools is sub- standard, inspectors said. And the approach to teaching needs to be overhauled so that pupils gain practical skills as well as good test scores. The inspectors' report was based on visits almost to 200 primaries and secondaries.
Christine Gilbert, the 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.
"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."
It is Ms Gilbert's latest broadside against the impact of the testing regime on standards of teaching. In July she said that the phenomenon of teaching to the test was becoming increasingly widespread.
In the latest report - Mathematics: Understanding The Score - teaching was found to be good or better in only just over half of the lessons surveyed. A further two in five lessons were only satisfactory.
Secondaries performed worse than primaries, with inadequate support for recently qualified and non-specialist teachers.
"Many secondaries schools face significant challenges in finding good mathematics teachers," the report said. "Pupils' progress was inadequate in nearly 10 per cent of secondary mathematics lessons."
Bright children are not always properly challenged, and although pupils want to do well in the subject, they were "rarely excited by it", inspectors said. In primaries, subject knowledge was a weakness.
There have been "significant rises" in standards in maths over the past 10 years, the inspectors said. But improvements in test scores have been gained by teaching to the test and excessive intervention.
Jennie Golding, chair of the teaching committee at the Mathematical Association and head of maths at Woodroffe School in Dorset, said: "There are pockets of schools where there is good maths education, but the pressures of high-stakes testing are enormous.
"We could do more to say why it's working well in some places and support other colleagues in using that best practice."
Inspectors also want schools to widen the appeal of maths. At A-level, it mainly attracts the brightest pupils and more boys than girls.
From 2010, functional skills tests will be introduced in maths - as well as English and ICT - designed to assess pupils' understanding of core concepts.
The findings of the Ofsted survey contributed to the Williams Review into primary maths, published in June this year. Ministers have backed its main finding which said that all primaries should have a specialist maths teacher, who could be paid an extra Pounds 8,000 over five years by undergoing training at annual summer schools.