'Misleading messages' about maths in Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings report, says academic

The principal lecturer in mathematics education at the University of Roehampton has sent an open letter to Ofsted, criticising the maths content of its recent report into the Reception year curriculum

Sue Gifford

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Ofsted’s report on the English reception curriculum recommends that “the DfE should.., raise the profile of early mathematics teaching” and that “primary schools should...devote sufficient time each day to the direct teaching...of mathematics”.

The report clearly makes the case for the importance of teaching early mathematics and of not leaving it to chance.

Ofsted identifies the great lack of investment in professional development for mathematics compared to literacy, as well as the need to review the curriculum and provide support for teachers. 

However, there are some misleading messages.

Maths curriculum misalignment?

While the report emphasises practical and playful activities for teaching mathematics to four- and five-year-olds, it places a lot of emphasis on progressing to the Year 1 curriculum. The accepted priority for early years teachers internationally is to make sure that all children, and particularly those who are disadvantaged, acquire foundational number skills and understanding.

There is a danger in emphasising the raised expectations in Year 1 in England: this risks rushing children on, with only shaky foundations, which can be counterproductive.

"Aligning" with the National Curriculum for Year 1 should not imply following the Y1 curriculum, some of which is highly unlikely even for 6-year-olds: eg, solving equations such as 7 = ? – 9 and using number bonds to 20 (DfE, 2013, p7).

Thankfully, the aspects recommended in the report are endorsed by research to predict later achievement: ie, children’s fluency in counting, recognising small numbers of items, comparing numbers and solving problems, and these should enable children to start school confidently while providing opportunities for challenge.

The government has announced it will review the Early Learning Goals in its response to its assessment consultation and these should be key elements for number.

A mix of approaches

Teaching early number need not mean endangering children’s right to play: "direct teaching" need not mean formal teaching.  We know from research that effective teaching strategies for very young children can include frequent opportunities for children to practice and consolidate their skills in daily routines, such as sharing snacks and tidying up, in stories and rhymes and in playing games indoors and out.

Young children are also capable of discussing problems set in stories and using their knowledge in creative solutions.

Direct teaching may be necessary, but effective early mathematics teaching strategies are playful, not formal, so that all children become cheerful, not fearful, mathematicians.

Teachers need support in learning about very young children’s likely mathematical learning trajectories and associated pedagogy. High-quality resources are needed that offer structures and examples.

Need for development

However, it is unfortunate that the report’s recommendation endorses ‘schemes and resources’, implying potential dependence on commercially produced materials.

Given the need identified for professional development in early mathematics, government investment is clearly required for some serious professional education, which empowers teachers to assess, evaluate and plan as they observe children’s responses. Commercial schemes alone will not do this.

This leads to another misleading point about assessment: there is an emphasis on assessing children’s work rather than on observation. Perhaps the authors wished to argue against the kind of assessment through observation that involves waiting for children to spontaneously apply their understanding, and because of the conflation of mathematics with literacy, have emphasised written work.

However, these comments are unhelpful. For young children, mathematical understanding is rarely accessible through written work and is best observed in what children do and say in response to certain situations, such as deliberate mistakes made by puppets.

It is highly misleading to imply that four- and five-year-olds must be given written work for assessment purposes in mathematics.

Appeal for guidance

There is a welcome recommendation to review and update the guidance for inspectors about evaluating the quality of early years provision in reception, including the teaching of numbers.

However, this needs to focus on teachers’ familiarity with early learning trajectories and teaching strategies, and on the provision of professional development for not only teachers but also senior leaders in order to support this.

It is to be hoped that this report will swiftly be followed by guidance for teachers and Ofsted inspectors that focuses on ensuring foundational priorities for all children, using age-appropriate teaching strategies. This needs to be accompanied by long-overdue investment in professional development for early years teachers in mathematics throughout the Foundation Stage and for senior leaders in schools.

Sue Gifford is principal lecturer in mathematics education at the University of Roehampton 

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Sue Gifford

Sue Gifford is principal lecturer in mathematics education at the University of Roehampton 

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