Mastery myths: the inspection challenge

Ofsted has put a fair amount of effort into debunking common myths about inspection. Its response to these, set out on gov.uk [1] and reinforced in the inspection handbook[2], should offer some comfort to schools choosing to adopt teaching for mastery in mathematics.

For example, teachers using textbooks as the basis for lesson planning will be reassured that Ofsted doesn’t require schools to provide individual lesson plans for inspectors and has no set view on how lesson planning should be set out: inspectors are interested in “the effectiveness of planning rather than the form it takes”.

Similarly, schools choosing to adopt more light touch approaches to marking for example, or deciding to place emphasis on lessons for providing feedback, can be comforted that Ofsted “does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback”.

This is not to suggest, however, that there will be no inspection challenges for schools taking a mastery approach to teaching primary mathematics. Mastery in mathematics is radically different from previous practice. It is designed with ‘high achievement; high equity’ in mind, and this entails approaches to teaching, assessment and progress monitoring that are bound to be less well understood by some inspectors than others. This could be a worry for schools.

The answer is for schools to be confident and prepared.

Whole-class teaching that keeps everyone together is a central feature of mastery. A key focus in inspection is the progress of all pupils including ‘the most able’ (Ofsted’s words). Inspectors look for evidence, as stated in the Common Inspection Framework, that pupils “progress well from their different starting points and achieve or exceed standards expected for their age”. Good teaching for mastery stretches and challenges all pupils. Indeed, mastery has far greater potential than traditional teaching practice to satisfy inspectors that all pupils are being challenged and will make excellent progress. But at inspection, this needs to be demonstrated convincingly.

The good news is that Ofsted is strict on a fundamental point: inspectors should be agnostic about methods of planning, teaching and assessment. They shouldn’t bring to bear preferences, preconceptions or biases about these during inspection. This means for example, that if inspectors raise issues about whole class teaching, or flag that primary mathematics teaching should be differentiated to meet the needs of ‘more and less able students’, there are grounds to challenge back, and this includes challenging any use of language that suggests a cap on expectations of certain pupils.

Ofsted guidance says that “It is up to schools themselves to determine their practices and for leadership teams to justify these on their own merits rather than by reference to this inspection handbook”. Schools therefore need to give a good account of the approach they take to planning, teaching and assessment; and, crucially, they must walk the walk and demonstrate that they do this well. If mastery is still a work in progress, they need an account of how they’ll get to this position.

Where inspectors are less au fait with mastery, schools may wish to think about how they educate them on potentially sticky issues – all of which can be responded to confidently. These could include:

  • Some lessons being regarded as too slow and detailed and therefore not challenging enough for pupils, particularly at early stages;
  • How good progress is demonstrated, if not by coverage of curriculum content;
  • How ‘more able’ pupils are stretched and challenged in primary mathematics; and
  • Demonstrating how age-related expectations are met and exceeded.

At risk of falsely suggesting that there are easy answers to these issues (schools need to think them through in context), I’ll share a few thoughts about them.

On the first, studying fundamental concepts in mathematics in some detail at early stages is essential to ensuring strong progress later. Helen Drury’s Mastering Mathematics[3] offers an excellent account in this area. Detail and time spent on central concepts is the key to good progression in the subject. Yes, pupils need to be challenged, but the time spent and details studied are designed precisely to build pupils’ capacity to respond well to later challenges.

On the second issue, I have written previously about how pupil progress is framed within primary mastery[4]. Underpinning the curriculum is a new assumption about this: progress in mathematics is about mastering the subject in depth rather than covering curriculum content in a basic way. Demonstrating that pupils have a depth in their understanding of mathematics isn’t easy, but it can be demonstrated in the classroom through the quality of pupils’ reasoning when answering questions, and in written work via the ability to answer sophisticated and challenging questions.

This of course is closely linked to the issue of stretch and challenge at the top end. Let’s be clear: all pupils should be challenged. How do schools avoid a situation whereby the mastery curriculum and pedagogy, which is designed to achieve ‘high equity’, fails to stretch every pupil? The answer is that teachers need access to a rich set of challenging questions and problems so that, when certain pupils grasp concepts quickly and securely, they have the opportunity to develop and demonstrate further depth.

High quality textbooks set out ‘challenging practice’ or similar – problems that require more complex mathematical reasoning, or demand that pupils make connections between areas of mathematics. All without racing pupils ahead to the next topic. This is part of the answer to the fourth issue too: using such questions is an excellent way for schools to demonstrate that pupils are exceeding age-related expectations, regardless of the order in which curriculum content is covered at each key stage.

Inspection is rarely a breeze for schools, but there is nothing about teaching for mastery that is at odds with what inspectors look for, and every reason that schools using mastery in primary mathematics can represent themselves confidently to inspectors.


Vanessa Pittard was Assistant Director for Curriculum and Standards at the DfE in 2011–2017, where she held responsibility for mathematics education and worked on STEM and literacy policy. Vanessa was central to the development of the Maths Hub programme and worked closely with the NCETM on the introduction of mastery teaching of mathematics in schools. Prior to that, Vanessa led the evidence and research function at Becta, the UK agency for technology in education, and was a subject leader and head of department at Sheffield Hallam University. She now works as an independent consultant.

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[1] School Inspection Handbook – Ofsted inspections: myths. August 2016.

[2] School Inspection Handbook. September 2015.

[3] Mastering Mathematics: Teaching to Transform Achievement, OUP. Drury, H (2015).

[4] Mastery of mathematics myth-busting: pupil progress. May 2017.