An inspector calls – advice for leaders of mathematics

    Published: 12 July 2017

    Nicola Randall is a Primary Maths Adviser at Herts for Learning.  Here she sets out her advice for core subject leaders in surviving Ofsted inspections. 

    All subject leaders know the anxiety caused by waiting for that call, looking for the tell-tale signs: the headteacher’s door closed with a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on, the mysterious and impromptu staff meeting to be held after school and the rushing around of office staff trying to get paperwork out to parents. I haven’t met anyone who enjoys an inspection, but in my experience, subject leaders tend to fall into 2 camps: those who feel the fear and those who say ‘bring it on!’

    I am intrigued by the ‘bring it on’ subject leaders, mostly because it tends to be this camp that fare better during the inspection. So what is it that makes them successful during inspection? What is it that inspectors look for in a subject leader of maths or English? To answer this question, I have been reading a LOT of recent Ofsted reports from Hertfordshire, scanning for positive comments related to subject leaders of core subjects. And this is a summary of what I have found.

    1. ‘Leaders and governors hold accurate views about the strengths of the school and remaining areas for development. They ensure that all improvement work is focused on these areas’, ‘School leaders have worked with passion and skill to bring about improvements in the school’

    First and foremost, the key focus is always on teaching and learning. Sounds obvious but schools are busy places and even busier for a senior leader. It may be that your attentions are diverted to managerial elements, meeting with parents or securing funding for the new toilet block. All of this is important, but schools are ultimately there to educate pupils, so that must be your priority. Kirsten Snook, my fellow English Adviser, has some helpful tips about prioritising workload in her recent blog ‘Ten Top Tips for Core Subject Leaders’.

    2.  The school’s other leaders share the headteacher’s vision and are equally committed to achieving it’, ‘They share a sense of purpose and a clear vision’

    Team work makes dreams work! Many reports allude to the leadership team and the consistency of their messages to staff. Although subject leaders need to demonstrate their individual impact on their subject, their successes are only one cog of the whole-school machine.

    3. ‘They continuously drive improvements to the quality of teaching and pupils’ progress’

    Progress! Progress! Progress! This appears in every single Ofsted report, whether it be Outstanding or Inadequate. But I am trying to find out what works. Successful subject leaders use data to identify pupils at risk of not making expected progress; they have a firm grasp on progress across the school and know the strengths and areas for development; they refer to a range of evidence when monitoring progress across the school and everything should match up. Pupil’s books, summative data, observations of learning and pupil voice all provide the leader with a view of maths progress across the school.

    4. ‘Subject leaders demonstrate good knowledge and understanding in their subjects’

    Knowledge of the subject is a comment that is occurring more often in Ofsted reports and is closely linked with how this knowledge is applied to support others in their teaching. Monitoring is for checking, support is how staff develop. So what actions have you put in place for this to happen beyond a staff meeting (which we all know are limited in their impact)? Consider joint planning with teachers, team teaching, lesson study or other opportunities for collaborative working.

    5. ‘Subject leaders have a clear understanding of their responsibilities and undertake them effectively’, ‘They visit lessons frequently, look at pupils’ work and meet regularly with teachers.’

    In order for the points made above to be possible, subject leaders must draw upon a wide range of evidence when evaluating the teaching of maths and English across the school. Systems and procedures are in place for systematic monitoring but many reports mention more ad-hoc forms of monitoring, on a more regular basis. For example, it may be more effective for you to look at 3 pupil books for 1 class each week, reacting swiftly to the findings, rather than a monster-trawl of all books across the school at the end of the term.

    6. ‘Leaders make effective use of pupil premium funding so that disadvantaged pupils make similar progress to that of other pupils nationally and within school’

    All pupils deserve to be successful and gain a good education, regardless of background, ethnicity or religion. The pupil premium funding is not about making disadvantaged pupils different to others – it is about providing opportunity for them to have the same chances as anyone else. Successful subject leaders know their pupils well and champion their achievement. It is crucial that these pupils are not an add-on at the end of a data analysis, but a key priority when discussing whole school data as well as class-level data. If you don’t know your school gap between pupil premium and non-pupil premium, find out. Sharpish.

    7. ‘Leaders and governors actively seek advice from high-performing schools, as well as from advisers within the local authority and the diocese’

    Reports for Good and Outstanding Schools almost always refer to some form of external advice. After all, ‘No man is an island’ (John Donne 1624) and as an organisation in the business of learning, surely the organisation itself must be also a learning one.

    Whilst all these points are helpful, ultimately they mean nothing if the subject leader is unable to articulate what they do, why they do it and the impact it’s having on learning. My advice to subject leaders is that when you are in that interview with the inspector, every sentence that comes out of your mouth should follow this sequence:


    When that inspector comes calling… Bring It On!

    Training available to help you ‘Bring It On!’ – Becoming a Highly Effective Subject Leader


    This training is aimed at mathematics subject leaders who are either new to the role or looking to enhance their contribution to improving maths across the school. Throughout the course, delegates will gain an in-depth understanding of the expectations of core subject leadership. Delegates will develop their capacity to evaluate teaching and learning across a range of evidence to drive improvement throughout the school. The key elements of mathematics subject leadership will be explored including through a spotlight on the different aims of the mathematics curriculum: fluency and mathematical thinking. This will enable subject leaders to deepen subject-specific knowledge and understanding. Schools attending both the English and maths highly effective subject leader courses will receive a 15% discount.

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