Press release

Too many bright children let down in the state system

The most able students report finds that too few schools set high enough expectations of what their brightest students can achieve.

Ofsted reached its conclusions having reviewed evidence from a variety of sources, including reports from over 2,000 lessons observed by inspectors, and visits to 41 non-selective secondary schools across the country.

The key findings from the report being launched today include:

  • almost two thirds of high-attaining pupils (65%) leaving primary school, securing Level 5 in both English and mathematics, did not achieve an A* or A grade (a key predictor to success at A level and progression to university) in both these GCSE subjects in 2012 in non-selective secondary schools. This represented over 65,000 students
  • just over a quarter (27%) of these previously high-attaining students attending non-selective secondary schools did not achieve a B grade in both English and mathematics at GCSE in 2012. This represented just over 27,000 young people
  • in 20% of the 1,649 non-selective 11-18 schools, not one student in 2012 achieved the minimum of two A grades and one B grade in at least two of the A-level subjects required by many of our most prestigious universities
  • teaching was insufficiently focused on the needs of the most able, particularly at Key Stage 3 (ages 11 – 14). In around 40% of the schools visited for the survey, students did not make the progress that they should, or that they were capable of, between the ages of 11 and 14
  • many students became used to performing at a lower level than they were capable of. Parents or carers and teachers accepted this too readily. Students did not do the hard work and develop the resilience needed to perform at a higher level because more challenging tasks were not regularly demanded of them. The work was pitched at the middle and did not extend the most able. School leaders did not evaluate how well mixed-ability group teaching was challenging the most able students
  • assessment, tracking and targeting were not used sufficiently well in many schools. Some of the schools visited paid scant attention to the progress of their most able students
  • schools’ expertise in and knowledge about how to apply to the most prestigious universities were not always current and relevant. Insufficient support and guidance were provided to those most able students whose family members had not attended university

The visits undertaken by HM Inspectors did identify a number of key characteristics shared by those schools that were successfully supporting their most able students. The excellent practice we saw included leadership with a purposeful drive to improve standards for all pupils; high expectations among most able students, their families and teachers; effective transition arrangements that supported the move from primary to secondary school; early identification of the most able students so that teaching was adapted, and the curriculum tailored, to meet their needs; and groupings that allowed students to be stretched from the very start of secondary school.

However, too few schools adopted these good practices. Whilst senior leaders said they were ambitious for their students, many schools in the survey did not provide the most able students with the necessary information and understanding about what they could achieve by gaining the best education possible – including the benefits of attending a top university.

In response to these findings, HM Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said:

If we are going to succeed as an economy and as a society, we have to make more of our most able young people. We need them to become the political, commercial and professional leaders of tomorrow.

Too many non-selective schools are failing to nurture scholastic excellence. While the best of these schools provide excellent opportunities, many of our most able students receive mediocre provision. Put simply, they are not doing well enough because their secondary schools fail to challenge and support them sufficiently from the beginning. I believe the term ‘special needs’ should be as relevant to the most able as it is to those who require support for their learning difficulties. Yet some of the schools visited for this survey did not even know who their most able students were. This is completely unacceptable.

It is a serious concern that many non-selective schools fail to imbue their most able students with the confidence and high ambition that characterise many students in the selective or independent sector. Why should the most able students in the non-selective sector not have the same belief that they, too, can reach the top?

On launching the report, Sir Michael issued three key challenges to all those involved in the education system:

  1. To make sure the most able students in England’s non-selective schools do as well academically as those from our main economic competitors – in Europe and beyond. This means aiming for A* and A grades and not being satisfied with less.
  2. To ensure, from early on, that students know what opportunities are open to them and develop the confidence to make the most of these. They need tutoring, guidance and encouragement, as well as a chance to meet other young people who have embraced higher education.
  3. For all schools to help students and families overcome cultural barriers to attending higher education. Many of the most able students come from homes where no parent or close relative has either experienced, or expects, progression to university. Schools need to engage more effectively with the parents or carers of these students to tackle this challenge.

The report calls on the Department for Education to develop progress measures to identify how well the most able students have progressed from Year 6 through Key Stage 4 to the end of Key Stage 5. It also recommends the government sends parents a report each year showing whether their children are on track to meet national expectations and promotes more widely the published data highlighting the proportion of students progressing to university, particularly Russell Group universities.

The report recommends that maintained schools and academies: champion the needs of the most able students; provide first-rate opportunities for them to develop the skills and confidence to succeed at the top universities; improve transition arrangements with primary schools; evaluate the quality of homework and any mixed ability teaching to ensure the brightest children are being challenged; and work with families more closely to provide more information on what their children should achieve, as well as to help overcome culture and financial barriers to attending the top universities.

Sir Michael said that Ofsted would be focusing and reporting more closely in the future on the teaching and progress of the most able pupils.

He concluded:

The founding principle of comprehensive education – that all pupils and students should be given the opportunity to achieve their full potential – is a noble one. For this principle to be fulfilled, we need to have the highest expectations of the most able children in non-selective schools.

This report reveals some of the reasons why too many schools are failing to meet the needs of their most able students; it also provides examples of excellent practice. It makes important recommendations for schools, for the government and for Ofsted. Unless we all act on its findings, England will continue to lag behind other leading nations in meeting the needs of its most able students.

We cannot allow this to continue. This report must act as a catalyst for change.

Notes to editors

  1. The survey Most able students: are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools? is on GOV.UK.

  2. The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) regulates and inspects to achieve excellence in the care of children and young people, and in education and skills for learners of all ages. It regulates and inspects childcare and children’s social care, and inspects the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass), schools, colleges, initial teacher training, work-based learning and skills training, adult and community learning, and education and training in prisons and other secure establishments. It assesses council children’s services, and inspects services for looked after children, safeguarding and child protection.

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