Schools fail to challenge the brightest, warns Ofsted

Children writing Sir Michael said too many schools failed to imbue their most able students with confidence

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Thousands of bright children are being "systematically failed" by England's non-selective secondaries, education inspectors warn.

A culture of low expectations means England's able pupils are failing to gain top GCSE grades, Ofsted says.

Two-thirds of pupils, some 65,000, who achieved Level 5 in primary school maths and English tests failed to get A* or an A in both subjects at GCSE.

Head teachers questioned the statistical basis of Ofsted's claims.

Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Brian Lightman said: "I have real concerns about Ofsted's evidence base for drawing these conclusions.

"Level 5 is a wide band that includes a range of ability levels, not just the brightest students. The government has said that for children who come into secondary school with a Level 5, expected progress means a B at GCSE.

"Of course we want those children to achieve even higher, but for Ofsted to say that they are underachieving if they don't get an A or A* is unfair to those students and their teachers."

The report - The Most Able Students: Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools? - found more than a quarter (27%) of previously high-attaining pupils had failed to achieve at least a B grade in both English and maths.

Ofsted defines high-achievers as those achieving a Level 5 in both English and maths in national curriculum tests, commonly known as Sats taken in the final year of primary school.

'Excellent opportunities'

Based on observations of 2,000 lessons, visits to 41 schools and school performance data, the report found staff in some non-selective schools did not know who their most able pupils were.


  • 62% of pupils (at non-selective secondary schools) who got Level 5 in their English Sats did not get an A* or A grade in this subject at GCSE in 2012
  • 25% of pupils who got Level 5 in their English Sats failed to get at least a B
  • 53% of students who got Level 5 in their maths Sats did not gain an A* or A grade in this subject at GCSE
  • 22% of pupils who got Level 5 in maths in their Sats failed to get at least a B

In 40% of the schools visited, the brightest students were not making the progress they were capable of, and many had become "used" to performing at lower levels, with parents and teachers accepting this "too readily", Ofsted said.

It said many schools did not track their most academically gifted pupils "sufficiently well" and it was critical of mixed-ability classes, saying they often saw "a lack of differentiation, teaching to the middle" with "the top pupils not being stretched".

The report said teaching was "insufficiently focused" for able pupils in the first three years of secondary school.

This was backed up by Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw who said the most academically able arrived "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed" from primary school, but that things started "to go wrong very early" with low expectations.

"They tread water. They mark time. They do stuff they've already done in primary school. They find work too easy and they are not being sufficiently challenged."

Pupil Teachers' leaders said education had become a 'numbers game'

He recommended school leaders consider streaming or setting pupils from the very start of their secondary education and called for parents to be given annual reports on whether their child was achieving as well as they should.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he was "passionate" about pupils from comprehensives doing as well as those at selective schools, and ensuring the brightest students "go to the top universities so that we can become a fairer society".

"Leadership is absolutely crucial," he said. "Creating a culture of scholarship is really important, embedding learning and giving youngsters a sense of confidence, especially if they come from poor backgrounds."

School league tables, he said, had created "false incentives" for teachers, who were looking to push as many students as possible to get a C grade at GCSE, but teachers also needed to worry about whether the brightest pupils were achieving their potential, he stressed.

"We've got to believe as a nation that all our schools can be good and outstanding schools and achieve well by the children who go through them," he said.

"If we don't believe that, we might as well pack up and go home and we certainly won't succeed in the global race in terms of competition with our main international competitors."

'Resolute commitment'

Head teachers said the current government benchmark measure for schools in England - the percentage of pupils getting five GCSEs at grade C or above, including maths and English - was partly to blame.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "For too long, schools have been forced into the middle ground, to get students over thresholds at the expense of both the most and least able.

"Education has become a numbers game, at the expense of the ethos and breadth that underpin a truly great education."

Start Quote

Michael Wilshaw is absolutely right that this cannot go on. Schools must set high expectations for all children”

End Quote Stephen Twigg Shadow education secretary,

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said the survey's findings were "very worrying".

"Michael Wilshaw is absolutely right that this cannot go on. Schools must set high expectations for all children... Lowering the benchmark for teaching cannot be good for children who need that extra stretch and challenge."

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "Secondary schools must ensure all their pupils - including their brightest - fulfil their potential.

"That's why we are introducing a more demanding and rigorous curriculum, toughening up GCSEs and getting universities involved in A-levels."

But Chris Keates, leader of the Nasuwt teachers' union, said: "Yet again the teaching profession and parents will be deeply dismayed to see another ideological report condemning our education system.

"The findings appear to be based on the flimsiest of research evidence."Schools 'failing brightest pupils'


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1249.

    I'm worried about Gerald.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1248.

    1244. keysersoze
    Those that can, teach
    Those who've never tried, whinge incessantly about teachers doing a very difficult job and putting up with constant criticism and politically influenced change.

    And no I'm not saying all teachers are great - some are poor. Give it a go, then criticise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1247.

    This report makes it sound like all children who go to Grammar school with level 5 in Maths and English get an A or A* in both. They don't. Even in the top grammar schools it is about 70%. Also, there are children going to comprehensive schools with level 5 in Maths and English who wouldn't get into a grammar school. Mr Wilshaw is a public servant and should not be allowed to chase headlines.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1246.

    Several posts here deriding Finlands education system.
    Someone said name a famous Finn.
    Here you are.
    Keke Rosberg,Timo Salonen,Esko Valtaoga,
    Linus Torvalds(Linux), Teuvo Kohonen (Neuro computing). al.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1245.

    We, at my school always, have focused hard on the more able and less able. Once again a limited survey has lead to the conclusion that we are all not displaying care and professionalism with our pupils future. Why do we teach? because - we want to give our pupils a good education to do well for rest of their lives for the benefit of us all. This constant change is not needed or useful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1244.

    Its worrying but perhaps apposite that most of the comments by teachers here display a socialist view.
    The old saying is true.
    "Those that can, Do.
    Those that cant, Teach".

  • rate this

    Comment number 1243.

    Puzzle, too many kids are passing their GCSEs, therefore the exams are getting easier. At the same time, not enough bright kids are getting good enough results. Too many passing AND not enough passing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1242.

    Bright middle class children excel in state comprehensives that run selection by property values. It is 50 years since liberal ideology killed the 11+ & condemned bright children from poor households to a wasteland. Throughout this time liberal & labour politicians responsible have sent their children to private schools or elite "non selective" schools in rich neighbourhoods. It's a scandal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1241.

    If you look at the number they are quoting then 38% of level 5 students go A-A* but 23% of the entire population got A-A* so that would mean that 60.5% of the population where getting a 5 (100*23/38). now some people who get 4 might get A-A* but i doubt it enough to bring it down below 50%. BTW one country who dose not track gifted and talented student Finland and see how good they do

  • rate this

    Comment number 1240.

    my son attended a state school until 11. He then went to a funded boarding school for 2 years he asked to leave. the state school he attended it became apparent that they could not meet his educational needs and after 4 months i mentioned to his teacher that he was aready at level 8 ks3 she didnt believe me and he took a test. i was proved right and he was offered was an extra 10mins a week.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1239.

    1238 Niskala
    Goodnight or is it morning?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1238.

    Agreed re 1234 unfortunately, we only seem to get the slagging!
    My comments re Arts were relating to GCSE, not A-Level.Oxbridge are not the ones to ask unfortunately as they have virtually no experience of dealing with the socio-economic issues that comp teachers deal with day in and day out.Sounds like Gove getting OxBridge grads and Ex-forces into teaching-bad idea.Off to bed!Goodnight!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1237.

    1232 Niskala
    Sorry my mistake,with name + num
    Ref 1234 applies to your public bashing "slagging"
    "Both,where and when appropriate,good and bad,with no preconceived views!
    1236 Niskala
    Check A Level results in maths ie what % get A or A*& candidate numbers with Art,Drama etc
    Think we need a lot more highly qualified robots before it becomes a national issue from the state sector,ask Oxbridge?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1236.

    David Lilley
    Arts subject teach students more transferable skills than any other and are criminally underrated by this government. An Arts subject should be mandatory for every student at GCSE, otherwise we will be churning out academic robots rather than rounded citizens of the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1235.

    Learning about the world is fantasictic. You can know and by wise and make the right decisions. But you can also be misguided by the school's desire for brownie points in the league tables.

    You must reject their inclination to the arts and their non- conceptual leanings. Ask them tol put science back on the silibus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1234.

    1231 stewing
    Even "a very supportive and caring home"wont get your children into a Russell Group Uni (some home schooling of course)nor will it give you the exams to have an opportunity at a career etc etc
    "far more important",ask those with no qualifications at the moment,if they are unemployed as well?,who wish to own their home one day?
    1231 stewing
    agreed,both where & when appropriate!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1233.

    @1224: what are these 'obvious reasons'? Seems everyone paid from the public purse is to be vilified. Suppose everything were privatised: e.g. fire service, return to the days when firefighters were employed by insurance companies, those not insured would have their house allowed to burn down? That seems to be the way the NHS could be going. Pay privately for your household rubbish collection etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1232.

    1. Science is set. Lang would not be as most are starting from scratch at Year 7 so have not got the prior experience.There would be extension work for exceptions. History and Geography are also set. Music, Drama, Art, ICT, PE are not set.
    2. Spread a 4 level ability range over 7 sets.
    3. If PS jobs are 'obviously' going to get public slagging they should 'obviously' get public thanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1231.

    @1225. Joanne. I am pleased to hear that. They obviously have something far more important than any school system. A very supportive and caring home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1230.

    1223 Niskala
    Why not,biology,physics,chemistry,languages as well?

    1227 stewing
    Nor do I,but we have to function & live within reality,not utopian ideals,but I will continue to try,like your self,no doubt!
    1226 Niskala
    Sorry,I meant,define range within any set,high or low.etc
    PS like any service,has no automatic right to applause,cuts & many human failings & utter neglect dictate that somtimes!


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