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 89.

    Without being stretched, I became prone to boredom and by the time I reached secondary school, I was in the top 20%, whereas I could have been in the top 5%. Without proper challenges and guidance in formative years, real damage can be done to the prospects of a child who could potentially have done much better with the correct steer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    its a combination of things. The school has statics, they need to make sure they never fall but remain at least average to stay looking good, then you have children that demand more attention then others this is down to lack of discipline or other reasons, if you have a handful of very bright kids one thinks its ok to leave while paying more attention to the others to catch them up hence the dip

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    Once again, a Key Performance Indicator that has had a negative impact on service quality. KPIs are nearly always a disaster, as they encourage people to 'game' the sytem rather than taking a holistic view of how they should actually be doing their jobs.
    From NHS targets, to league school tables, to bonus calculations at banks - short-sighted KPIs reward damaging behaviour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Schools can't win. GCSE pass rates can't go up any further, or reflect true performance, so they move grade boundaries so roughly the same percentage pass each year. Every school is expected to be above average at all times. The system doesn't work, and the new system won't work either. Bright children get brighter, grade boundaries move up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    From a poor household, in 1956 passed 11+ went to S.E. Essex Tech. more aimed at science and practical things. Great staff and education, ended up going through the Royal Dental School. Would have had little chance of this in present day system with low aims.
    11 + was the step ladder to a decent life, and you could come into our school at 12+ or 13+ too. Far less disruptive yobs around.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    "The Most Able Students: Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools?"

    Are the least able students being let down too?

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Another day, another slating from OFSTED. So 41 out of 3268 schools is 1.25% of the secondaries. As OFSTED already have the data about conversions from Level 5 at KS2 to GCSE Grade B, what's the point of this? I'd be interested to know how they chose the schools. I'd suggest Wilshaw takes a course on statistics and on the first day they'd be telling you about what a significant sample is. Pathetic

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Ofsted has 100% nailed it. Our bright 13 year old is not properly challenged by the work he is given at his so-called "good" comprehensive school. We are continually frustrated at the lack of homework set for him, despite regular nagging of his teachers. He needs challenging, focussed targets and ambitious, motivated teachers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    @66 Dandalf

    You are (partially) wrong. Kids spend 6 hours a day in school, the system is a vital part of their education unless you home school them completely.

    My partner is a teacher and has put a lot of affort into helping our son acheive. At 9 years old the school system has already squashed most of that out of him with the one size fits all approach and large class sizes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Kids develop at different rates - that's why we had 11+ and 13+, I knew several kids who transferred at 13 after 2 years at a Secondary Modern and who then went on to university. Not all kids want to learn or see the need for it unfortunately and at present they sometimes prevent the others from learning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    I listened to Sir Wilshaw this morning. The man is full of idealism, talking down teachers & education like Gove, putting unnecessary pressure on teachers & students.

    Whilst at school I was friends with very bright people. They were pushed. But when they did their A-Levels they couldn't maintain the same standards. I obtained x6 A*-C grades at GCSE. I'm now doing an MSc. I was a late developer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    This report highlights a system that is failing children at both ends of the scale. The league tables force teachers to concentrate on the borderline students while those outside this band are left to themselves. At to this, the poor social attitude to "nerds" & the large class sizes, then it is inevitable that bright children are held back in the state sector.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    There is a growing interest in computer-based education. Though I agree that teaching and learning are not the same, I do believe that quieter children would benefit from the opportunity to use computer study, removing the pressure of having to be an extrovert, in order to be considered clever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    It is indeed sad that pupils are being awarded dumbed-down qualifications simply to make the education statistics look better than they really are. We should return immediately to the old-style GCE system of teaching and a final exam, which stretched the capacity to learn rather greater than the present method of course-work assessment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    We need the same approach, resources and additional support for these children as those offered to those struggling. The brighest are often bored and disillusioned with the teaching and restricted curriculum when the learning in the classroom follows the pace of the average child. Fortunately, my daughter had excellent teachers who set her additional work which kept her stimulated and engaged.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Having done well at school all my life, I went to a state secondary school and almost immediately became the outcast. This evolved into bullying and I became scared and lost my motivation. I finished with six GCSE grades at C and above, but I knew that I would've done better had I gone to a better school, with like-minded children.

    State schools are horrid, only the chavs need apply.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Ive put my 5 eldest kids through the state system. My 14 year old currently at a state comp in Devon was one of these kids when he left Primary school - he is now, bored, fed up and disillusioned with his education. My eldest (now 30) had an education, although not great was far superior to that of my son (14) and daughter (12) . My youngest now 5 isnt entering the system, shes home tutored!

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    So, GCSEs were being passed to easily on Wednesday. Two days later, everyone failed! And when did Level 5 students become "gifted" and "the brightest"? Most students at KS3 are Level 5, which is supposed to convert to a B if they make expected progress across the Key Stages. So the figures here actually show state schools OVER achieving, don't they?

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Bring back streaming. It's the only way to make sure the most intelligent children can learn in a stimulating way. I'd also like to see a re-introduction of the O level system which pushes them. Also, nurture pupils to learn by urging them to discover aspects of a subject rather than merely repeating facts. This will encourage them to think for themselves and prepare them for higher education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    I am ashamed to live in this country. OFSTED should not be allowed to carry on like this. As a parent and someone in Education I do not trust or believe a word that they say. An organisation as important as OFSTED should not be used as a political tool. The issue they talk about is already resolving itself, they just want an excuse to turn more schools into Academies. Shameful and terrifying!


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