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 109.

    @ 72.Chris
    "So, GCSEs passes too easy on Wednesday. 2 days later, everyone failed! .. when did Level 5 students become "gifted" & brightest"? Most students at KS3 are Level 5, which is converts to a B if they make expected progress .. these figures actually show state schools OVER achieving, don't they?.."
    seems clear and logical to me....but, I fear, too complex for Gove/Wilshaw to take in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    If you are a parent concerned with Your child's education, never use schools. Take responsibility, control, direct, even do, it yourself. Fit it to whatever is your child's ability, speed, interests, at all stages of their life. Anything else will fail them. Schools do not care about Your child, only average statistics their pay etc. hence that is where bulling, drugs, pop culture is all learnt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    I'm 19, and this is what I found when I was at school. The bad kids get all the attention just so they can behave in the classroom, while the kids with potential were almost left to there own devices because the teachers assume they can just get on with it. It's a catch 22 for the teachers, who I empathise with.
    On the other hand, if you get your head down there's nothing stopping you succeeding.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    People have been saying this for decades, ever since streaming became politically incorrect and everyone had to progress at the rate of the slowest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    I suppose that with a largish mixed ability class only those in the middle range will do OK. Those at the lower end of ability and those at the higher end just wont get enough of the right support. Which might well be why many young people still leave school functionally illiterate (which is a national disgrace) & the high ability children don't achieve as much as they could (also a disgrace)

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    As expected this forum has been hijacked by those with an axe to grind against non selective secondary education and who wish to write kids off as academic failures at the age of 11.

    Perhaps they might like to consider that, The Best Secondary Education system in Europe is in Finland and it consists almost exclusively of Non Selective Comprehensives.

    It is the standard of teaching that matters

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Grades achieved at a poor school are a poor predictor of talent. Teacher priorities are simply to get kids across the C/D boundary; they can't complete the syllabus, nevermind stretch the very best minds. I went to one of the UK's worst schools: I got Bs in science at GCSE and A'level yet I achieved a 1st class BSc, a PhD and a string of post-docs posts at some of the world's best universities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    @ 58: Chezza

    Grammer education and the 11+ might have worked for you, but it failed 80% of children. I took the 11+ and failed. But comprehensive education came in - and I now have a PhD. The secondary modern I WOULD have gone to didn't even know what an O'Level was, let alone have the capacity to teach it. THAT is the reality for the majority in a selective system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Normally I think Ofsted are a joke but I wish I could have gone to a selective secondary. The idiot majority demonised doing well in almost anything, except football of course. Once you leave and go to college it's stopped almost immediately in my experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Ofsted/DfE want
    -higher grades from all students but is putting in measures to stop grade inflation
    -better results from high achievers yet fails schools that don't narrow the gap btn the least advantaged & the rest
    -students to do at least as well as (2011) average (just what % can be above average I wonder...)
    -schools to implement yet another syllabus; grades 8-1
    -to judge schools on grade C

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    What do SATs mean? Nothing. I got 4,4,5 at the end of KS2 (5 in science), 5, 6, 7 at KS3, I did no work for them at all as there was no point (5 in science, 6 in English and 7 in maths).
    I then got A's in double science, English lit & lang (barely touched a revision note as they were such a waste of time) & B (maths)
    At my comp we had as many 6th formers enter OxBridge as a lot of private schools

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    I wish Gove/Ofsted would look to Finland for (evidence-based) ideas about how to improve education instead of just making up whatever sounds ideologically apealling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    High discipline , eliminating pathology and hard work are the backgrounds for success at school .

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Granting opportunities based on personal merit would be unfair to the vast majority of people who seek opportunity through uncritical mutual patronage. I give any new development that grants top reward based on performance alone to a poor kid less than a year before it's buried by outraged parents in new cars.

    The fault lies not just with our education system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Bright children are our future. They get bullied, underachieve. They need other bight ones to spark off.
    Bright ones will do well anyway- thoughtless ill informed and WRONG.
    Peer review on who makes it impossible to learn in class in October. Either remove the most mentioned or invent Special Units for the most able. They only need a room pcs the internet and good teachers cheap to run.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Never mind distracting the public from the most serious problems with UK schools with this typical, traditional and unremarkable and thus unnewsworthy state-of-affairs - When is the government or the BBC going to investigate and close-down St James Independent School, which is operated by the indroctrinating child-abusing cult called the School of Economic Science????

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Whatever happened to community and team-spirit; to the idea of supporting and encouraging each other in the face of difficulties and working together as a nation to achieve a worthwhile aim? Instead we get petty-minded individuals and organisations vying with each other to be the most critical of this or that organisation (the victim in this case being the state education system).

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    For many years funding for schools has been based on GCSE passes resources have been focused on the C/D borderling. The government needs to allow teachers to EDUCATE rather than focus on equating spurious pass/fail in tests. Stop preventing teachers from stretching and stimulating those at the top and bottom!

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Call me arrogant, but I've always considered myself as bright. I can confirm that as stated in comment 8 by Reader135, you do ace opposition from other pupils. I find it disgraceful that nothing is done about it, but I suppose that's just "life". I've spent my school days wishing of being able to go to a school where I was not victimised for being intelligent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Being slightly older, and schooled in the days before league tables, I clearly remember teachers not caring how the bright kids OR the not so bright faired in exams. League tables have many faults, but on this point at least some attention now seems to be paid when kids aren't reaching their potential. Before, we were all being 'failed'. But go ahead and vote this view down.. ;)


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