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 149.

    We have a media that persistently undermines respect for the education profession, a media that idolises unintelligent and untalented people, an ever-changing list of policies from govt, and parents who take no responsiblity for the education of their children.
    Who cares, blame schools and teachers, it's easy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    This isn't anything new - they were failing the needs of many in the 80s too. When you have a school with limited resources, teachers worrying about meeting the requirements of OFSTED etc, a wide range of abilities and parents who blame teachers if they try to discipline children, what do you expect? In the 80s as long as you reached average no one took any notice of you. This hasn't changed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    As somebody who failed the 11+ I say bring back Grammar schools.
    This allows secondary schools to concentrate on those less able academically gifted.
    I achieved 'O' levels and did an apprenticeship. Some friends transferred to Grammar schools part way through and others went on to 6th form to take 'A'levels.Some then went on to University.
    The majority achieved something worth while working life

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.


    "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."

    In selective days pupils had the chance to develop at their own rates being taught at a suitable pace , go into further education and polythechnics often doing as well as the "brighter" pupils

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    I too cannot understand the negativity that exists in this country against those children who are intelligent. We have all heard the "keeno" and "nerd" labels that successful students have to put up with, just for doing well! Introduce a system like that in India, where you are tested at the end of EACH school year, if you pass, you get to move to the next year, otherwise you have to stay back!

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    The SATs and GCSE do not have the same basic assessment process. SATs reward what level they are working at regardless of how many children fall into each category. The GCSE grades are limited to proportions falling into each grade virtually regardless of the level produced by the kids. This is beyond the comprehension of the leader of Ofsted - unsurprisingly as a government Quisling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    Quote: Thousands of bright children are being "systematically failed" etc. So, who are these “bright” individuals and how are they assessed? All that formal examinations do is to indicate how well or how badly candidates do on the day in these “tests”. Might it be assumed, therefore, that our Eton/Oxbridge politicians are top-notch in ability for their task? Give us a break!

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    Attack-after-attack-after-attack. Thankfully, most teachers are able to filter out the detritus that is regularly spouted forth from 'Bonkeroony' individuals. Teachers cannot 'win', and I suspect that is the aim - watch out for more 'failing' schools, leading to increased academisation. All part of the plan.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    OFSTED have become far too political ... Gove's attack dog ... aiming at non-selective schools. It smells like an adgenda to bring back selection and all the trouble that caused for the majority of children. High schools ARE streamed and better resources would allow more to give kids a chance to develop past 11 years old! Grammar schools might have worked for the few, but failed most.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    The schools / system have a "Duty to promote high standards in primary and secondary education" they also have a duty to provide an education "appropriate to a childs age, ability and aptitude" (1996 Education Act). The current system has failed our kids on these basic fundamentals. I wonder when the Govt will be sued for failing in their duty in the provision of an "appropriate" education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    At some stage, Whitehall will realise that;
    In primary schools, pupils spend weeks preparing ONLY for the KS2 SATs (the curriculum suspended...I know my son has experienced this year)....thus intensive teaching towards a few tests as opposed to many.
    T.A. of Science at KS2 allow meeting of targets (no objective test).
    This inflates grades to fit targets, not representing actual ability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    To all those parents who constantly complain about education whilst having limited knowledge of how the school system works other than what Mr Gove tells them, you do have a choice. The law mandates that parents "provide their children with an education, either in school or otherwise". If the school system of best fit doesn't fit your child- Home educate. It is your responsibility!

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    Michael Gove is in the process of raising standards and they are the Government. OFSTED is playing catch up.

    The new system can't come to soon for the schools in this country and in the meantime Academies are raising standards

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    I was a bright pupil (I went on to join MENSA). At school, I found some subjects deathly dull, and too much attention given to the pupils who struggled. As a result, my work and attitude degenerated into just scraping through, and I was placed in a 'C' stream. After some persistent nagging from my dad, the school moved me into the 'A' stream, where I suddenly flourished, passing all my O levels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    Don't let the swivel-eyed right wingers high-jack this report to justify grammar schools. Sure, lets have setting in core subjects but do not go back to the bad old days.
    Comprehensive schools were under funded from the start and we have paid minimum for minimum performance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    Ofsted are betraying their lack of knowledge of child development. Just because someone is good at Maths in year six that does not mean they will still be good at maths by the time they take their GCSEs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    This is nonsense and is simply another part of a right-wing agenda to privatise education as much as they can get away with. My daughter went to her local comprehensive school, achieved A*s and As in every course she took and is now studying medicine. It can and is done all the time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    Some people are more intelligent than others. Even as children. Get over it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    Why succeed in school?

    Those that are brighter, that go to university, that get good jobs then go on the be demonised by those who had the EXACT opportunities but happened to fritter it all away and now stuck on minimum wage.

    You are then punished by the government in the form of higher taxes, reduced benefits and if so try to speak out you get labelled as rich scum.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    104. steve
    >>The Best Secondary Education system in Europe is in Finland

    How many famous scientist or engineers from Finland can you name? How many fundamental inventions an new technologies come from Finland? Difficult one, eh? Finland system is indeed the best ... at producing mediocre masses.


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