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 169.

    You nagged teachers because of the lack of homework for your child?

    Why can't he just have a life to enjoy after school?

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    "Maybe it's time to bring back streaming for all state schools"

    Never seen one that doesn't stream!

    "The system is set up to prevent any pupils from achieving more than other pupils, because that is "elitism". "

    What twaddle. All schools I've seen try to maximise every student's attainment. This is NOT the 1960s.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    We need to stop this focus on results and marks. They should be an incidental result of a good, well-rounded education, not it's "raison d'etre".

    - Greater focus on core subjects - reduce options to 15 subjects with no mickey mouse options
    - Bring back one compulsory language - English children are light years behind their peers overseas
    - Focus on building soft skills like teamwork

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    In Britain we try to nurture any youngster who appears to be a talented young athlete, musician, actor or artist. But if a child appears to be an academically gifted young scientist, mathematician, historian, etc. we hold them back in the misguided name of educational equality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    My son completed year 6 work in his year 5. Excellent work from Primary school. However state system will not allow him to skip year 6 so we had to go private. He is year 8 now and tops his year at school in exams with kids a year older. Bright kids must be allowed to move up otherwise they get bored and loose drive. What is wrong with a 16 yr old with a degree?

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    All secondary school teachers know Sats are meaningless as a guide to ability. Children are taught to pass a test, it doesn't make them intelligent. The good secondary schools take a look at their pupils in Yr 7 and form their own opinion of ability. As an aside as the teachers came through the same system many of them are incapable of stretching the brighter kids. I'm a recently retired teacher.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

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

    True, but m
    Missing the point completely. My view

    ALL children should taught to the best of their ability. My view.

    ALL children should be in SETS for each subject. My view

    Streaming mixes children of diff. abilities in a particular subject. My view.

    Perhaps I should have gone to Specsavers. :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    Dear Chris Keates,
    I am in your union but I am not 'dismayed' to see a report that tells the awful truth about a majority of our secondary schools. Expectations are far too low. Please stop trying to defend this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    I have a solution, hear me out. Drastically reduce taxes and cost of living to allow 1 parent to stay at home. Kids attend school on mornings OR afternoons based on ability;

    Halve class sizes.
    Focus teacher's attention.
    Allow better targeted differentiation of lessons.
    Free up millions of jobs that parents have out of necessity.
    Allow children more free time to enjoy being children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    We are all intelligent, we all need to be inspired, yes there is money for it all. Allow children to excel in what they want, create a system where that can happen. Inspire children, teaching is not a job, it's rather like being a parent, you do the very best for your children. Yes, I see a utopian world and it begins with just one step towards it - we may not get there in this lifetime!

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    What? Really? Whoever would have guessed that Labour removing every aspect of competition from the school process, regardless of the fact that in the real world there IS competition could possibly fail bright students? Does this mean mixed ability classes are a bad idea? I for one am shocked!

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.


  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    @104. steve

    "failure at 11" anti-selective school lies expired long ago.

    Aspirational parents from ALL demographics pay for private tuition (some with overtime hours) or tutor children themselves for a chance at a selective school.

    Even ultra-leftwing MPs send their children to public schools or high-performing state schools.

    Most state schools have low expectations & disruptive pupils/parents

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    And my 10 year old 'geeky' son is relentlessly bullied because he prefers to sit and read a book by Professor Brian Cox than kick a football around. His interests are science and military history, and even his teacher has to check out if my sons facts are true on the internet!!, but I fear he won't reach his full potential because he now fears school, but the school just brush bullying aside

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    The importance of a high league table rating for A*- C GCSE grades encourages headteachers to tell staff to concentrate on students in predicted D-C bracket to give extra coaching towards C grade standard than on pushing predicted A-A* students as high as possible.

    The league table system therefore distorts needs of individual top students in favour whole school rating - and mediocrity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Having worked in several Comps in this country, I assure you that bright students don't hide their abilities. What does happen is this: they become teenagers. Some teenagers work hard and get results. Some teenagers get lazy and distracted. But then our exam system is so dumbed down that's not really an explanation, is it...

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    Youth today are rewarded for mediocrity. Just take Britain's Got Talent - if our best talent is seen to come from making a pratt of yourself on TV rather than doing something really intelligent then what hope is there?

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    There's one thing that's failing education. Not the hard-working teachers, not the hard-working pupils ...

    ... Gove is failing education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    134 Jim

    '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.'

    Actually, it probably does in 99% of cases. If they're good at six and are no good by 16 then I'd suggest their teachers need to take a long, hard look at themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    I went to a non-selective state school which used academic sets to provide for different ability levels. This was very helpful at all levels - but the limited range did mean that despite being in the top set I was never pushed. As a result, I didn't have to try very hard in school until A2 level, and never really learned good study skills or engaged with my studies at school.


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