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Ofsted claims state schools are letting brightest pupils down

24/06/2013 Joanna
Ofsted has published a new report claiming state school secondary teachers need to do more to ensure their ablest pupils fully realise their potential.

However, while some commentators have expressed concern over the education watchdog's findings, others have disputed the conclusions it has drawn.

Formerly 'high-attaining' pupils falling short at GCSE?

According to Ofsted's findings, 65 per cent of pupils at non-selective schools who had previously achieved level five in both English and mathematics at primary school did not go onto secure A or A* in these subjects at GCSE level in 2012.

Moreover, 27 per cent of these formerly "high attaining" pupils did not get at least a B at GCSE in English and maths last year.

The watchdog also analysed over 2,000 lessons observed by inspectors during visits to 41 non-selective secondary schools and deemed that in many instances teaching was insufficiently focused on the needs of the most able.

It found this to be particularly the case at key stage three, with students not making the progress they were capable of between the ages of 11 and 14 in around 40 per cent of schools visited.

Ofsted warned too that the most able children were not extended enough, with tasks pitched instead at medium-ability pupils, while school leaders were culpable of not evaluating how well mixed-ability group teaching was challenging their most capable students.

A further criticism was that many schools visited did not make enough use of assessment, tracking and targeting to gauge the progress of their ablest pupils.

Best practice and recommendations

Nonetheless, the report does also highlight examples of best practice from schools that are successfully supporting their brightest pupils.

These cases featured leadership focused on improving standards for all pupils, high expectations among most able students, their families and staff in teacher jobs and effective measures to support transition between primary and secondary school.

Ofsted also praised these secondary schools for identifying their ablest students early and adapting their lessons accordingly, as well as for placing them in groupings where they could be fully stretched.

The watchdog's chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw commented: "Put simply, [many of our most able students] are not doing well enough because their secondary schools fail to challenge and support them sufficiently from the beginning.

"I believe the term 'special needs' should be as relevant to the most able as it is to those who require support for their learning difficulties. Yet some of the schools visited for this survey did not even know who their most able students were. This is completely unacceptable."

Sir Michael therefore challenged all staff in education jobs to ensure their most able pupils do as well academically as their counterparts in other countries.

He also said students need to know from early on what options are available to them and should be provided with the tutoring, guidance and encouragement necessary for them to develop the confidence to grasp these opportunities.

Report draws mixed response

Responding to the report, a Department for Education spokesman said secondary schools need to ensure all of their pupils realise their potential and that this is why the government is seeking to make the curriculum and qualifications more rigorous and testing.

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg called Ofsted's findings "very worrying", while Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said schools have for too long been forced into the middle ground, at the expense of their most and least able pupils.

Yet Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Brian Lightman countered that a wide range of children attain level five at primary school, not just the most able.

He therefore argued it was unfair to expect all of these pupils to go on to get an A or A* at GCSE, while Chris Keates, head of the Nasuwt teachers' union, also claimed the watchdog's conclusions were "based on the flimsiest of research evidence".

The Observer also this month reported that internal analyses conducted at Cardiff and Oxford Brookes universities indicated their state school-educated students tend to outperform their counterparts who went to private school.

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