This post examines the quality of Ofsted reporting on how well secondary schools educate their most able learners.
The analysis is based on a sample of 87 Section 5 inspection reports published during March 2015.
I have compared the results with those obtained from a parallel exercise undertaken a year ago and published in How well is Ofsted reporting on the most able? (May 2014).
This new post considers how inspectors’ assessments have changed in the light of their increased experience, additional guidance and – most recently – the publication of Ofsted’s survey report: The most able students: An update on progress since June 2013.
This appeared on 4 March 2015, at the beginning of my survey period, although it was heralded in HMCI’s Annual Report and the various supporting materials published alongside it in December 2014. One might therefore expect it to have had an immediate effect on inspection practice.
Those seeking further details of either of these publications are cordially invited to consult the earlier posts I dedicated to them:
The organisation of this post is straightforward.
The first section considers how Ofsted expects its inspectors to report on provision for the most able, as required by the current Inspection Handbook and associated guidance. It also explores how those expectations were intended to change in the light of the Update on Progress.
Subsequent sections set out the findings from my own survey:
- The nature of the 2015 sample – and how this differs from the 2014 sample
- Coverage in Key Findings and Areas for Improvement
- Coverage in the main body of reports, especially under Quality of Teaching and Achievement of Pupils, the sections that most commonly feature material about the most able
The final section follows last year’s practice in offering a set of key findings and areas for improvement for consideration by Ofsted.
I have supplied page jumps to each section from the descriptions above.
How inspectors should address the most able
Definition and distribution
Ofsted nowhere explains how inspectors are to define the most able. It is not clear whether they permit schools to supply their own definitions, or else apply the distinctions adopted in their survey reports. This is not entirely helpful to schools.
In the original survey – The most able students: Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools? (June 2013) – Ofsted described the most able as:
‘…the brightest students starting secondary school in Year 7 attaining Level 5 or above, or having the potential to attain Level 5 and above, in English (reading and writing) and/or mathematics at the end of Key Stage 2.’
The measure of potential is not defined, but an example is given, of EAL students who are new to the country and so might not (yet) have achieved Level 5.
In the new survey prior attainment at KS2 remains the indicator, but the reference to potential is dropped:
‘…students starting secondary school in Year 7 having attained Level 5 or above in English (reading and writing) and/or mathematics at the end of Key Stage 2’
The size of this group varies at national level according to the year group.
If we take learners in Year 7 who completed KS2 in 2014, the data shows that 24% achieved KS2 Level 5 in both English (reading and writing) and maths. A further 5% secured L5 in English (reading and writing only) while another 20% reached L5 in maths only.
So 49% of the present Year 7 are deemed high attainers.
But this proportion falls to about 40% amongst those who completed KS4 in 2014 and so typically undertook KS2 assessment five years earlier in 2009.
Ofsted’s measure is different to the definition adopted in the Secondary Performance Tables which, although also based on prior attainment at KS2, depends on an APS of 30 or higher in KS2 tests in the core subjects.
Only ‘all-rounders’ count according to this definition, while Ofsted includes those who are relatively strong in either maths or English but who might be weak in the other subject. Neither approach considers achievement beyond the core subjects.
According to the Performance Tables definition, amongst the cohort completing KS4 in 2014, only 32.3% of those in state-funded schools were deemed high attainers, some eight percentage points lower than Ofsted’s figure.
The sheer size of Ofsted’s most able cohort will be surprising to some, who might naturally assume a higher hurdle and a correspondingly smaller group. The span of attainment it covers is huge, from one L5C (possibly paired with a L3) to three L6s.
But the generosity of Ofsted’s assumptions does mean that every year group in every school should contain at least a handful of high attainers, regardless of the characteristics of its intake.
Unfortunately, Ofsted’s survey report does not say exactly how many schools have negligible numbers of high attainers, telling us only how many non-selective schools had at least one pupil in their 2014 GCSE cohort with the requisite prior attainment in English, in maths and in both English and maths.
In each case some 2,850 secondary schools had at least one student within scope. This means that some 9% of schools had no students in each category, but we have no way of establishing how many had no students in all three categories.
Using the rival Performance Table definition, only some 92 state-funded non-selective secondary schools reported a 2014 GCSE cohort with 10% or fewer high attainers. The lowest recorded percentage is 3% and, of those with 5% or fewer, the number of high attaining students ranges from 1 to 9.
Because Ofsted’s definition is more liberal, one might reasonably assume that every secondary school has at least one high-attaining student per year group, though there will be a handful of schools with very few indeed.
At the other extreme, according to the Performance Tables definition, over 100 state-funded non-selective schools can boast a 2014 GCSE population where high attainers are in the majority – and the highest recorded percentage for a state-funded comprehensive is 86%. Using Ofsted’s measure, the number of schools in this position will be substantively higher.
For the analysis below, I have linked the number of high attainers (according to the Performance Tables) in a school’s 2014 GCSE cohort with the outcomes of inspection, so as to explore whether there is a relationship between these two variables.
Framework and Handbook
The current Framework for School Inspection (December 2014) makes no reference to the most able.
Inspectors must consider:
‘…the extent to which the education provided by the school meets the needs of the range of pupils at the school, and in particular the needs of disabled pupils and those who have special educational needs.’
One of the principles of school inspection is that it will:
‘focus on pupils’ and parents’ needs by…evaluating the extent to which schools provide an inclusive environment that meets the needs of all pupils, irrespective of age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief, or sexual orientation’.
Neither ability nor attainment is mentioned. This may or may not change when the Common Inspection Framework is published.
The most recent version of the School Inspection Handbook (December 2014) has much more to say on the issue. All relevant references in the main text and in the grade descriptors are set out in the Annex at the end of this post.
Key points include:
- Ofsted uses inconsistent terminology (‘most able’, ‘more able’, ‘highest attainers’) without distinguishing between these terms.
- Most of the references to the most able occur in lists of different groups of learners, another of which is typically ‘disadvantaged pupils’. This gives the mistaken impression that the two groups are distinct – that there is no such thing as a most able disadvantaged learner.
- The Common Inspection Framework will be supported by separate inspection handbooks for each sector. The consultation response does not mention any revisions relating to the most able; neither does the March 2015 survey report say that revisions will be introduced in these handbooks to reflect its findings and recommendations (but see below).
Since the first survey report was published in 2013, several pieces of guidance have issued to inspectors.
- In Schools and Inspection (October 2013), inspectors’ attention is drawn to key revisions to the section 5 inspection framework:
‘In judging the quality of teaching…Inspectors will evaluate how teaching meets the needs of, and provides appropriate challenge to, the most able pupils. Underachievement of the most able pupils can trigger the judgements of inadequate achievement and inadequate teaching.’
In relation to report writing:
‘Inspectors are also reminded that they should include a short statement in the report on how well the most able pupils are learning and making progress and the outcomes for these pupils.’
- In Schools and Inspection (March 2014) several amendments are noted to Section 5 inspection and report writing guidance from January of that year, including:
‘Most Able – Inspectors must always report in detail on the progress of the most able pupils and how effectively teaching engages them with work that is challenging enough.’
‘…must always report in detail on the progress of the most able pupils and how effectively teaching engages them with work that is challenging enough.’
Moreover, for secondary schools:
‘There must be a comment on early entry for GCSE examinations. Where the school has an early entry policy, inspectors must be clear on whether early entry is limiting the potential of the most able pupils. Where early entry is not used, inspectors must comment briefly to that effect.’
- In School Inspection Update (December 2014) Ofsted’s National Director, Schools reminds inspectors, following the first of a series of half-termly reviews of ‘the impact of policy on school inspection practice’, to:
‘…place greater emphasis, in line with the handbook changes from September, on the following areas in section 5 inspection reports…The provision and outcomes for different groups of children, notably the most-able pupils and the disadvantaged (as referred to in the handbook in paragraphs 40, 129, 137, 147, 155, 180, 186, 194, 195, 196, 207, 208, 210 and 212).’
HMCI’s Annual Report
The 2014 Annual Report said (my emphasis):
‘Ofsted will continue to press schools to stretch their most able pupils. Over the coming year, inspectors will be looking at this more broadly, taking into account the leadership shown in this area by schools. We will also further sharpen our recommendations so that schools have a better understanding of how they can help their most able pupils to reach their potential.’
HMCI’s Commentary on the Report added for good measure:
‘In the year ahead, Ofsted will look even more closely at the performance of the brightest pupils in routine school inspections.’
So we are to expect a combination of broader focus, closer scrutiny and sharper recommendations.
The Annual Report relates to AY2013/14 and was published at the end of the first term of AY2014/15 and the end of calendar year 2014, so one assumes that references to the ‘coming year’ and ‘the year ahead’ are to calendar year 2015.
We should be able to see the impact of this ramping up in the sample I have selected, but some further change is also likely.
March 2015 survey report
One of the key findings from the March 2015 survey was (my emphasis):
‘Ofsted has sharpened its focus on the progress and quality of teaching of the most able students. We routinely comment on the achievement of the most able students in our inspection reports. However, more needs to be done to develop a clearer picture of how well schools use pupil premium funding for their most able students who are disadvantaged and the quality of information, advice and guidance provided for them. Ofsted needs to sharpen its practice in this area.’
Ofsted directed three recommendations at itself which do not altogether reflect this (my emboldening):
- Make sure that inspections continue to focus sharply on the progress made by students who are able and disadvantaged.
- Report more robustly about how well schools promote the needs of the most able through the quality of their curriculum and the information, advice and guidance they offer to the most able students.
- Ensure thematic surveys investigate, where appropriate, how well the most able are supported through, for example, schools’ use of the pupil premium and the curriculum provided.’
The first of these recommendations implies that inspections already focus sufficiently on the progress of able and disadvantaged learners – an assumption that we shall test in the analysis below. It therefore implies that no further change is necessary.
The third alludes to the most able disadvantaged but relates solely to thematic surveys, not to Section 5 inspection reports.
The second may imply that further emphasis will be placed on inspecting the appropriateness of the curriculum and IAG. Both of these topics seem likely to feature more strongly in a generic sense in the new Framework and Handbooks. One assumes that this will be extended to the most able, amongst other groups.
Though not mentioned in the survey report, we do know that Ofsted is preparing an evaluation toolkit. This was mentioned in a speech given by its Schools Director almost immediately after publication:
‘In this region specifically, inspectors have met with headteachers to address the poor achievement of the brightest disadvantaged children.
And inspectors are developing a most able evaluation toolkit for schools, aligned to that which is in place for free school meals.’
It is not clear from this whether the toolkit will be confined only to the most able disadvantaged or will have wider coverage.
Moreover, this statement raises the prospect that the toolkit might be similar in style to The Pupil Premium: Analysis and challenge tools for schools (January 2013). This is more akin to an old spanner than a Swiss army penknife. Anything of this nature would be rather less helpful than the term ‘toolkit’ implies.
At his request, I emailed Ofsted’s Director, Schools with questions on 21 March 2015. I requested further details of the toolkit. At the time of writing I have still to receive a reply.
I have selected an almost identical sample to that used in my 2014 analysis, one year on. It includes the 87 Section 5 inspection reports on secondary schools (excluding middle schools deemed secondary) that were published by Ofsted in the month of March 2015.
The bulk of the inspections were undertaken in February 2015, though a few took place in late January or early March.
Chart 1 gives the regional breakdown of the schools in the sample. All nine regions are represented, though there are only five schools from the North East, while Yorkshire and Humberside boasts 15. There are between seven and 11 schools in each of the other regions. In total 59 local authorities are represented.
In regional terms, this sample is more evenly balanced than the 2014 equivalent and the total number of authorities is two higher.
Chart 1: Schools within the sample by region
Chart 2 shows how different statuses of school are represented within the sample.
All are non-selective. Fifty-three schools (61%) are academies, divided almost equally between the sponsored and converter varieties.
Community and foundation schools together form a third group of equivalent size, while the seven remaining schools have voluntary status, just one of them voluntary controlled. There are no free schools.
Chart 2: Schools within the sample by status
All but three of the schools are mixed – and those three are boys’ schools.
As for age range, there is one 13-18 and one 14-18 school. Otherwise there are 32 11-16 institutions (37% of the sample) while the remaining 53 (61%) are 11-18 or 11-19 institutions.
Chart 3 shows the variation in numbers on roll. The smallest school – a new 11-18 secondary school – has just 125 pupils; the largest 2083. The average is 912.
Fifty-two schools (60%) are between 600 and 1,200 and twenty-three (26%) between 800 and 1,000 pupils.
Chart 3: Schools within the sample by NOR
Chart 4 shows the overall inspection grade of schools within the sample. A total of 19 schools (22%) are rated inadequate, seven of them attracting special measures. Only nine (10%) are outstanding, while 27 (31%) are good and 32 (37%) require improvement.
This is very similar to the distribution in the 2014 sample, except that there are slightly more inadequate schools and slightly fewer requiring improvement.
Chart 4: Schools within the sample by overall inspection grade
Unlike the 2104 analysis, I have also explored the distribution of all grades within reports. The results are set out in Chart 5.
Schools in the sample are relatively more secure on Leadership and management (55% outstanding or good) and Behaviour and safety of pupils (60% outstanding or good) than they are on Quality of teaching (43% outstanding or good) and Achievement of pupils (41% outstanding or good).
Chart 5: Schools within the sample by inspection sub-grades
Another new addition this year is comparison with the number and percentage of high attainers.
Amongst the sample, the number of high attainers in the 2014 GCSE cohort varied from three to 196 and the percentage from 3% to 52%. (Two schools did not have a GCSE cohort in 2014.)
These distributions are shown on the scatter charts 6 and 7, below.
Chart 6 (number) shows one major outlier at the top of the distribution. The vast majority – 64% of the sample – record numbers between 20 and 60. The average number is 41.
Chart 6: Schools within the sample by number of high attainers (Secondary Performance Tables measure)
Chart 7 again has a single outlier, this time at the bottom of the distribution. The average is 32%, slightly less than the 32.3% reported for all state-funded schools in the Performance Tables.
Two in five of the sample register a high attainer percentage of between 20% and 30%, while three in five register between 20% and 40%.
But almost a third have a high attainer population of 20% or lower.
Chart 7: Schools within the sample by percentage of high attainers (Secondary Performance Tables measure)
Out of curiosity, I compared the overall inspection grade with the percentage of high attainers.
- Amongst the nine outstanding schools, the percentage of high attainers ranged from 22% to 47%, averaging 33% (there was also one without a high attainer percentage).
- Amongst the 27 good schools, the percentage of high attainers was between 13% and 52% (plus one without a high attainer percentage) and averaged 32%.
- Amongst the 32 schools requiring improvement, the percentage of high attainers varied between 3% and 40% and averaged 23%.
- Amongst the 19 inadequate schools, the percentage of high attainers lay between 10% and 38% and also averaged 23%.
This may suggest a tendency for outstanding/good schools to have a somewhat larger proportion of high attainers than schools judged to be requiring improvement or inadequate.
Key findings and areas for improvement
Distribution of comments
Thirty-nine of the reports in the sample (45%) address the most able in the Summary of key findings, while 33 (38%) do so in the section about what the school needs to do to improve further.
In 24 cases (28%) there were entries in both these sections, but in 39 of the reports (45%) there was no reference to the most able in either section.
In 2014, 34% of reports in the sample addressed the issue in both the main findings and recommendations and 52% mentioned it in neither of these sections.
These percentage point changes are not strongly indicative of an extended commitment to this issue.
In the 2015 sample it was rather more likely for a reference to appear in the key findings for community schools (53%) and foundation schools (50%) than it was for converter academies (44%), sponsored academies (42%) or voluntary schools (29%).
Chart 8 shows the distribution of comments in these sections according to the overall inspection grade. In numerical terms, schools rated as requiring improvement overall are most likely to attract comments in both Key findings and Areas for improvement related to the most able.
Chart 8: Most able mentioned in key findings and areas for improvement by overall inspection grade (percentages)
But, when expressed as percentages of the total number of schools in the sample attracting these grades, it becomes apparent that the lower the grade, the more likely such a comment will be received.
Of the 39 reports making reference in the key findings, 10 comments were positive, 28 were negative and one managed to be both positive and negative simultaneously:
‘While the most-able students achieve well, they are capable of even greater success, notably in mathematics.’ (Harewood College, Bournemouth)
Positive key findings
Five of the ten exclusively positive comments were directed at community schools.
The percentage of high attainers in the 2014 GCSE cohorts at the schools attracting positive comments varied from 13% to 52% and included three of the five schools with the highest percentages in the sample.
Interestingly, only two of the schools with positive comments received an overall outstanding grade, while three required improvement.
Examples of positive comments, which were often generic, include:
- ‘The most able students achieve very well, and the proportion of GCSE A* and A grades is significantly above average across the curriculum.’ (Durham Johnston Comprehensive School, Durham)
- ‘The most able students do well because they are given work that challenges them to achieve their potential’. (The Elton High School Specialist Arts College, Bury)
- ‘Most able students make good progress in most lessons because of well-planned activities to extend their learning’. (Endon High School, Staffordshire)
- ‘Teachers encourage the most able students to explore work in depth and to master skills at a high level’. (St Richard Reynolds Catholic High School, Richmond-upon-Thames).
Negative key findings
The distribution of the 28 negative comments in Key findings according to overall inspection grade was: Outstanding (nil); Good five (19%); Requires improvement twelve (38%); Inadequate eleven (58%).
This suggests a relatively strong correlation between the quality of provision for the most able and the overall quality of the school.
The proportion of high attainers in the 2014 GCSE cohorts of the schools attracting negative comments varied between 3% and 42%. All but three are below the national average for state-funded schools on this measure and half reported 20% or fewer high attainers.
This broadly supports the hypothesis that quality is less strong in schools where the proportion of high attainers is comparatively low.
Examples of typical negative comments:
- ‘The most able students are not given work that is hard enough’ (Dyson Perrins C of E Sports College, Worcestershire)
- ‘Too many students, particularly the most able, do not make the progress of which they are capable’ (New Line Learning Academy, Kent)
- ‘Students, particularly the more able, make slower progress in some lessons where they are not sufficiently challenged. This can lead to some off task behaviour which is not always dealt with by staff’ (The Ferrers School, Northamptonshire)
- ‘Teachers do not always make sufficient use of assessment information to plan work that fully stretches or challenges all groups of students, particularly the most able’ (Noel-Baker School, Derby).
The menu of shortcomings identified is limited, consisting of seven items: underachievement (especially too few high GCSE grades), insufficient progress, low expectations, insufficiently challenging work, poor teaching quality, poor planning and poor use of assessment information.
Of these, the most common comprise a familiar litany. They are (in descending order):
- Insufficiently challenging work
Inspectors often point out inconsistent practice, though in the worst instances these shortcomings are dominant or even school-wide.
No key findings
Chart 9 shows the distribution of reports with no comments about the most able in Key findings and Areas for improvement according to overall inspection grade. When expressed as percentages, these again show that schools rated as outstanding are most likely to escape such comments, while inadequate schools are most likely to be in the firing line.
Chart 9: Most able not mentioned in key findings and areas for improvement by inspection grade (percentages)
This pattern replicates the findings from 2014. Orders of magnitude are also broadly comparable. There is no substantive evidence of a major increase in emphasis from inspectors.
It seems particularly surprising that, in over half of schools requiring improvement and a third or more of inadequate schools, issues with educating the most able are still not significant enough to feature in these sections of inspection reports.
Areas for improvement
By definition, recommendations for improvement are always associated with identified shortcomings.
The correlation between key findings and areas for improvement is inconsistent. In six cases there were Key findings relating to the most able, but no area for improvement specifically associated with those. Conversely, nine reports had identified areas for improvement that were not picked up in the key findings.
Areas for improvement are almost always formulaic and expressed as lists: the school should improve x through y and z.
When it comes to the most able, the area for improvement is almost invariably teaching quality, though sometimes this is indicated as the route to higher achievement while on other occasions teaching quality and raising achievement are perceived as parallel priorities.
Just one report in the sample mentioned the quality of leadership and management:
‘Ensure that leadership and management take the necessary steps to secure a significant rise in students’ achievement at the end of Year 11 through…ensuring that work set for the most able is always sufficiently challenging’ (New Line Learning Academy, Kent).
This is despite the fact that leadership was specifically mentioned as a focus in HMCI’s Annual Report.
The actions needed to bring about improvement reflect the issues mentioned in the analysis of key findings above. The most common involve applying assessment information to planning and teaching:
- ‘Raise students’ achievement and the quality of teaching further by ensuring that:…all staff develop their use of class data to plan learning so that students, including the most able, meet their challenging targets’ (Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey, Kent)
- ‘Ensure the quality of teaching is always good or better, in order to raise attainment and increase rates of progress, especially in English and mathematics, by:…ensuring teachers use all the information available to them to plan lessons that challenge students, including the most able’ (Oasis Academy Lister Park, Bradford)
- ‘Embed and sustain improvements in achievement overall and in English in particular so that teaching is consistently good and outstanding by: making best use of assessment information to set work that is appropriately challenging, including for the least and most able students’ (Pleckgate High School Mathematics and Computing College, Blackburn with Darwen)
Other typical actions involve setting more challenging tasks, raising the level of questioning, providing accurate feedback, improving lesson planning and maintaining consistently high expectations.
Coverage in the main body of reports
Leadership and management
Given the reference to this in HMCI’s Annual Report, one might have expected a new and significant emphasis within this section of the reports in the sample.
In fact, the most able were only mentioned in this section in 13 reports (15% of the total). Hardly any of these comments identified shortcomings. The only examples I could find were:
- ‘The most-able students are not challenged sufficiently in all subjects to
achieve the higher standards of which they are capable’ (Birkbeck School and Community Arts College, Lincolnshire)
- ‘Action to improve the quality of teaching is not focused closely enough on the strengths and weaknesses of the school and, as a result, leaders have not done enough to secure good teaching of students and groups of students, including…the most able (Ashington High School Sports College, Northumberland)
Inspectors are much more likely to accentuate the positive:
- ‘The school has been awarded the Challenge Award more than once. This is given for excellent education for a school’s most-able, gifted and talented students and for challenge across all abilities. Representatives from all departments attend meetings and come up with imaginative ways to deepen these students’ understanding.’ (Cheam High School, Sutton)
- ‘Leaders and governors are committed to ensuring equality of opportunity for all students and are making effective use of student achievement data to target students who may need additional support or intervention. Leaders have identified the need to improve the achievement of…the most-able in some subjects and have put in place strategies to do so’ (Castle Hall academy Trust, Kirklees)
- ‘Measures being taken to improve the achievement of the most able are effective. Tracking of progress is robust and two coordinators have been appointed to help raise achievement and aspirations. Students say improvements in teaching have been made, and the work of current students shows that their attainment and progress is on track to reach higher standards.’ (The Byrchall High School, Wigan).
Not one report mentioned the role of governors in securing effective provision for the most able.
Given how often school leadership escapes censure for issues identified elsewhere in reports, this outcome could be interpreted as somewhat complacent.
HMCI is quite correct to insist that provision for the most able is a whole school issue and, as such, a school’s senior leadership team should be held to account for such shortcomings.
Behaviour and safety
The impact of under-challenging work on pupils’ behaviour is hardly ever identified as a problem.
One example has been identified in the analysis of Key findings above. Only one other report mentions the most able in this section, and the comment is about the role of the school council rather than behaviour per se:
‘The academy council is a vibrant organisation and is one of many examples where students are encouraged to take an active role in the life of the academy. Sixth form students are trained to act as mentors to younger students. This was seen being effectively employed to…challenge the most able students in Year 9’ (St Thomas More High School, Southend)
A handful of reports make some reference under ‘Quality of teaching’ but one might reasonably conclude that neither bullying of the most able nor disruptive behaviour from bored high attainers is particularly widespread.
Quality of teaching
Statements about the most able are much more likely to appear in this section of reports. Altogether 59 of the sample (68%) made some reference.
Chart 10 shows the correlation between the incidence of comments and the sub-grade awarded by inspectors to this aspect of provision. It demonstrates that, while differences are relatively small, schools deemed outstanding are rather more likely to attract such comment.
But only one of the comments on outstanding provision is negative and that did not mention the most able specifically:
‘Also, in a small minority of lessons, activities do not always deepen
students’ knowledge and understanding to achieve the very highest grades at GCSE and A level.’ (Central Foundation Boys’ School, Islington)
Chart 10: Incidence of comments under quality of teaching by grade awarded for quality of teaching
Comments are much more likely to be negative in schools where the quality of teaching is judged to be good (41%), requiring improvement (59%) and inadequate (58%).
Even so, a few schools in the lower two categories receive surprisingly positive endorsements:
- ‘On the other hand, the most able students and the younger students in school consistently make good use of the feedback. They say they greatly value teachers’ advice….The teaching of the most able students is strong and often very strong. As a result, these students make good progress and, at times, achieve very well.’ (RI – The Elton High School Specialist Arts College, Bury)
- ‘Teaching in mathematics is more variable, but in some classes, good and outstanding teaching is resulting in students’ rapid progress. This is most marked in the higher sets where the most able students are being stretched and challenged and are on track to reach the highest grades at GCSE…. In general, the teaching of the most able students….is good.’ (RI- New Charter Academy, Tameside)
- ‘At its most effective, teaching is well organised to support the achievement of the most able, whose progress is better than other students. This is seen in some of the current English and science work.’ (I – Ely College, Cambridgeshire).
Negative comments on the quality of teaching supply a familiar list of shortcomings.
Some of the most perceptive are rather more specific. Examples include:
- ‘While the best teaching allows all students to make progress, sometimes discussions that arise naturally in learning, particularly with more able students, are cut short. As a result, students do not have the best opportunity to explore ideas fully and guide their own progress.’ (Dyson Perrins C of E Sports College, Worcestershire)
- ‘Teachers’ planning increasingly takes account of current information about students’ progress. However, some teachers assume that because the students are organised into ability sets, they do not need to match their teaching to individual and groups of students’ current progress. This has an inhibiting effect on the progress of the more able students in some groups.’ (Chulmleigh Community College, Devon)
- ‘In too many lessons, particularly boys’ classes, teachers do not use questioning effectively to check students’ learning or promote their thinking. Teachers accept responses that are too short for them to assess students’ understanding. Neither do they adjust their teaching to revisit aspects not fully grasped or move swiftly to provide greater stretch and new learning for all, including the most able.’ (The Crest Academies, Brent)
- ‘In some lessons, students, including the most able, are happy to sit and wait for the teacher to help them, rather than work things out for themselves’ (Willenhall E-ACT Academy, Walsall).
Were one compiling a list of what to do to impress inspectors, it would include the following items:
- Plans lessons meticulously with the needs of the most able in mind
- Use assessment information to inform planning of work for the most able
- Differentiate work (and homework) to match most able learners’ needs and starting points
- Deploy targeted questioning, as well as opportunities to develop deeper thinking and produce more detailed pieces of work
- Give the most able the flexibility to pursue complex tasks and do not force them to participate in unnecessary revision and reinforcement
- Do not use setting as an excuse for neglecting differentiation
- Ensure that work for the most able is suitably challenging
- Ensure that subject knowledge is sufficiently secure for this purpose
- Maintain the highest expectations of what the most able students can achieve
- Support the most able to achieve more highly but do not allow them to become over-reliant on support
- Deploy teaching assistants to support the most able
- Respond to restlessness and low level disruption from the most able when insufficiently challenged.
While many of the reports implicitly acknowledge that the most able learners will have different subject-specific strengths and weaknesses, the implications of this are barely discussed.
Moreover, while a few reports attempt a terminological distinction between ‘more able’ and ‘most able’, the vast majority seem to assume that, in terms of prior attainment, the most able are a homogenous group, whereas – given Ofsted’s preferred approach – there is enormous variation.
Achievement of pupils
This is the one area of reports where reference to the most able is now apparently compulsory – or almost compulsory.
Just one report in the sample has nothing to say about the achievement of the most able in this section: that on Ashby School in Leicestershire.
Some of the comments are relatively long and detailed, but others are far more cursory and the coverage varies considerably.
Using as an example the subset of schools awarded a sub-grade of outstanding for the achievement of pupils, we can exemplify different types of response:
- Generic: ‘The school’s most able students make rapid progress and attain excellent results. This provides them with an excellent foundation to continue to achieve well in their future studies.’ (Kelvin Hall School, Hull)
- Generic, progress-focused: ‘The most-able students make rapid progress and the way they are taught helps them to probe topics in greater depth or to master skills at a high level.’ (St Richard Reynolds Catholic High School, Richmond-upon-Thames)
- Achievement-focused, core subjects: ‘Higher attaining students achieve exceptionally well as a result of the support and challenge which they receive in class. The proportion of students achieving the higher A* to A grade was similar to national averages in English but significantly above in mathematics.
- Specific, achievement- and progress-focused: ‘Although the most able students make exceptional progress in the large majority of subjects, a few do not reach the very highest GCSE grades of which they are capable. In 2014, in English language, mathematics and science, a third of all students gained A and A* GCSE grades. Performance in the arts is a real strength. For example, almost two thirds of students in drama and almost half of all music students achieved A and A* grades. However, the proportions of A and A* grades were slightly below the national figures in English literature, geography and some of the subjects with smaller numbers of students (Central Foundation Boys’ School, Islington)
If we look instead at the schools with a sub-grade of inadequate, the comments are typically more focused on progress, but limited progress is invariably described as ‘inadequate’, ‘requiring improvement’, ‘weak’, ‘not good’, ‘not fast enough’. It is never quantified.
On the relatively few occasions when achievement is discussed, the measure is typically GCSE A*/A grades, most often in the core subjects.
It is evident from cross-referencing the Achievement of pupils sub-grade against the percentage of high attainers in the 2014 GCSE cohort that there is a similar correlation to that with the overall inspection grade:
- In schools judge outstanding on this measure, the high attainer population ranges from 22% to 47% (average 33%)
- In schools judged good, the range is from 13% to 52% (average 32%)
- In schools requiring improvement it is between 3% and 40% (average 23%)
- In schools rated inadequate it varies from 10% to 32% (average 22%)
Sixth Form Provision
Coverage of the most able in sections dedicated to the sixth form is also extremely variable. Relatively few reports deploy the term itself when referring to 16-19 year-old students.
Sometimes there is discussion of progression to higher education and sometimes not. Where this does exist there is little agreement on the appropriate measure of selectivity in higher education:
- ‘Students are aspiring to study at the top universities in Britain. This is a realistic prospect and illustrates the work the school has done in raising their aspirations.’ (Welling School, Bexley)
- ‘The academy carefully tracks the destination of leavers with most students proceeding to university and one third of students gaining entry to a Russell Group university’ (Ashcroft Technology Academy, Wandsworth)
- ‘Provision for the most able students is good, and an increasing proportion of students are moving on to the highly regarded ‘Russell group’ or Oxbridge universities. A high proportion of last year’s students have taken up a place at university and almost all gained a place at their first choice’ (Ashby School, Leicestershire)
- ‘Large numbers of sixth form students progress to well-regarded universities’ (St Bartholomew’s School, West Berkshire)
- ‘Students receive good support in crafting applications to universities which most likely match their attainment; this includes students who aspire to Oxford or Cambridge’ (Anthony Gell School, Derbyshire).
Most able and disadvantaged
Given the commitment in the 2015 survey report to ‘continue to focus sharply on the progress made by students who are able and disadvantaged’, I made a point of reviewing the coverage of this issue across all sections of the sample reports.
Suffice to say that only one report discussed provision for the most able disadvantaged students, in these terms:
‘Pupil premium funding is being used successfully to close the wide achievement gaps apparent at the previous inspection….This funding is also being effectively used to extend the range of experiences for those disadvantaged students who are most able. An example of this is their participation in a residential writing weekend.’ (St Hild’s C of E VA School, Hartlepool)
Take a bow Lead Inspector Petts!
A handful of other reports made more general statements to the effect that disadvantaged students perform equivalently to their non-disadvantaged peers, most often with reference to the sixth form:
- ‘The few disadvantaged students in the sixth form make the same progress as other students, although overall, they attain less well than others due to their lower starting points’ (Sir Thomas Wharton Community College, Doncaster)
- ‘There is no difference between the rates of progress made by disadvantaged students and their peers’ (Sarum Academy, Wiltshire)
- ‘In many cases the progress of disadvantaged students is outstripping that of others. Disadvantaged students in the current Year 11 are on course to do
every bit as well as other students.’ (East Point Academy, Suffolk).
On two occasions, the point was missed entirely:
- ‘The attainment of disadvantaged students in 2014 was lower than that of other students because of their lower starting points. In English, they were half a grade behind other students in the school and nationally. In mathematics, they were a grade behind other students in the school and almost a grade behind students nationally. The wider gap in mathematics is due to the high attainment of those students in the academy who are not from disadvantaged backgrounds.’ (Chulmleigh Community College, Devon)
- ‘Disadvantaged students make good progress from their starting points in relation to other students nationally. These students attained approximately two-thirds of a GCSE grade less than non-disadvantaged students nationally in English and in mathematics. This gap is larger in school because of the exceptionally high standards attained by a large proportion of the most able students…’ (Durham Johnston Comprehensive School, Durham)
If Ofsted believes that inspectors are already focusing sharply on this issue then, on this evidence, they are sadly misinformed.
Key Findings and areas for improvement
Key findings: Guidance
- Ofsted inspectors have no reliable definition of ‘most able’ and no guidance on the appropriateness of definitions adopted by the schools they visit. The approach taken in the 2015 survey report is different to that adopted in the initial 2013 survey and is now exclusively focused on prior attainment. It is also significantly different to the high attainer measure in the Secondary Performance Tables.
- Using Ofsted’s approach, the national population of most able in Year 7 approaches 50% of all learners; in Year 11 it is some 40% of all learners. The latter is some eight percentage points lower than the cohort derived from the Performance Tables measure.
- The downside of such a large cohort is that it masks the huge attainment differences within the cohort, from a single L5C (and possibly a L3 in either maths or English) to a clutch of L6s. Inspectors might be encouraged to regard this as a homogenous group.
- The upside is that there should be a most able presence in every year group of every school. In some comprehensive schools, high attainers will be a substantial majority in every year group; in others there will be no more than a handful.
- Ofsted has not released data showing the incidence of high attainers in each school according to its measure (or the Performance Tables measure for that matter). This does not features in Ofsted’s Data Dashboard.
- Guidance in the current School Inspection Handbook is not entirely helpful. There is not space in a Section 5 inspection report to respond to all the separate references (see Appendix for the full list). The terminology is confused (‘most able’, ‘more able’, ‘high attainers’).Too often the Handbook mentions several different groups alongside the most able, one of which is disadvantaged pupils. This perpetuates the false assumption that there are no most able disadvantaged learners. We do not yet know whether there will be wholesale revision when new Handbooks are introduced to reflect the Common Inspection Framework.
- At least four pieces of subsidiary guidance have issued to inspectors since October 2013. But there has been nothing to reflect the commitments in HMCI’s Annual Report (including a stronger focus on school leadership of this issue) or the March 2015 Survey report. This material requires enhancement and consolidation.
- The March 2015 Report apparently commits to more intensive scrutiny of curricular and IAG provision in Section 5 inspections, as well as ‘continued focus’ on able and disadvantaged students (see below). A subsequent commitment to an evaluation toolkit would be helpful to inspectors as well as schools, but its structure and content has not yet been revealed.
Key findings: Survey
- The sample for my survey is broadly representative of regions, school status and variations in NOR. In terms of overall inspection grades, 10% are outstanding, 31% good, 37% require improvement and 22% are inadequate. In terms of sub-grades, they are notably weaker on Quality of teaching and Achievement of pupils, the two sections that most typically feature material about the most able.
- There is huge variation within the sample by percentage of high attainers (2014 GCSE population according to the Secondary Performance Tables measure). The range is from 3% to 52%. The average is 32%, very slightly under the 32.3% average for all state-funded schools. Comparing overall inspection grade with percentage of high attainers suggests a marked difference between those rated outstanding/good (average 32/33%) and those rated as requiring improvement/inadequate (average 23%).
- 45% of the reports in the sample addressed the most able under Key findings; 38% did so under Areas for improvement and 28% made reference in both sections. However, 45% made no reference in either of these sections. In 2014, 34% mentioned the most able in both main findings and recommendations, while 52% mentioned it in neither. On this measure, inspectors’ focus on the most able has not increased substantively since last year.
- Community and foundation schools were rather more likely to attract such comments than either converter or sponsored academies. Voluntary schools were least likely to attract them. The lower the overall inspection grade, the more likely a school is to receive such comments.
- In Key findings, negative comments outnumbered positive comments by a ratio of 3:1. Schools with high percentages of high attainers were well represented amongst those receiving positive comments.
- Unsurprisingly, schools rated inadequate overall were much more likely to attract negative comments. A correlation between overall quality and quality of provision for the most able was somewhat more apparent than in 2014. There was also some evidence to suggest a correlation between negative comments and a low proportion of high attainers.
- On the other hand, over half of schools with an overall requiring improvement grade and a third with an overall inspection grade of inadequate did not attract comments about the most able under Key findings. This is not indicative of greater emphasis.
- The menu of shortcomings is confined to seven principal faults: underachievement (especially too few high GCSE grades), insufficient progress, low expectations, insufficiently challenging work, poor teaching quality, poor planning and poor use of assessment information. In most cases practice is inconsistent but occasionally problems are school-wide.
- Areas for improvement are almost always expressed in formulaic fashion. Those relating to the most able focus almost invariably on the Quality of teaching. The improvement most commonly urged is more thorough application of assessment information to planning and teaching.
- Only 15% of reports mention the most able under Leadership and management and, of those, only two are negative comments. The role of governors was not raised once. Too often the school leadership escapes censure for shortcomings identified elsewhere in the report. This is not consistent with indications of new-found emphasis in this territory.
- The most able are hardly ever mentioned in the Behaviour and safety section of reports. It would seem that bullying is invisible and low level disruption by bored high attainers rare.
- Conversely, 68% of reports referenced the most able under Quality of teaching. Although negative comments are much more likely in schools judged as inadequate or requiring improvement in this area, a few appear to be succeeding with their most able against the odds. The main text identifies a list of twelve good practice points gleaned from the sample.
- Only one report fails to mention the most able under Achievement of pupils, but the quality and coverage varies enormously. Some comments are entirely generic; some focus on achievement, others on progress and some on both. Few venture beyond the core subjects. There is very little quantification, especially of insufficient progress (and especially compared with equivalent discussion of progress by disadvantaged learners).
- Relatively few reports deploy the term ‘most able’ when discussing sixth form provision. Progression to higher education is sometimes mentioned and sometimes not. There is no consensus on how to refer to selective higher education.
- Only one report in this sample mentions disadvantaged most able students. Two reports betray the tendency of assuming these two groups to be mutually exclusive but, worse still, the sin of omission is almost universal. This provides no support whatsoever for Ofsted’s claim that inspectors already address the issue.
Areas for improvement
Ofsted has made only limited improvements since the previous inspection in May 2014 and its more recent commitments are not yet reflected in Section 5 inspection practice.
In order to pass muster it should:
- Appoint a lead inspector for the most able who will assume responsibility across Ofsted, including communication and consultation with third parties.
- Consolidate and clarify material about the most able in the new Inspection Handbooks and supporting guidance for inspectors.
- Prepare and publish a high quality evaluation toolkit, to support schools and inspectors alike. This should address definitional and terminological issues as well as supplying benchmarking data for achievement and progress. It might also set out the core principles underpinning effective practice.
- Include within the toolkit a self-assessment and evaluation framework based on the quality standards. This should model Ofsted’s understanding of whole school provision for the most able that aligns with outstanding, good and requiring improvement grades, so that schools can understand the progression between these points.
- Incorporate data about the incidence of the most able and their performance in the Data Dashboard.
- Extend all elements of this work programme to the primary and post-16 sectors.
- Undertake this work programme in consultation with external practitioners and experts in the field, completing it as soon as possible and by December 2015 at the latest.
Verdict: (Still) Requires Improvement.
Annex: Coverage in the School Inspection Handbook (December 2014)
- Gather evidence about how well they are ‘learning, gaining knowledge and understanding, and making progress’ (para 40)
- Take account of them when considering performance data (para 59)
- Take advantage of opportunities to gather evidence from them (para 68)
- Consider the effectiveness of pupil grouping, for example ‘where pupils are taught in mixed ability groups/classes, inspectors will consider whether the most able are stretched…’ (para 153)
- Explore ‘how well the school works with families to support them in overcoming the cultural obstacles that often stand in the way of the most able pupils from deprived backgrounds attending university’ (para 154)
- Consider whether ‘teachers set homework in line with the school’s policy and that challenges all pupils, especially the most able’ (para 180)
- Consider ‘whether work in Key Stage 3 is demanding enough, especially for the most able when too often undemanding work is repeated unnecessarily’ (para 180)
- Consider whether ‘teaching helps to develop a culture and ethos of scholastic excellence, where the highest achievement in academic work is recognised, especially in supporting the achievement of the most able’ (para 180)
- When judging achievement, have regard for ‘the progress that the most able are making towards attaining the highest grades’ and ‘pay particular attention to whether more able pupils in general and the most able pupils in particular are achieving as well as they should’. They must ‘summarise the achievements of the most able pupils in a separate paragraph of the inspection report’ (paras 185-7)
- Consider ‘how the school uses assessment information to identify pupils who…need additional support to reach their full potential, including the most able.’ (para 193)
- Consider how well ‘assessment, including test results, targets, performance descriptors or expected standards are used to ensure that…more able pupils do work that deepens their knowledge and understanding’ and ‘pupils’ strengths and misconceptions are identified and acted on by teachers during lessons and more widely to… deepen the knowledge and understanding of the most able’ (para 194)
- Take account of ‘the learning and progress across year groups of different groups of pupils currently on the roll of the school, including…the most able’. Evidence gathered should include ‘the school’s own records of pupils’ progress, including… the most able pupils such as those who joined secondary schools having attained highly in Key Stage 2’ (para 195)
- Take account of ‘pupils’ progress in the last three years, where such data exist and are applicable, including that of…the most able’ (para 195)
- ‘When inspecting and reporting on students’ achievement in the sixth form, inspectors must take into account all other guidance on judging the achievement, behaviour and development of students, including specific groups such as…the most able ‘ (para 210)
- Talk to sixth form students to discover ‘how well individual study programmes meet their expectations, needs and future plans, including for…the most able’ (para 212)
However, the terminology is not always consistent. in assessing the overall effectiveness of a school, inspectors must judge its response to ‘the achievement of…the highest and lowest attainers’ (para 129)
‘The school’s practice consistently reflects the highest expectations of staff and the highest aspirations for pupils, including the most able…’
‘Much teaching over time in all key stages and most subjects is outstanding and never less than consistently good. As a result, almost all pupils currently on roll in the school, including…the most able, are making sustained progress that leads to outstanding achievement.’
‘The learning of groups of pupils, particularly… the most able, is consistently good or better.’
- Effectiveness of sixth form provision:
‘All groups of pupils make outstanding progress, including…the most able’
‘The school takes effective action to enable most pupils, including the most able…’
‘Teaching over time in most subjects, including English and mathematics, is consistently good. As a result, most pupils and groups of pupils on roll in the school, including…the most able, make good progress and achieve well over time.’
‘Effective teaching strategies, including setting appropriate homework and well-targeted support and intervention, are matched closely to most pupils’ needs, including those most and least able, so that pupils learn well in lessons’
‘The learning of groups of pupils, particularly… the most able, is generally good.’
- Effectiveness of sixth form provision:
‘As a result of teaching that is consistently good over time, students make good progress, including…the most able’
‘As a result of weak teaching over time, pupils or particular groups of pupils, including…the most able, are making inadequate progress.’
‘Groups of pupils, particularly disabled pupils and/or those who have special educational needs and/or disadvantaged pupils and/or the most able, are underachieving’
- Effectiveness of sixth form provision:
‘Students or specific groups such as… the most able do not achieve as well as they can. Low attainment of any group shows little sign of rising.’