How High Attainers Feature in Ofsted Inspection and School Performance Tables (and what to do about it) – Part Two


This is the second and final part of a post about how the school accountability system reflects the performance of high attaining learners.

Part One considered recent amendments to Ofsted’s inspection guidance and compared Ofsted’s approach with how high attainers are defined in the School Performance Tables. It reviewed expectations of progression by high attainers and proposed that these should be increased.

Part Two:

  • Reviews how the next School Performance Tables (2013 results) will feature high attainers, compared with the current Tables (2012 results).
  • Explains how high attainers feature in the proposals for assessment and accountability reform set out in three recent consultation documents – covering primary, secondary and post-16 education respectively. This takes in the recently published Government response to the secondary consultation.
  • Offers guidance for schools on how they might set about planning to improve the performance of their high attainers, given current accountability arrangements and future prospects and
  • Proposes for further discussion a basket of key indicators that schools might publish and pursue alongside learners, parents and other stakeholders.

I have adopted a simple taxonomy of measures throughout the discussion that follows.

This distinguishes measures relating specifically to high attainers according to whether they feature:

  • Attainment: the achievement of specified grades or levels in assessments conducted at the end of a key stage of education.
  • Progress: the expected trajectory between two or more of these assessments, consistent with achieving commensurate outcomes in each.
  • Destination: the nature of the educational or other setting to which learners have moved at the end of a key stage.
  • Closing the Gap: the difference between the outcomes of disadvantaged and other learners on any of these measures, whether this is falling and, if so, by how much.
  • Comparison: how the performance of schools/colleges on any of these measures compares with broadly similar institutions.

I have also flagged up related measures of high attainment – and measures which reflect high attainment – where these have been applied to the entire cohort rather than separately to high attainers.


High Attainers in the 2012 and 2013 Performance Tables

We begin with a comparison between the 2012 and 2013 School Performance Tables covering the primary, secondary and 16-18 tables respectively.

The details of reporting in the 2013 Tables are drawn from the published Statement of Intent. This confirms that they should be published according to the standard timetable, in mid-December 2013 (primary) and late January 2014 (secondary and post-16) respectively, with any data not then ready for publication added as and when it becomes available.

For ease of reference I have included in brackets the national figure for each high attainer measure in the 2012 Tables (state-funded schools only).


Primary Tables

Significant changes will be apparent in 2013. These are consequential on: the introduction of Level 4B+ and Level 6 performance; the removal of an overall level in English; the introduction of the grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS) test and the addition of three year averages for specified measures.

Level 4B+ has been introduced as a new marker of ‘secondary readiness’. The reason given is that analysis of sub levels showed that, in 2012, only 47% of those with 4C in both English and maths went on to achieve 5 A*-C grade GCSEs including English and maths, while the comparable percentages for 4B and 4A were 72% and 81% respectively.

I pause only to note that, if the threshold is raised in this manner, there is even stronger logic behind the idea of raising the threshold for high attainers in parallel – an idea I floated in Part One of this post.

The table below compares the 2012 and 2013 measures using the taxonomy set out above.


  2012 2013
High Attainers measures
Attainment % achieving L3- (0%), L4+ (99%), L5+ in both English and maths (72%) % achieving L3- and L5+, in all three of reading and maths tests and writing TA
KS1-2 value added measure (English and maths) (99.8) % achieving L4+ and L4B+ in reading test
% achieving L4+ in writing TA
% achieving L3-, L4+, L4B+, L5+ and L6 in GPS test
% achieving L3-, L4+, L4B+, L5+ and L6 in maths test
KS1-2 VA (reading, writing and maths)
Progress % making at least expected progress in English (87%) and maths (92%) % making at least  expected progress in each of reading, writing, maths
Destinations None None
Closing the gap None None
Comparison % achieving L4+ in English and maths (99%) % achieving L4+ in  reading, writing and maths
High Attainment measures
  % achieving L5+ in reading and maths tests and writing TA (20%) % achieving L5+ and L6 in reading test
  % achieving L5+ in English (37%) in maths (39%) and in reading (48%) % achieving L5+ and L6 in writing TA
  % achieving L5+ in English TA (36%), maths TA (40%), science TA (36%), reading TA (46%) and writing TA (28%) % achieving L5+ and L6 in English, reading, maths, science TA
  Average point score (28.2) Average point score (reading, writing, maths)


The number of attainment measures applied specifically to high attainers has increased, but it is not entirely clear why so many different combinations of levels will be reported for different elements (there are four variants in all). The extent of L6 attainment is clearly a factor, but cannot be the sole reason.

For the first time we will be able to compare the performance of disadvantaged and other learners for both L5 and L6 in GPS and maths, at least in theory, since very few schools are likely to have sufficient L6 performance by disadvantaged learners to register on this measure.

But this is a high attainment measure. We still cannot see what proportion of high attainers are disadvantaged – and how their performance compares with their peers.

A national primary destinations measure is not really feasible and would tell us little, unless receiving secondary schools are categorised on the basis of their performance in the secondary tables or their Ofsted rating. It might be interesting to see what proportion of high attainers (particularly disadvantaged high attainers) transferrto secondary schools deemed outstanding – compared with middle and low attainers – but the benefits would be limited. However, this might be more relevant at local level.

The basis of the comparison with other schools is important to understand, since this methodology will be carried forward in the accountability reforms reviewed below.

The probability is calculated of pupils achieving KS2 L4+ in both English and maths, based on the achievement of pupils with the same prior attainment at KS1. These probabilities are averaged to provide a figure for the school. Then a similar school group is established by selecting the 62 schools with immediately stronger average performance and the 62 with immediately weaker average performance, giving a group of 125 schools. An average Level per pupil is calculated from the average points score.

The same methodology is used in the secondary tables. Here the calculation is built on the probability of achieving 5+ A*-C grades in GCSE, or equivalent, plus English and maths GCSEs, and based on the achievement of pupils with the same prior attainment at KS2. In this case the similar school group is derived from the 27 schools immediately above and the 27 immediately below, giving a group of 55 comparator schools.


Secondary Tables

Compared with the extensive changes to the Primary Tables in 2013, there is very little different in the Secondary Tables, apart from the introduction of an average grade per pupil (best 8) measure.


2012 2013
High attainers measures
Attainment % achieving: 5+ A*-C GCSEs or equivalent including GCSEs in English and maths (94%) Ditto
% achieving Grades A*-C in GCSE English and maths (94.3%) Ditto
APS (best 8) all qualifications (398.5) and GCSE only (375.4) Ditto
Average grade per qualification and per GCSE Ditto
Average entries per pupil for all qualifications (12.4) and GCSE (9.7); Ditto
% entered for all EBacc subjects (46.3%);            % achieving all EBacc qualifications (38.5%); Ditto
EBacc VA in English (1000.2), maths (1000.1), science (1000.4), humanities (1000.8) and languages (1000.2) Ditto
Average grade per pupil (best 8)
Progress % making at least expected progress in English (96.6%) and maths (96.8%) Ditto
  VA (best 8) (1000.8) Ditto
Destinations None (see below) Published data included
Closing the Gap None Ditto
Comparisons % achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs or equivalent, including GCSEs in English and maths (94%) Ditto
High Attainment measures None Ditto


I have not included in the high attainment section the few additional attainment measures not  applied to high attainers (percentage achieving 5+ GCSEs at A*-C or equivalent (83%); percentage entered for and achieving EBacc subjects – English, maths, science, humanities and languages). These are not specifically high attainment measures and tell us relatively little.

As in the Primary Tables, there is a no analysis of schools’ success in closing the gap for high attainers. And, since there are no substantive high attainment measures in the Secondary Tables (with the possible exception of the EBacc), this omission is comparatively more significant.

Whereas we can see some L5+ and L6 performance for disadvantaged learners in the primary tables, there is no equivalent focus – say on 5+ GCSEs at A*/A including English and maths – in the secondary tables.

Destinations measures have already been published separately for 2010/11 and education destinations will be included in the 2013 Performance Tables, but the breakdown of destinations data by pupil characteristics does not include a prior attainment category.

(Compare this with the more cautious statements about the longer term use of KS4 destinations data set out below. The Statement of Intent is comparatively more cautious about the KS5 data.)

We have also had the separate announcement that Performance Tables will henceforward record only a learner’s first entry for any given GCSE examination (or IGCSE or Level 1/Level 2 Certificate).

This is too late for the imminent 2013 Tables, but will impact on the 2014 Tables (published in January 2015), when it will bite on all EBacc subjects. From 2015 it will impact on all subjects.

There are two schools of thought about the potential impact on high attainers.

One might argue that this change should not affect them unduly, since they are much more likely to be entered early because ready to achieve a commensurately high grade, rather than to ‘bank’ a Grade C which they may or may not subsequently seek to improve via retakes.

As the DfE announcement says:

‘If schools are confident that pupils will achieve well even when entered early and that early entry is therefore in the interests of the pupil, they should not need to make any changes to entry plans.’

On the other hand, we have already seen in Part One that Ofsted have included in  Subsidiary Guidance supporting inspection the advice that:

‘Inspectors should investigate whether a policy of early entry to GCSE for pupils is preventing them from making as much progress as they should, for example because…

  • The widespread use of early GCSE entry and repeated sitting of examinations has encouraged short-term gains in learning but has led to underachievement at GCSE, particularly for able pupils
  • Opportunities are missed to meet the needs of high-attaining pupils through depth of GCSE study and additional qualifications.’ (para 34)

Schools would do well to ensure that their plans to improve high attainers’ performance are reflected in any revision of their early entry policies, and vice versa.

Given the significance now attached to this issue, any measure that depends on increasing the incidence of early entry for high attainers is likely to receive close scrutiny.

Schools should not be cowed from adopting such an approach where it is clearly in the best interest of their highest attainers, but they will need strong supporting evidence that early entry will result in an A*/A grade (and ideally A*), and that appropriate progression routes are in place.


16-18 Tables

The post-16 Tables are comparatively less well-developed and continue to rely exclusively on high attainment measures rather than separately delineating outcomes for high attainers.

The structure of the 2013 Tables is undergoing significant change, with separate reporting of three different performance categories, depending whether students have pursued A levels, A level and other advanced academic qualifications or advanced vocational qualifications respectively.

The 2013 entries in the table below cover only the A level strand.


  2012 2013 (A levels)
High attainers measures  
Attainment None Ditto
Progress None Ditto
Destinations None Ditto (see below)
Closing the Gap None Ditto
Comparisons None Ditto
High attainment measures
  % of KS5 students (4.8%) and of A level students (7.4%) achieving 3 A levels at AAB+ in three facilitating subjects % of A level students achieving 3 A levels at AAB+ in three facilitating subjects
  % of KS5 students (7.8%) and of A level students (11.9%) achieving  3 A levels at AAB+ with two in facilitating subjects % of A level students achieving 3 A levels at AAB+ with two in facilitating subjects
  APS per student and per entry for A level only APS per A level student (FTE) and per A level entry
  APS per student and per entry for A level and other academic qualifications
  APS per student and per entry for A level and equivalent qualifications (including 4 year time series)
  A level VA (see below)


New value added measures are also expected for A level and the other two performance categories, though the release of this data is said to be ‘subject to further analysis’ and no substantive detail is provided.

There is no commitment to introduce KS5 destinations data into the 2013 Tables though the Statement of Intent says:

‘We will continue to evaluate both the KS5 and employment destinations measures as part of our aim to include in future performance tables.’

‘Facilitating subjects’ continue to hold sway in the key high attainment measures, despite continuing criticism of the concept, as well as concern that a ‘three facilitating subjects’ measure is not consistent with the Russell Group’s advice.


What can we learn from this comparison?

It is noticeable how little consistency there is between each set of Tables as presently formulated. High attainers feature strongly in the Secondary Tables, to a limited extent in the Primary Tables and not at all in the Post-16 Tables.

Conversely, there are several measures of high attainment in the Primary Tables and a couple in the Post-16 tables, but the Secondary Tables concentrate exclusively on generic measures. There is no measure for achievement pitched at GCSEs Grades A*/A.

Closing the gap data and comparisons data is so far entirely absent from the post-16 Tables and, perhaps less surprisingly, destinations data is absent from the Primary Tables.

Where destinations and closing the gap data is available, there is no breakdown for high attainers.

The next section will explore whether the changes proposed in the three accountability-related consultation documents are likely to bring about any greater consistency in the coverage of the respective Performance Tables and, more specifically, how they are likely to report on high attainers.


Likely Impact of Accountability Reforms

At the time of writing, three staged consultations have been launched but only one has been concluded.

All three consultations are predicated on a new approach to the publication of accountability data which has three components:

  • A requirement to publish a handful of headline indicators on schools’ own websites. The secondary consultation response describes this as a ‘snapshot’ in standard format. It seems likely that this provision will be extended to primary and post-16 institutions but, as yet, this is nowhere confirmed.
  • Continued publication of Performance Tables which contain the same headline indicators, but with additional material showing how different groups of learners perform against them and how performance compares with other institutions.
  • The introduction by March 2015 of a new data portal which contains all the (performance) information held about schools (and colleges?) We are told in the secondary consultation response that:

‘It will be an easily accessible website that allows the public to search all the information we hold about schools, subject to protecting individuals’ anonymity. Respondents to the consultation argued that it would be useful to see measures showing school by school performance in vocational qualifications, the percentage of pupils achieving the top grades in GCSEs, and average grades by subject. We agree that all these measures will be of interest to many people, and the Data Portal is being designed so that parents can search for this type of information.’

There is otherwise comparatively little information about this portal in the public domain.

DfE’s Digital Strategy, published in December 2012, says that the parent School Performance Data (SDP) programme will ‘see the consolidation of 8 existing data-based services into one’ and that delivery of the programme will be staggered from the second quarter of 2014 until the final quarter of 2015. At some point within this timeline, it will absorb and replace RAISE Online.



Primary Accountability Reform

Those with a wider interest in the proposed changes to primary accountability and assessment are invited to read this analysis.  This commentary deals only with the material likely to be published through one of the three routes described above.

The primary document is comfortably the vaguest of the three consultations. However, we know that new KS2 tests – single tests for the full attainment spectrum – will be introduced in 2016, with results first appearing in the 2016 Performance Tables, likely to be published in December that year.

We are told that tests will be available in maths and in elements of English including reading (GPS is not mentioned explicitly). Writing will continue to be assessed via teacher assessment.

Published performance measures are typically described in the consultation as relating to ‘each subject’ but it seems most likely that elements of English will continue to be reported separately.

All the measures outlined below therefore apply to maths and to each tested element of English. One assumes they also apply to writing TA – and potentially to other TA outcomes too – but this is unclear.

So there may be one or two sets of measures for maths (test and potentially TA), while for English there will be somewhere between one (reading test) and five (reading and GPS tests; reading, writing and GPS TA).

For each subject/element, Performance Tables are expected to include:

  • The percentage of pupils ‘meeting the secondary readiness standard’, which will already have been introduced in the 2013 Tables. Secondary readiness will be reported using scaled scores derived from raw test marks. A score of 100 is proposed to denote the threshold of secondary readiness, so the Tables will show the percentage of a school’s learners at or above 100.
  • The corresponding average scaled scores for each school. The consultation document adopts an illustrative scale – based on the current national curriculum tests – which runs from 80 to 130. An average scaled score significantly over 100 is a positive indicator but, of itself, says nothing about the distribution of scores, or whether this outcome is attributable to prior attainment.
  • ‘How many of the school’s pupils are among the highest-attaining nationally, by…showing the percentage of pupils attaining a high scaled score’. There is no information about where these measures will be pitched in relation to the deciles that will be used to report to parents on individual learners’ performance. It might be that the cut-off for high attainers is pitched at a particular score – say 120 on the illustrative scale above – or at the 20th percentile, for example. (It seems unlikely that numbers performing in each decile will be reported in the tables though they could presumably be found via the data portal.)
  • Progress measures based on comparison of pupils’ scaled scores with the scores of other pupils with the same prior attainment. The paper gives the impression that there will be separate progress measures for each subject/element, rather than a composite measure such as that planned for secondary schools (see below). These will be derived from performance on a baseline assessment, which seems increasingly likely to be moved back from the end of KS1 to YR. We are not told what categories of prior attainment will be applied. A sophisticated gradation, based on deciles, is unlikely to be consistent with a simple baseline check for 4 year-olds. A cruder tripartite judgement of ‘primary-readiness’ is more probable, with learners categorised as ‘not yet primary ready’, ‘primary ready’ or ‘performing beyond primary readiness’.
  • Comparison of each school’s performance with other schools with similar intakes. Whether this will be undertaken in relation to all the measures above, or only selected measures, is so far unclear.
  • The attainment and progress of those in receipt of the Pupil Premium. Whether this analysis will be provided for to all the measures above also remains unclear.

All measures will be published as annual results and as three year rolling averages

The document asks respondents to comment on whether other measures should be prioritised within performance tables. It is not clear which of this data will be published on schools’ own websites as well as in performance tables.


Secondary accountability reform

The response to the secondary consultation confirms that schools will be required to publish five measures in a standard format on their own websites:

  • Attainment across a suite of up to eight qualifications (called ‘Attainment 8’). This suite includes: English and maths, both of which are double weighted to reflect their significance (English language will only be double weighted if combined with English literature); three further EBacc subjects (combined science double award will count as two qualifications; subjects can be drawn from the same subject area, eg three sciences or two languages); and three further qualifications, which may be arts-based, academic or approved vocational qualifications (English literature may count as one of these). The measure will be applied to learners entering fewer than eight qualifications and those entering more will have their highest graded qualifications counted in the final category. The outcome will be expressed as an average grade, but with finer gradations – exemplification in the response refers to ‘a high B grade or a low D grade’. (The consultation document noted that learners would know their APS and be able to compare it with ‘easily available local and national benchmarks’).
  • An aggregated progress measure (called ‘Progress 8’) based on the same suite of up to eight qualifications. KS4 results will be predicted on the basis of prior attainment at KS2. This involves calculating an estimated KS4 outcome based on the actual outcomes of all learners with a specified level of KS2 attainment across English and maths. (The two examples in the response are based on the existing KS2 APS methodology and averaged NC levels respectively, rather than the proposed new ‘scaled scores’ methodology outlined above. We do not know on what basis such scores would be aggregated in future for the purpose of this calculation.) Each learner’s VA score is calculated by subtracting their estimated outcome from their actual outcome. So, if a learner with given prior attainment is estimated to achieve 8C grades at GCSE and actually achieves 4Bs and 4Cs, that gives a VA score of +0.5 (4 grades over 8 subjects). The school’s average VA score is calculated by aggregating these outcomes.
  • The percentage of learners achieving a ‘pass’ grade or better in English and maths. The response uses the existing nomenclature of a C grade or better, but this will change when a new GCSE grading system is finalised. Outcomes from the Ofqual consultation – which proposed a new grading scale from 1 (low) to 8 (high) and a subsequent standards-setting consultation – should be available shortly.
  • The percentage achieving ‘good grades’ in the EBacc (the same issue applies) and
  • A destination measure, derived from the current experimental approach. This is provisional since ‘we want to be sure the statistics are robust before committing to use this…as a headline indicator’.

The response adds that the calculation process for ‘Progress 8’ is under review. It is likely to be adjusted, by calculating expected progress from the results of learners who completed KS4 three years previously, though possibly not until 2019.

There might also be a shift to calculating expected progress at subject level, which is then averaged, to reduce the likelihood of ‘schools entering learners for qualifications ‘in which it is easier to score points for the progress measure’.

A straightforward linear point scoring system is under discussion – eg 1 for a current GCSE Grade G to 8 for a current A* grade. This would give more credit to schools for higher results than the current non-linear approach, which awards a G 16 points and an A* 58 points. (this might suggest a similar adjustment to the primary APS methodology.)

Finally, the treatment of an estimated 1.2% of low attainers who enter no relevant qualifications is still under consideration. The methodology will not be finalised until Spring 2014.

Performance Tables will ‘eventually’ include the five headline indicators above (no date is provided for this).

They will also contain:

  • A value added progress measure in English and maths, showing whether learners have performed better or worse than expected given their prior attainment at KS2. (The original consultation document implied this would relate to English and maths separately and would be provided for low, middle and high attainers respectively.)
  • A comparison measure with similar schools, using the existing methodology, but further developed to give ‘an indication of disadvantage’ in each group of similar schools.
  • By implication, ‘closing the gap’ indicators showing the attainment of disadvantaged learners eligible for the Pupil Premium, the progress of those learners and ‘the in-school gap in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers’. Both single year data and three year rolling averages will be published.
  • By implication there will also be further analysis of performance by high, middle and low attainers on each measure. The drafting is however very unclear, referring to the present rather than the future:

‘Performance tables give a breakdown of the performance of different pupil groups on the headline indicators. They show how well pupils with low, middle and high prior attainment perform on each measure…For each indicator, local and national benchmarks are provided to make it easier to judge each school’s performance. Using this information, parents can search for the information which is most relevant to them. For example, they can see how many pupils with high prior attainment go on to achieve the EBacc at different schools in their area’

It seems most likely that all learners judged ahead of the new ‘secondary ready’ threshold would count as high attainers, even though it would now be possible to calculate more sophisticated gradations based on deciles of performance.

Hence we would continue to have three broad categories of prior attainment: exceeding secondary ready standard, at secondary ready standard and not yet secondary ready.

However, the consultation response is silent on this matter.

We are told that material about pupils achieving the top grades at GCSE will only be available through the data portal, which means that – on this issue – the new secondary tables will continue to be out of kilter with the primary and post-16 tables.

There is one further unexplained reference in the response:

‘Confidence intervals will also be important when we present each school’s percentile ranking on the range of headline measures. For example, a school could have performed well on the Attainment 8 measure and be in the 10th percentile, with a confidence interval that indicates that the school’s true ranking is likely to lie between the 5th and 15th percentiles.’

This appears to suggest that schools will be ranked on each headline measure – but it remains unclear whether this material will be included in the Performance Tables.

There is also a beguiling reference to Ofsted:

‘In addition Ofsted may choose to specify some of these measures, for example the percentage of pupils achieving the best GCSE grades, in their inspection guidance’.

In addition:

‘Schools in which pupils make an average of one grade more progress than expected across their 8 subjects will not be inspected by Ofsted during the next academic year (unless there are exceptional circumstances, for example where there are safeguarding concerns).’

This suggests further changes to the Handbook and Subsidiary Guidance, and potentially to the Framework itself.

Changes will be introduced into the 2016 Performance Tables published in January 2017, but schools will receive information based on 2014 exam results to illustrate their performance on the new measures, and will be able to opt in to a new floor standards methodology in 2015.



This consultation proposes that performance should be reported separately at Level 2 (including continued study of English and maths for those so far without a GCSE ‘pass’ – currently graded A*-C) and Level 3.

In respect of Level 3 performance should be reported for three strands of provision: Academic (A level, AS level, IB, EPQ etc), Applied General and Technical, as has been introduced for 2013 Tables.

This analysis focuses exclusively on Level 3 Academic provision.

At Level 3, five ‘topline performance measures’ are proposed which will be included in Performance Tables (it is not stated whether institutions will also be required to publish them on their websites):

The proposed topline measures are:

  • Two principal attainment measures: average grade and average points per full-time A level student – a best 3 A levels measure is under consideration ‘to encourage substantial A level programmes’; and average grade and points score per A level entry. This is given pride of place, above the measures that rely on facilitating subjects and there is no reference to restrictions being placed on the subjects studied.
  • An aggregate KS4-5 progress measure ‘showing the progress of similar students nationally who, according to their results at the end of Key Stage 4, were of the same level of ability’ (by which they mean attainment). This sounds broadly consistent with what is proposed for the primary and secondary tables. The annex says:

‘Only students with the same prior attainment, taking the same subjects, will be compared to provide a subject score. Subject scores will then be aggregated with other academic…scores to provide an overall academic score.’

This presumably means that A level students will be compared with those with similar KS4 attainment who are taking the same A level subjects.

  • A destination measure ‘showing student progression to a positive destination’. No reference is made to the controversial question whether this will continue to distinguish Russell Group universities and Oxbridge.
  • A completion measure.

There is additionally a commitment to ‘consider how we can report the results of low, middle and high attainers similarly [to KS4] in the expanded 16-19 performance tables’ but no further clue as to how these will be devised.

A number of additional measures are also laid out, which may or may not appear in the performance tables:

  • The percentage of students achieving AAB+ grades at A level in two and in three ‘facilitating subjects’. Note that the benchmark is still AAB+, even though, from 2013-14 onwards, HEFCE’s student number control relaxation – from which this measure was originally derived – is extended from AAB+ to ABB+.
  • A ‘closing the gap’ measure which will show attainment by pupils who were eligible for Pupil Premium funding in Year 11. The annex suggests that this ‘can be compared with the top line attainment measure’ which, in the context of A level, may mean one or both of the two described above. It is not clear whether this will also be applied to the progress measure.
  • Attainment of approved level 3 maths qualifications for students who do not take A or AS level (these are under development). These will be available for teaching from 2015.

The timetable for the introduction of these reforms is not specified.


Comparison of Primary, Secondary and Post-16 reforms

The table below shows the extent to which the overall proposals for performance table reform reflect a consistent application of the typology set out above.


Primary Secondary Post-16
Attainment % achieving secondary ready standardAverage scaled scores ‘Attainment 8’ expressed as average gradePass grade in E+MPass grades in EBacc Average grade and APS per FT A level student (potentially on best 3 A levels)Average grade and APS per A level entryAAB+ in 2 and 3 facilitating subjectsPerformance in L3 maths qualifications
Progress Averaged scaled scores compared with prior attainment ‘Progress 8’ expressed as +/- average gradeProgress in E+M Yes but no detail
Destinations None mentioned Provisionally Yes but no detail
Closing the gap Yes (indicators unclear) Yes (unclear if applied for all  indicators above Yes but no detail
Comparisons Yes (indicators unclear) Yes (with ‘indication of disadvantage’) None mentioned
Notes Reference to ‘percentile rankings on headline measures’ Unclear if facilitating subjects and L3 maths in tables

There is evidence of a shift towards greater consistency of approach compared with the current performance tables, although many of the details have yet to be clarified.

Unfortunately, this lack of clarity extends to the definition of high attainers and how their performance will be reported.

  • In the primary sector, it seems most likely that high attainers will be defined according to some yet-to-be-determined measure of ‘primary readiness’ and in the secondary sector according to the new ‘secondary-ready’ standard. One could extend the same logic into post-16 by devising a ‘sixth form ready’ standard based on performance against new-style GCSE grades. This would transpose into the new Tables the rather crude tripartite distinction in place currently at primary and secondary level, though we know the pitch will be somewhat higher. But this is little more than an educated guess. It would be quite possible to introduce a more sophisticated distinction and a narrower definition of what constitutes a high attainer, though this would be much more straightforward in the secondary sector than in primary.
  • We are equally unclear how high attainers’ performance will be reported. There is nothing explicit in the primary consultation document to explain which measures will be applied to high, middle and low attainers, Indeed, the only direct reference to such distinctions applies to Ofsted inspection:

‘Schools in which low, middle and high attaining pupils all make better than average progress will be much less likely to be inspected sooner.’

The secondary consultation response implies that all the headline measures will be applied to these three categories of prior attainment, but fails to state this explicitly, while the post-16 document doesn’t go beyond the broader commitment mentioned above.

  • As for the reporting of high attainment, the methodology for the principal  progress measures – confirmed for the primary and secondary tables and planned for post-16 – are specifically designed to discourage schools from concentrating over-much on learners on the borderline of a threshold measure. This is welcome. But, whereas, the primary tables will include new measures focused explicitly on how many of a school’s population have achieved national measures of high attainment (as expressed by high scaled scores) and high attainment measures will be retained in the new post-16 tables, the continued omission of an equivalent GCSE measure from the secondary tables seems inconsistent, even though we are told it will be possible to find this data in the accompanying portal. It is hard to understand the logic that justifies this continued inconsistency of approach, when the broader direction of travel seems very much about bring the three sets of tables more closely into line.


How Should Schools Respond?

With so much change in the offing, it can be all too easy for schools to slip into a defensive, reactive mode, particularly if they are under pressure on other fronts.

There is a temptation to concentrate effort elsewhere, on the grounds that high attainers will do comparatively well with relatively little support. Most will be secure L5 performers and go on to pick up a clutch of A grades at GCSE. The opportunity cost of lifting them to L6 and converting their As into A*s may be perceived as simply too great.

On the other hand, while I can cite no hard evidence to support the contention, I have often observed that schools which are successful with their high attainers are rarely unsuccessful in other respects. It is as if support for high attainers is a litmus test of personalised education, going the extra mile and wider school effectiveness.

And there is a real opportunity for schools to get on to the front foot with this issue, given the absence of any substantive lead or guidance from the centre, or any conspicuous consensus amongst schools – or between experts, academics and service providers – over what constitutes effective practice.

Naturally schools will want to frame their response in a way that addresses their priorities and fits their particular contexts. They will need to take into account how their success is defined and reported by Ofsted and in School Performance Tables – and how this might change in the future – but they will not plan exclusively on that basis.

They must find the ‘best fit’ between the demands of the accountability regime and what is in the best interests of their learners. The regime is not intended to impose rigid conformity, and higher performing schools in particular must be allowed to trust their judgement rather than devoting themselves exclusively to these ‘one-size-fits-all’ measures of success.

The first part of this final section sets out how a school might rethink and redefine its support for high attainers from first principles – though it stops short of advocating or discussing any specific elements of effective whole school practice.

The second part draws on the analysis elsewhere in this post to inform a suggested basket of key measures from which schools might select when constructing a plan to improve the their high attainers’ performance. This is very much intended as a starting point for discussion, rather than a blueprint that all must follow.


Rethinking Support for High Attainers

A high attainers’ support strategy will only be completely successful if it has the full commitment of staff, learners, parents and other key stakeholders. It should extend across the whole school and all dimensions of whole school practice, including learning at home and parental and community engagement.

The best way to secure wholesale commitment is through an inclusive and transparent consultative process. The outcomes of that process are most readily captured in an accessible document that should:

  • Include a clear, comprehensive yet succinct statement of whole school policy for challenging and supporting high attainers that is meaningful and relevant to lay and professional audiences alike.
  • Incorporate a concise improvement plan that is regularly monitored and updated and that feeds into the wider school improvement plan.
  • Be published openly, so that the school’s priorities are understood and acted on by all parties – and so that prospective parents and learners can use them to inform decisions about whether to apply for admission.

In formulating a support plan, schools must consider what relationship it should have with any parallel gifted and talented education policy (or equivalent terminology adopted by the school).

It is not appropriate simply to substitute one for the other, without giving careful consideration to what might be lost in doing so.

In future, how will the school support learners with high ability but who might not realise it through high attainment? What of twice-exceptional learners, for example, and those with diverse talents that are not demonstrated through high attainment, whether in arts, sports, interpersonal skills, or any other field judged significant by the school?

Some schools may prefer to have parallel and mutually supportive policies for these two overlapping populations; others may prefer an integrated policy.

The most straightforward approach is to distinguish high attainers as a subset of the school’s wider gifted and talented population. Ignore the school of thought that suggests high attainers are somehow different, ‘bright but not gifted’.

But, if the policy is integrated, it must be clear where and how support for high attainers is distinct.

The support plan must rest on a clear definition of what constitutes a high attainer – and a potential high attainer – in the context of the school, together with explicit recognition of the gradations of high attainment within the general definition. (Ofsted’s example shows how confusion may be caused by using inconsistent terminology and a failure to define terms.)

The plan should be framed around core priorities. These will typically include:

  • A judicious blend of challenge and support for high attainers, designed to ensure that they continue to perform highly, but are not exposed to undue pressure or stress; and that their high attainment is not achieved at the expense of personal wellbeing, or wider personal development.
  • Challenge and support for learners who are not yet high attainers but might become so. (This might include the remainder of the school population, or a more narrowly defined group, depending on context and ideological preference.)
  • Targeted challenge and support for disadvantaged learners and under-represented groups. This must include those in receipt of the Pupil Premium but might also reflect gender, minority ethnic, SEN and summer-born considerations. Schools understand the complex causes of underachievement and that most underachieving learners are affected by a combination of factors. Avoid a simplistic quota-driven model. Critically, this equity-driven support must not be achieved at the expense of advantaged learners. The optimal strategy is to continue to raise standards for all high attainers, but to raise them relatively faster for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The plan must show how the current state will be changed into the desired future state. This necessitates:

  • A thorough review process and full statement of the baseline position, preserving a balance between the celebration of strengths and the identification of weaknesses and areas for development. Schools should not gloss over gaps in their skillset, or evidence that particular subjects/departments are weaker than others. This should not be an exercise in finding and attributing fault, but a collective endeavour undertaken in a spirit of continuous improvement.
  • A coherent set of priorities for improvement which must be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound). A named individual should be accountable for each priority and it should be stated explicitly what staff time, budget and any other resources are allocated to securing it.
  • Improvement priorities should be aligned with a matching set of outcome measures, or success criteria, which might draw from the suggested basket set out below. These should capture the intended impact of the improvement priorities on high attainers’ performance.
  • Arrangements for regular monitoring and review. There should be capacity to manage slippage and risk and to accommodate succession planning. A senior manager should be accountable for the plan as a whole, but it should be evident how all staff and all stakeholders – including learners and parents – can contribute positively to its achievement.

If the school is sufficiently confident it should consider incorporating an explicit entitlement to challenge and support for all its high attaining learners. This should not be vague and generalised, but sharp and explicit, so that parents and learners can challenge the school and seek redress if this entitlement is not forthcoming.


A potential basket of key measures

What measures might schools and colleges select from when developing such plans? I have set out below some first efforts at three baskets of key measures relating to primary, secondary and post-16 respectively.

These broadly reflect the current accountability regime, though I have suggested some departures, to fill gaps or in response to known concerns.

I do not pretend that these are more than illustrative. Some of the measures beg questions about definition, a few are rather iffy and there are certainly gaps in the coverage.

But they should serve to exemplify the broad approach, as well as providing a basis for more rigorous discussion at institutional level. I don’t have all the answers and very much want to start the conversation, rather than attempting to close it off.

Planners might reasonably consider drawing one measure from each of the five areas in the typology I have set out. Failing that, they might aim for a ‘balanced scorecard’ rather than relying excessively on measures in just one or two categories.

The optimal number of measures is probably between three and five – if there are fewer than three the scope of the plan will be too narrow; if there are more than five it will be too complex.

It should be possible to develop and refine these baskets over time, to reflect ideas and suggestions from those engaging with them. I hope to revisit them in future.

They will need significant adjustment to reflect the new accountability regime, once the proposals in the three consultation documents have been implemented.

And, hopefully, the new Data Portal will make it much easier to construct the necessary measures in all five of these categories, once it is introduced from 2014.


                                     PRIMARY BASKET OF INDICATORS
Attainment % of high attainers at KS1
  % of high attainers at KS2
% of high attainers achieving KS1 L3
% of high attainers achieving KS2 L5B/5A/6
Progress 100% of high attainers make expected progress in KS1
  % of high attainers making more than expected progress in KS1
  100% of high attainers make at least 2 levels of progress in KS2
  % of high attainers making more than 2/up to 3 levels of progress in KS2
Destinations % of high attainers transferring to outstanding secondary schools
  % of high attainers transferring to selective schools
Closing the gap For any of the indicators above, the FSM gap for high attainers is at least x% lower than the FSM gap for middle attainers
  For any of the indicators above, the FSM gap is closed by x%
  High attainers are representative of school population (by eg FSM, gender, ethnic background, SEN, month of birth)
Comparisons For any of the indicators above, compare with all schools located in LA area/governed by academy trust
  For any of the indicators above, compare with family of schools with broadly similar intake



                                            SECONDARY BASKET OF INDICATORS
Attainment % of KS2 high attainers in Y7 intake
% of KS2 high attainers achieving 5+ A*-A grades at GCSE or equivalent including GCSE English and maths
% of KS2 high attainers’ GCSE entries awarded A*/A grades, or A* grades only
% of KS2 high attainers awarded GCSE A*/A grades or A* grades via early entry
Increase in GCSE APS (Best 8) and/or improvement in average grade
Increase in GCSE APS (new Attainment 8 measure) and/or improvement in average grade
Progress 100% of KS2 high attainers making expected progress from KS2-4
  % of KS2 high attainers making more than expected progress from KS2-4
  % of KS2 high attainers making 4/5 levels of progress from KS2-4
Destinations % of KS2 high attainers transferring to outstanding sixth forms/post-16 institutions
Closing the gap For any of the indicators above, the FSM gap for high attainers is at least x% lower than the FSM gap for middle attainers
  For any of the indicators above, the FSM gap is closed by x%
  High attainers are representative of school population by eg FSM, ethnic background, SEN, month of birth
Comparisons For any of the indicators above, compare with other schools located in LA area/governed by academy trust
  For any of the indicators above, compare with a family of schools with broadly similar intake



                                             POST-16 BASKET OF INDICATORS
Attainment % of KS2 high attainers achieving AAB+/ABB+ grades at A level (whether or not in facilitating subjects)
% of KS2 high attainers’ A level entries awarded B/A/A* or A*/A or A* grades only
Increase in A level APS (best 3) and/or improvement in average grade
Progress % with GCSE A* achieving A level grade A* in same subject
  % with 5+ GCSEs at A*/A including English and maths achieving 3+ A levels at AAB/ABB
Destinations % transferring to high tariff undergraduate degree courses
  % transferring to selective/Russell Group/Oxbridge universities
Closing the gap For any of the indicators above, the FSM gap for high attainers is % lower than the FSM gap for middle attainers
  For any of the indicators above, the FSM gap is closed by x%
  High attainers are representative of sixth form population by eg FSM, gender, ethnic background, SEN, month of birth
Comparisons For any of the indicators above, compare with other schools located in LA area/governed academy trust
  For any of the indicators above, compare with a family of schools/colleges with broadly similar intake



In this second part of the post, I have adopted a simple typology of performance measures to explain:

  • Imminent changes in how the Performance Tables address high attainers and high attainment, highlighting key differences between sectors and outlining the direction of travel towards longer term reform.
  • What is known and what is still unknown about the focus on high attainers in new performance table arrangements, mostly scheduled for implementation from 2016, and to what extent these reforms will introduce a more robust approach and greater consistency between sectors.
  • How, pending those longer term reforms, schools and colleges might set about developing a high attainers’ support plan, so seizing the initiative and skirting around some of the difficulties presented by revisions to the inspection guidance.
  • How such support plans might be constructed around a basket of key outcome measures, so that they are a. focused explicitly on improvements in institutional performance as well as improved provision for high attaining learners and b. broadly reflect performance table measures without requiring slavish adherence.

This post is very much a work in progress, striving as it does to pin down a moving target while also setting out a basic support framework with universal application. I am unhappy with some aspects of this first edition and will aim to eliminate its shortcomings in a future iteration. All suggestions for improvement are welcome.



October 2013


How High Attainers Feature in School Inspection and Performance Tables (and what to do about it)



This post explains:

  • How revised Ofsted inspection guidance gives greater prominence to high-attaining learners (or ‘the most able’ in Ofsted terminology).
  • How this differs from the treatment of high attainers in the School Performance Tables as presently formulated.
  • How high attainers feature in current proposals for accountability reform.
  • How schools might respond to inconsistent expectations from each side of the accountability framework and prepare for an uncertain future.


Outline of Content

Because of the length of this piece, I have divided it into two parts. Each part has two main sections.

Part One covers:

  • Changes to Ofsted’s inspection guidance. This explains and analyses the key changes to the School Inspection Handbook and Subsidiary Guidance which came into effect from September 2013.
  • Terminology, definitions, measures and data. This examines how Ofsted has begun to use the term ‘most able’ while the Performance Tables refer to ‘high attainers’. It compares the definitions adopted by Ofsted and in the Performance Tables. It discusses the ‘expected levels of progress’ methodology, highlighting a fundamental inconsistency in current guidance, and reflects on whether the accountability system should expect more progress from high attainers.

I have reversed the logical order of these sections to accommodate readers who wish only to understand how Ofsted’s guidance has changed. The second section begins the process of setting those revisions in the context of the wider accountability regime.

Part Two includes:

  • Performance Tables and Proposals for Accountability Reform. This summarises how high attainment and progress are reported in the 2012 Performance Tables and how this will change in 2013. It also offers a comparative analysis of how high attainers’ performance is expected to feature in a reformed accountability framework, for the primary, secondary and post-16 sectors respectively. This is based on the three parallel consultation documents, which begin to explain how the accountability framework will respond to the withdrawal of National Curriculum levels from 2016.
  • How schools should aim to satisfy these expectations. This provides some introductory guidance to shape the development and review of whole school plans to improve support for high attainers. It does not discuss the different ways in which schools can improve their provision – that is a topic for another day – but concentrates on the broad framing of policies and plans. It proposes a basket of key measures, for primary and secondary schools respectively, that fit the current context and can be adjusted to reflect future developments.

Within this post I have drawn together several elements from earlier posts to create the bigger picture. There is some overlap, but I have tried to keep it to a minimum. I hope it is helpful to readers to have all this material within a single frame, focused explicitly on how schools should respond to the challenges presented by the accountability system.

Like all of my posts, this is a free and open access resource (but please observe the provisions of the Creative Commons Licence located at the top right hand corner of this Blog).

And do please use this contact form if you would like to discuss additional, customised advice and support.


Changes to Ofsted’s Inspection Guidance


Background and Scope

In June 2013, Ofsted published a survey report: ‘The most able students: Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools?

That same month I produced an extended analysis of the Report drawing out its comparative strengths and weaknesses, as well as summarising the guidance it contains on elements of effective whole school practice.

Readers requiring a full blow-by-blow account of the Report and its contents are cordially invited to digest the older post first.

The recommendations contained in ‘The most able students’ led to the changes recently introduced into the school inspection guidance, which uses the same terminology, rendering ‘most able’ Ofsted’s term of art for inspection purposes henceforward.

The revisions were introduced during the 2013 summer holidays and came into almost immediate effect in September 2013, ostensibly fulfilling the recommendations in ‘The most able students’ that Ofsted should:

  • focus more closely in its inspections on the teaching and progress of the most able students, the curriculum available to them, and the information, advice and guidance provided to the most able students
  • consider in more detail during inspection how well the pupil premium is used to support the most able students from disadvantaged backgrounds
  • report its inspection findings about this group of students more clearly in school inspection, sixth form and college reports.’ (page 11).

We might therefore expect the revisions to embed these priorities – and perhaps also to reflect related issues highlighted in the key findings and recommendations, such as: creating a culture of excellence, primary-secondary transition, progress in KS3 specifically, high expectations, the quality of homework, evaluation of mixed ability teaching, tracking and targeting, information for parents/carers and supporting progression to HE.

It is important to note that, while the source document was confined to non-selective secondary schools, the revisions to the inspection guidance apply to all schools – primary as well as secondary – that fall within scope of The Framework for School Inspection.

This means they cover school sixth forms and even extend to maintained nursery schools.

On the other hand, they exclude 16-19 academies, 16-19 UTCs and 16-19 studio schools, as well as sixth form colleges and FE colleges, all of which are covered by the Common Inspection Framework for Education and Skills.

No equivalent changes have been introduced into that Framework, or the relevant supporting documentation. It follows that there is some inconsistency between the expectations placed on 11-18 secondary schools and on 16-19 institutions.

Provision and support for high attainers is optimal when fully connected and co-ordinated across Years R-13, with particular emphasis on the key transition points at ages 11 and 16. But roughly half of the relevant post-16 population will be attending colleges that are not affected by these changes.

I have deliberately postponed detailed scrutiny of definitions until after this opening section, but it is important at the outset to supply what is conspicuously missing from the inspection guidance: a basic explanation of what Ofsted means by the ‘most able’.

This is not easy to establish, but can be derived from a footnote spread across the bottom of pages 6-7 of ‘The Most Able Students’. In the absence of any statement to the contrary, one can only assume that the transfer of that identical phrase into the guidance means that the definition applied to the phrase has also been transferred.

So, according to this source, the most able in secondary schools are:

‘…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.’

Hence Ofsted means all learners with KS2 Level 5 in English, maths or both, plus those falling below this threshold who nevertheless had the potential to achieve it.

An equivalent definition for KS2 in primary schools (not supplied in ‘The most able students’) would be:

‘Learners starting KS2 having attained Level 3 or above, or having the potential to achieve Level 3 and above in (any element of) English and/or maths at the end of KS1.’

The bracketed phrase is included because a single level for English will not be reported in Primary Performance Tables from 2013.

There is no obvious equivalent for KS1 in primary schools or KS5 in secondary schools, though it would be possible to create similar measures relating to achievement at GCSE and in a Year 1 National Curriculum baseline assessment (assuming the ELGs cannot be made to serve the purpose).

The critical point to bring out at this stage is the sheer size of the most able population as defined on this basis.

For example, if we were to use 2012 KS2 results to calculate the national Year 7 population falling within the secondary definition, it would include 50% of them on the basis of Level 5 achievement alone. Once the ‘potential Level 5s’ are factored in, we are dealing with a clear majority of the year group.

In any given school, this population will vary considerably according to the sector, the year group in question, prior attainment of the intake and how ‘potential to achieve’ is determined.

Many schools might reasonably calculate that all of their pupils – or all but a small minority – fall within scope. Even in schools with the most depressed intakes, this population will be sizeable if generous allowance is made for the impact of disadvantage on learners’ capacity to achieve the specified attainment threshold.

It is helpful to hold in mind a rough sense of the size of the most able population as one begins to engage with the inspection guidance.


The Framework for School Inspection

In fact, the School Inspection Framework itself has not been amended at all. Ofsted has sought to adjust its practical application through changes to two supporting documents:

  • The School Inspection Handbook (31 July 2013) which ‘provides instructions and guidance for inspectors conducting inspections… It sets out what inspectors must do and what schools can expect, and provides guidance for inspectors on making their judgements.’

This is not entirely satisfactory.

For example, the current version of the Framework stresses that inspections assess whether schools provide an inclusive environment:

‘which meets the needs of all pupils, irrespective of age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, or sexual orientation.’ (pp 13-14)

This list may be confined to distinctions that feature in the Equalities legislation, but there is no inherent reason why that should be the case. One might reasonably argue that, if HMI were really serious about inclusion and support for the most able, ‘attainment or ability’ should be added to the list!

It is more concerning that the section of the Framework dealing with pupil achievement says:

‘When judging achievement, inspectors have regard both for pupils’ progress and for their attainment. They take into account their starting points and age. Particular consideration is given to the progress that the lowest attaining pupils are making.’ (p17)

Why shouldn’t equally particular consideration be given to the progress of the highest attaining pupils? If a reference to low attainers is on the face of the Framework, while references to high attainers are confined to the supporting guidance, schools will draw the obvious conclusion about relative priorities.

Elsewhere in the Framework, there are generalised inclusive statements, applied to quality of teaching:

‘Inspectors will consider the extent to which… teaching strategies, including setting appropriate homework, together with support and intervention, match individual needs.’ (p 18)

and to quality of leadership and management:

‘Inspectors will consider the extent to which leaders and managers… demonstrate an ambitious vision for the school and high expectations of all pupils and teachers… provide a broad and balanced curriculum that meets the needs of all pupils, enables all pupils to achieve their full educational potential and make progress in their learning’ (pp 19-20)

but, if these statements are genuinely intended to reflect equality of opportunity, including for the ‘most able’, why has the progress of the lowest attaining learners been singled out beforehand for special attention?

Clearly it was too much to expect amendments on the face of the Framework itself, presumably because they could not be introduced without a formal consultation exercise. The large number of amendments introduced via the supporting guidance – covering a broad spectrum of issues – might have justified a consultation, though it would have delayed their implementation by several months.

But there is nothing to prevent Ofsted from publishing a list of draft amendments to the Framework that, subject to consultation, will be introduced when it is next revised and updated. Such an approach would help schools (and inspectors) to understand much more clearly the intended impact of complementary amendments to the supporting guidance.


School Inspection Handbook: Main Text

Prior to this round of amendments, there was a single reference in Paragraph 108 of the Handbook, applying to judgements of the quality of a school:

‘Inspection is primarily about evaluating how well individual pupils benefit from their school. It is important to test the school’s response to individual needs by observing how well it helps all pupils to make progress and fulfil their potential. Depending on the type of school, it may be relevant to pay particular attention to the achievement of:

  • disabled pupils, and those who have special educational needs
  • those with protected characteristics, including Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, as defined by the Equality Act 2010
  • boys girls
  • the highest and lowest attainers
  • pupils for whom the pupil premium provides support, including:
  • looked after children
  • pupils known to be eligible for free school meals – a school is unlikely to be judged outstanding if these pupils are not making at least good progress
  • children of service families
  • those receiving alternative provision’.

Notice that the relevance of the highest attainers is optional -‘it may be relevant’ – and depends on the type of school being inspected, rather than being applied universally. It is left to the inspection team to make a judgement call.

Note, too, that the preferred terminology is ‘highest attainers’, rather than ‘the most able’. ‘Highest’ is an absolute term – rather than ‘high’ or ‘higher’ – which might be taken to imply the very extreme of the attainment spectrum, but there is no way of knowing.

This reference to the achievement of the ‘highest attainers’ remains in place, but is now juxtaposed against a series of newly inserted references to ‘the most able’. The former is optional, to be applied at inspectors’ discretion; the latter apply to all settings regardless.

There are no clues to tell us whether Ofsted is using the two terms synonymously, or if they intend to maintain a subtle distinction. The fact that the phrase has not been replaced by ‘the most able’ might suggest the latter, but that presupposes that this was picked up and consciously addressed during what seems to have been a rather cursory redrafting process.

There is no published glossary to inform interpretation of the terminology used in the Framework and its supporting guidance. By contrast, Estyn in Wales has published a ‘Glossary of Inspection Terms’, though that is hardly a model to be emulated, since it does not include their own preferred formulation ‘more able and talented’.)

The term ‘most able’ now appears in several parts of the main text:

  • Lesson observations must ‘gather evidence about how well individual pupils and particular groups of pupils are learning and making progress, including those with special needs, those for whom the pupil premium provides support and the most able, and assess the extent to which pupils have grown in knowledge’ (para 26);
  • Through meetings with pupils, parents, staff and other stakeholders, inspectors must: ‘gather evidence from a wide range of pupils, including disabled pupils, those with special educational needs, those for whom the pupil premium provides support, pupils who are receiving other forms of support and the most able.’ (para 41);
  • When it comes to judging achievement of pupils at the school, inspectors must: ‘have regard for pupils’ starting points in terms of their prior attainment and age. This includes the progress that the lowest attaining pupils are making and its effect on raising their attainment, and the progress that the most able are making towards attaining the highest levels and grades.’ (para 115);
  • They must also: ‘take account of: the learning and progress across year groups of different groups of pupils currently on the roll of the school, including disabled pupils, those who have special educational needs, those for whom the pupil premium provides support and the most able.’ (para 116).
  • They should take account of: ‘pupils’ progress in the last three years, including that for looked after children, disabled pupils, those who have special educational needs and the most able. Evidence gathered by inspectors during the course of the inspection should include: the proportions making expected progress and the proportions exceeding expected progress in English and in mathematics from each starting point, compared with national figures, for all pupils and for those for whom the pupil premium provides support.’ (para 116)
  • And in relation to Key Stage 1, they should take account of: ‘how well pupils with a lower starting point have made up ground, and the breadth and depth of progress made by the most able.’ (para 117)
  • When it comes to observing the quality of teaching and learning, inspectors must: ‘consider whether…teaching engages and includes all pupils, with work that is challenging enough and that meets their individual needs, including for the most able pupils’ (para 124)

The bulk of these references relate to data-driven judgements of attainment and progress, but it is worth pausing to emphasise the final point.

This, together with the reference to ‘the extent to which [the most able] pupils have grown in knowledge’ is the nearest we get to any explicit reference to the curriculum.

When it comes to qualitative judgement, and a priority for qualitative whole school improvement, schools need to examine how well – and how consistently – their teaching engages, includes and challenges the most able.

Incidentally, there is nothing in these amendments to indicate a preference for setting, though schools might do well to remember HMCI’s previously expressed concerns about:

‘the curse of mixed ability classes without mixed ability teaching’

The third point  – about progress – seems to be explicitly and deliberately reinforcing the statement on page 17 of the Framework that I quoted above. But while the Framework mentions only progress by the lowest attaining pupils, the Handbook now emphasises progress by the lowest and highest attaining alike. This is not a model of clarity.

Given the emphasis in ‘The most able students’ it seems odd that there is no explicit reference in the Handbook to those eligible for the Pupil Premium, unless one counts what is said about those who ‘exceed expected progress’ in English and maths, but that is not quite the same thing.

The way in which ‘the most able’ is tacked onto lists of different pupil groups also gives the rather unfortunate impression that these groups are mutually exclusive, rather than overlapping.

So far there is nothing significant about support for the most able to progress to competitive universities, apart from a brief and very general statement in the section on quality of leadership and management, referring to how well leaders and managers:

‘Ensure that the curriculum…provides timely independent information, advice and guidance to assist pupils on their next steps in training, education or employment.’


School Inspection Handbook: Level Descriptions

‘The most able’ has been inserted into two sets of descriptors within the Handbook.

In relation to achievement of pupils at the school’:

  • In Outstanding schools: ‘The learning of groups of pupils, particularly those who are disabled, those who have special educational needs, those for whom the pupil premium provides support, and the most able is consistently good or better.’
  • In Good schools: ‘The learning of groups of pupils, particularly those who are disabled, those who have special educational needs, those for whom the pupil premium provides support the most able, is generally good.’
  • In schools requiring improvement: there is only a generic ‘Pupils’ achievement requires improvement as it is not good’.
  • In Inadequate schools: ‘Groups of pupils, particularly disabled pupils and/or those who have special educational needs and/or those for whom the pupil premium provides support, and/or the most able, are underachieving.’

And, in the Descriptions for quality of teaching:

  • In Outstanding schools: ‘Much of the teaching 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 disabled pupils, those who have special educational needs, those for whom the pupil premium provides support and the most able, are making rapid and sustained progress.’
  • In Good schools: ‘Teaching in most subjects, including English and mathematics, is usually good, with examples of some outstanding teaching. As a result, most pupils and groups of pupils on roll in the school, including disabled pupils, those who have special educational needs, those for whom the pupil premium provides support and the most able, make good progress and achieve well over time.’
  • In Schools Requiring Improvement there is the generic ‘‘Teaching requires improvement as it is not good’
  • In Inadequate Schools: ‘As a result of weak teaching over time, pupils or particular groups of pupils, including disabled pupils, those who have special educational needs, those for whom the pupil premium provides support and the most able, are making inadequate progress.’

 Here the dual emphasis on attainment and progress is writ large. I won’t labour the point I have made already about the overlapping nature of the groups listed.

There is nothing here either about the most able in receipt of the Pupil Premium, about curriculum or IAG, so we must continue our search for these missing pieces of the jigsaw within the parallel Subsidiary Guidance.


School Inspection Handbook: Postscript

Before we leave the Handbook behind, it is well worth examining one critical section in more detail, especially since it has been amended quite significantly.

Paragraphs 114-117 set out the evidence of attainment and progress that Ofsted inspectors will now draw upon. Because these seem so central to Ofsted’s interest in the most able, I have paraphrased the full list below, applying it exclusively to them.

The exercise illustrates that, if schools are to prioritise improvement by the most able, they must ensure that this is reflected throughout their evidence base. It also helpfully emphasises the importance of extending this effort to learners who attract the Pupil Premium.

Ofsted will want to examine

  • Learning and progress by the most able across different year groups. Evidence is gathered from: lesson observations; scrutiny of pupils’ work; schools’ records of pupils’ progress and progress of those receiving support from the Pupil Premium; ‘the quality and rigour of assessment’ (particularly in nursery, reception and KS1); discussions with pupils about their work; the views of parents, pupils and staff; discussion with staff and senior leaders; case studies of individual pupils; and listening to pupils read.
  • Progress made by the most able in the last three years. Evidence should include: the proportions making and exceeding expected progress ‘in English and in mathematics from each starting point, compared with national figures, for all pupils and for those whom the Pupil Premium provides support’; value-added indices for pupils and subjects; ‘other relevant indicators, including value-added data’; performance measures for the sixth form, including success rates; EYFS profile data; and ‘any analysis of progress data presented by the school, including information provided by external organisations’.
  • The most able learners’ attainment in relation to national standards (where available) and compared with all schools, based on data over the last three years, noting any evidence of performance significantly above or below national averages, trends of improvement or decline and inspection evidence of current pupils’ attainment across year groups. The latter will include, where relevant: the proportion of pupils achieving particular standards; capped average point scores; average point scores; pupils’ attainment in reading and writing and in maths; outcomes of the most recent phonics screening check and any follow-up by the schools; and attainment shown by test and exam results not yet validated or benchmarked nationally.
  • Difference in the achievement of the most able for whom the Pupil Premium provides support and others in the school including attainment gaps, particularly in English and maths (these to include differences in average points score in each of English and maths at the end of KS2 and at GCSE); and differences in progress from different starting points (see above).

Curiously, the footnotes attached to the original version of this section ignore the relevance of KS2 Level 6.

‘…starting points at Key Stage 2 include Levels W (and P levels), 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5’

I can only assume that this is an oversight.


References in the Subsidiary Guidance

One searches in vain for anything explicit about the curriculum or IAG. It seems that Ofsted decided not to give any prominence to these two critically important and controversial areas.

The section on ‘The Use of Prior Performance Data’ now says:

‘Inspectors should compare a school’s proportions of pupils making expected progress and the school’s proportions of pupils making more than expected progress in English and in mathematics with the national figures for each starting point. Consistency in being close to or above the national figures for pupils at each prior-attainment level, including the most able, is an important aspect of good achievement… Inspectors should pay particular attention to the sizeable prior-attainment groups in the school, and the most able, and note that school proportions below national figures for one starting point should not be considered to be compensated for by school proportions above national figures for another starting point. Inspectors should consider the school and national figures for the most recent year and the previous year, and how much they have changed.’ (para 7)

The insertion of references to ‘the most able’ makes for rather clumsy sentence structure, but does serve to highlight the new emphasis on their progression.

Provision in KS1 is once more singled out, but in a slightly different manner:

‘If all pupils are making good progress and levels of attainment are consistently high, overall achievement between the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage and end of Key Stage 1 is likely to be at least good and may be outstanding. To be outstanding, pupils known to be eligible for free school meals and the most able should be making good or better progress.’ (para 32, final bullet point)

There is a most welcome bullet point in the section about the achievement of disabled learners and those with SEN:

‘A category of ‘need’ such as autistic spectrum disorder, does not by itself indicate expected levels that pupils would usually be at, given their starting points (i.e. one pupil may be working towards 12 A* GCSE grades whereas another pupil of the same age may be working towards Level P6)

At last a paragraph appears that confirms inspectors’ interest in the most able attracting the Pupil Premium:

‘Inspectors must take account of the performance of the group for whom the pupil premium provides support, however small. Within this group, the progress in English and in mathematics of each different prior-attainment group should be considered and compared with that of the other pupils in the school, using the tables in RAISE online that show proportions making expected progress and proportions exceeding expected progress from each starting level. Inspectors should pay particular attention to the sizeable prior-attainment groups (those containing around 20% or more of the pupils for whom the pupil premium provides support) and the most able.’ (para 8)

Refreshing though it is to see that every school must pay attention to the most able supported by the Pupil Premium, regardless of the number attracting the Premium and how many are amongst the most able, one wonders why this message is not conveyed through the Handbook in similar terms.

Something similar occurs in respect of early entry to GCSE. The Handbook introduces generic concerns about early entry, especially in maths:

‘Inspectors should evaluate the school’s approach to early entry for GCSE mathematics and its impact on achievement and subsequent curriculum pathways. Inspectors should challenge the use of inappropriate early and multiple entry to GCSE examinations, including where pupils stop studying mathematics before the end of Year 11.

This is subsequently applied to all subjects in the level descriptions for Leadership and management, but only the Subsidiary Guidance relates the issue directly to ability and attainment:

‘Inspectors should investigate whether a policy of early entry to GCSE for pupils is preventing them from making as much progress as they should, for example because:

  • the extensive and inappropriate use of early GCSE entry, particularly in mathematics, puts too much emphasis on attaining a grade C at the expense of developing the understanding necessary to succeed at A level and beyond
  • the policy is having a detrimental impact on the uptake of advanced level courses
  • the widespread use of early GCSE entry and repeated sitting of examinations has encouraged short-term gains in learning but has led to underachievement at GCSE, particularly for able pupils
  • the policy has resulted in a lack of attention to the attainment of the least able
  • opportunities are missed to meet the needs of high-attaining pupils through depth of GCSE study and additional qualifications.

In evaluating any approach to early entry, inspectors should consider the impact not only on the judgement on pupils’ achievement but also on leadership and management in terms of whether the school is providing a curriculum that meets the pupils’ needs.’ (para 34)

Here we have even more terminological confusion, with the use of both ‘able pupils’ and ‘high-attaining pupils’, while ‘most able’ is conspicuous by its absence.

The Handbook and Subsidiary Guidance between them have referred to: ‘highest attaining’, ‘high attaining’, ‘most able’ and ‘able’ without defining any of these terms, or differentiating between them.



The amendments introduced into the Handbook and Subsidiary Guidance place a stronger emphasis on the most able principally through the repetition of that phrase at various points in the text.

These amendments are focused predominantly on pupil attainment and progress, rather underplaying any wider emphasis on effective whole school practice. References to curricular challenge and IAG for progression to competitive universities are generalised and scant.

The impact on overall Ofsted judgements can best be appreciated by editing together the relevant elements of the two sets of level descriptors referenced above:

  • In outstanding schools the most able pupils’ learning is consistently good or better and they are making rapid and sustained progress.
  •  In good schools the most able pupils’ learning is generally good, they make good progress and achieve well over time.
  • In schools requiring improvement the teaching of the most able pupils and their achievement are not good.
  • In inadequate schools the most able pupils are underachieving and making inadequate progress.

The attainment and progress of the most able supported by the Pupil Premium is integral to these judgements, though this latter point is underplayed in the guidance.

One might have hoped for a more considered and more carefully drafted response, built upon a careful definition of the term, which explains whether it differs from other similar phrases used in these materials and, if so, how.

Unfortunately, there is a real risk that the questionable clarity of the Handbook and Subsidiary Guidance will result in some inconsistency in the application of the Framework, even though the fundamental purpose of such material is surely to achieve the opposite.

A dedicated piece of additional briefing would have been particularly helpful, but there is nothing on this topic in the most recently published package (22 September 2013).


Terminology, Definitions, Measures and Data

Some readers may find that parts of this section tell them mostly what they already know. But even those who feel secure in the basics might want to cast an eye over the critical distinctions and issues set out below. Some may want to take issue with certain steps along the path I have negotiated through the tricky terminological issues.

I hope others will find it helpful to have the full scaffolding in place as they grapple with the implications of Ofsted’s new emphasis on the most able learners – and how that relates to the parallel emphasis in the School Performance Tables.


Terminology: Most Able and High Attainers

In the section above, I have faithfully replicated the terminology adopted by Ofsted, while highlighting the problems caused by switching between terms that might or might not be synonymous.

Meanwhile the School Performance Tables have consistently adopted an alternative term: ‘high attainers’.

So what is the distinction – and which terminology should we prefer?

This treatment is necessarily brief and begs many questions that are best addressed in the margins. I shall set out the argument as best I can and move rapidly on.

A failure to distinguish properly between attainment and ability bedevils this field and consistently sullies wider educational debate. The two terms are often used synonymously, especially by economists, who should really know better!

Here is my rough and ready effort at pinning down the distinction in terms that fit the current context:

  • Attainment involves securing specified measurable educational outcomes, typically assessed through graded tests and public examinations (eg KS2 tests, GCSE, A Level). Some authorities (Ofsted included) maintain a distinction between attainment and progress, but it is also used in a general sense to encompass both. Attainment is (only) one dimension of wider educational achievement.
  • Ability is a measure of potential, not a measure of achievement. It may be hidden and/or its realisation obstructed. Consequently it is not easily assessed. Moreover, ability is complex, multifaceted and not synonymous with intelligence. Single identification instruments – for example IQ tests, CAT scores – may well be misleading and/or culturally biased and/or provide an incomplete picture. Some eschew the assessment and identification of ability because of the issues and difficulties associated with the concept. Some deploy questionable identification practice. Others adopt a pragmatic ‘best-fit’ approach, utilising a broad range of qualitative and quantitative evidence including ‘identification through provision’. Attainment-based evidence may feature within this portfolio, but should not be relied on exclusively or excessively otherwise the critical distinction is lost.

The best performers in key stage tests and public examinations are at the top end of the attainment distribution, but not necessarily at the top end of the ability distribution. High attainment may be a proxy for high ability but it is not the same thing, however ability is conceived (which is a separate, complex and highly controversial issue).

Similarly, high-attaining pupils may be regarded as a subset of a school’s gifted and talented population (or whatever alternative terminology it prefers to use) but one might reasonably expect that population also to include other learners who – for a variety and combination of reasons and for the time being at least – are not realising their ability through high attainment.

While some schools may find ability too difficult and controversial a concept to wrestle with (especially since they are no longer expected by the Government to do so), all are pushed by the accountability system to focus on high attainment and on the performance of their high attaining learners.

Schools cannot entirely abdicate from engagement with ability, since their success as judged by the accountability system depends in part on their capacity to unlock high attainment amongst those who are not yet demonstrating it.

But, since their focus is the nurturing of attainment, rather than the nurturing of ability, this can be articulated in terms of the former rather than the latter. Hence the imperative is to maximise the number of high attaining learners and the level at which they attain.

A subset of ‘potential high attainers’ is supported to cross the appropriate threshold. At one extreme, schools may decide that all their learners who are not yet high attaining should be regarded thus. At the other, schools may prefer to focus exclusively on a significantly smaller group of ‘borderline high attainers’.

But schools must balance this attainment imperative against the wider purposes of education and the wider needs of learners, some of which may be influenced by ability. There is always concern that the accountability system overplays attainment at the expense of these wider needs, but that is an argument for another day.

In the past, high attainers may have been regarded as a second-order priority, since emphasis was placed disproportionately on the achievement of key threshold measures set at a lower level and the borderline candidates who could be supported to achieve them. But schools are increasingly driven by the accountability system to improve performance at all levels of prior attainment.

Ofsted’s choice of ‘most able’ is misleading because:

  • Ability and its derivative ‘able’ are heavily loaded and contentious terms. There is comparatively little consensus over what they mean, hence their application without careful definition is always problematic. Ability and attainment are not synonymous but Ofsted’s focus is exclusively on the latter. There is no measure of ability in the School Performance Tables which confine themselves to measures of attainment (including progress) and destination.
  • ‘Most able’ is an absolute term normally denoting those at the extreme of the ability distribution. It suggests a markedly higher threshold than ‘highly able’, ‘more able’ or simply ‘able’. Yet Ofsted’s own definition accounts for some 50% of all learners (see below).

It may be that Ofsted wished to include within its definition some learners who would feature amongst the high attaining population but are underachieving, perhaps as a consequence of disadvantage. But Ofsted is not interested in ability per se, only in its successful conversion to high attainment.

It may be that Ofsted’s choice of terminology was also influenced by their wish to maintain a clear distinction between attainment and progress. Perhaps they were concerned that using the term ‘high attainer’ might confuse this distinction.

Given the considerable scope for confusion I have adopted the terminology ‘high attainers/high attaining learners’ and ‘potential high attainers’. The former means those who have achieved or exceeded a specified assessment outcome and are making commensurate progress. The latter means those who, with appropriate support, might become high attainers. 


Comparing Ofsted and Performance Table Definitions

The Primary and Secondary School Performance Tables report attainment and progress for the pupil population as a whole, but also separately for ‘high attainers’, ‘middle attainers’ and ‘low attainers’.

Each of these groups is defined by reference to their performance in the earliest relevant key stage assessment. Currently KS1 assessment is used for the Primary Tables – though this may change in future – and KS2 for the Secondary Tables.

The Tables report attainment at later key stages by those who achieved or exceeded the initial baseline marker. By this means, and through the expected levels of progress methodology (of which more below), they highlight the improvement made by such learners across one (primary) or two (secondary 11-16) key stages.

The assumption is that a perfect school will ensure that all of its pupils – whether high, middle or low attainers – will successfully achieve the commensurate attainment benchmarks at later key stages and so make at least the expected progress.

Of course, many circumstances can intervene to prevent even the best schools from achieving perfection!  The worst case scenario is that no learners make the expected progress. There is inevitably a distribution of schools between these two extremes.

Other things being equal, one might expect more high attainers than middle attainers to make the expected progress, and more middle attainers than low attainers to do so. This is borne out by the national data in the 2012 Performance Tables.

At school level, if the success rate for high attainers compares unfavourably with those for middle and low attainers, so is out of kilter with the national data, it is taken as evidence that the former are comparatively less well served by the school. The assumption is that high attainers have not received the same degree of targeted challenge and support as their lower attaining peers.

In practice, other factors may come into play, principal among them the proportion of each sub-population within the relevant year group. Do high attainers tend to perform better in the schools and year groups where they are most heavily concentrated, or is the reverse true in certain circumstances? Is there an optimal proportion? Tempting though it is to pursue that question, we must return to the matter in hand.

The User Guide for the 2012 Secondary Tables explains:

‘Prior attainment definitions are based on the KS2 test results attained by pupils on completion of the primary school phase:

  • Below expected level = those below Level 4 in the KS2 tests;
  • At expected level = those at Level 4 in the KS2 tests;
  • Above expected level = those above Level 4 in the KS2 tests.

To establish a pupil’s KS2 attainment level, we calculated the pupil’s average point score in National Curriculum Tests for English, maths and science and classified those with a point score of less than 24 as low; those between 24 and 29.99 as middle, and those with 30 or more as high attaining. ‘

So the 2012 Secondary Performance Tables define high attainers as those who average above Level 4 performance across the three core subjects.

Learners who achieve highly in one subject are not counted if their performance in the other two drags them below the average.

And, on this measure, the 2012 Secondary Tables show that, nationally, 33.1% of pupils attending state maintained schools qualified as high attainers.

The comparable percentage in the Primary Tables, based on an average point score of 18 or more across KS1 English and maths assessments, is 24%, quite considerably lower.

The implications of a definition of high attainers that includes one quarter of learners in the later primary years and one third of learners at secondary level are rarely discussed. Is there a case for a more consistent approach across the two sectors, or is it a reasonable assumption that there are significantly more high attainers in the secondary sector? Let us leave that question hanging and return to the comparison with Ofsted.

One might expect Ofsted to have adopted this same Performance Tables definition, so ensuring consistency across both arms of the accountability regime. That would have been most straightforward for schools on the receiving end of both.

But, as we have seen, for reasons unexplained and best known to itself, Ofsted uses a completely different threshold on which to base its definition, which is confined to the secondary sector because ‘The Most Able Students’ does not deal with primary schools.

The crux of Ofsted’s definition is the achievement of National Curriculum Level 5 in English, in mathematics, or in both English and maths. This is quite different to average above Level 4 achievement in English, maths and science.

This has the virtue of ‘counting in’ learners with relatively high attainment in one of the two principal subjects, but relatively low attainment in the other. Performance in science is not deemed relevant.

The 2012 Primary Performance Tables report the percentage achieving Level 5 in both English and maths as 27%, while 39% achieved Level 5 in maths and 38% did so in English.

Hence 12% achieved Level 5 in maths and not English (39-27) and 10% did so in English and not maths (37-27) – so the total achieving Level 5 in one, the other or both subject in 2012 is 27 + 12 + 11 = 50%.

I cannot find all the data to undertake the same calculation for the equivalent Ofsted-derived definition for the primary sector. We know the national percentages achieving Level 3 in 2012 – 27% reading, 14% writing, 22% maths – but not what proportion of KS1 learners achieved one, two and three Level 3s respectively.

One can reasonably predict that the total will significantly exceed the 24% obtained by the Performance Tables methodology.

Reverting to the secondary data, it might be argued that, while 2012 outcomes are applicable for learners now in Year 7, one must use progressively earlier KS2 data for learners in older year groups.

That might be expected to depress slightly the percentage exceeding the threshold – but it does not alter the fact that the basis of the Ofsted definition is entirely different to (and substantively more generous than) that in the Performance Tables.

And of course we have not yet factored in that proportion of learners judged to have had ‘the potential to achieve Level 5’ (or the equivalent Level 3 at the primary level).

There is little information in ‘The most able students’ about the likely size of this ‘potential high attainers’ group. The definitional footnote mentions EAL learners who do not yet have the skills to demonstrate Level 5 performance, but does not estimate how many learners are affected.

Any methodology adopted by schools might also be expected to factor in:

  • Near misses – most schools would include learners who achieved Level 4A in English or maths or both; and
  • Disadvantaged learners – schools might include learners attracting the Pupil Premium who would have achieved Level 5 had no gap existed between the performance of advantaged and disadvantaged learners.
  • An ideological predisposition. Some schools might base their approach on the principle that all their learners are capable of Level 5 performance; others might regard this as imposing unrealistic expectations on a proportion of their learners.

Were this exercise to be undertaken at national level, it would encompass a comfortable majority of the secondary student population.

As noted above, there is likely to be significant variation between the size of schools’ ‘high attainer and potential high attainer’ populations, but most will find them more substantial than the term ‘most able’ might initially have led them to believe.

So, to summarise: we have two distinct measures of what constitutes a high attainer, one of which also includes potential high attainers. Both are catholic interpretations but one (Ofsted’s) is significantly more generous than the other.

That said, we have had to evolve Ofsted’s definition from indistinct clues. There is nothing overt and explicit to tell us what is meant by the term ‘most able’ as now used in the Inspection Guidance.

This situation is less than optimal for schools wishing to show themselves to best advantage on both sides of the accountability regime.


How Much Progress Does the Accountability Regime Expect from High Attainers?

It goes without saying that what constitutes high attainment depends on the context. In England, attainment measures are typically associated with end of key stage assessment and the instruments and grading scales applied to them. High-performing learners are expected to achieve a commensurately high grade in the appropriate assessment.

But, once a learner has demonstrated high attainment, they are expected to continue to demonstrate it, achieving commensurately high grades in subsequent assessments and so making consistently good progress between these different stage-related outcomes.

This assumption is integral to the accountability system, which makes no allowance for the non-linear development of most learners. It is assumed that, when viewed over the longer term, these inconsistencies are smoothed out: high attainers will typically remain so, throughout a key stage and even across key stages, indeed throughout their school careers.

The assumption is contestable but that, too, is an argument for another day.

The rate of progress is currently determined with reference to National Curriculum Levels. It is typically expected that all learners should make at least two levels of progress between KS1 and KS2; and at least three levels of progress between KS2 and KS4, but the reality is somewhat more complex.

For this purpose, GCSE Grades are mapped onto National Curriculum levels in such a way that learners achieving Level 5 at KS2 need to achieve at least GCSE Grade B to show three levels of progress across KS2-4.


NC Level 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
GCSE grade C B A A*


For learners with Level 5 at KS2, an A grade at GCSE would denote four levels of progress across KS2-4, while an A* grade would mean five levels of progress.

This is the ceiling – it is not possible for any Level 5 learner to achieve more progress than is denoted by an A* grade, though this would of course denote six levels of progress from KS2 Level 4.

So, in effect, the progression ceiling is comparatively lower for those with higher prior attainment than it is for middle and lower attainers, even though the former are arguably more likely to make further and faster progress than their peers.

The ‘levels of progress’ methodology rests on a further assumption – that these steps of progress are equidistant, equally steep, and so equally demanding. Hence it requires the same effort to climb three levels from Level 4 to GCSE Grade C as it does to climb from Level 6 to GCSE Grade A. I have sometimes seen this assumption disputed.

The methodology is far from perfect, which might help to justify the decision to dispense with it when National Curriculum levels go in 2016.

In the meantime, however, schools need to work within current expectations, as applied in the School Performance Tables. These will continue in force for at least two and probably three more sets of Tables, in 2013, 2014 and probably 2015.

So what are the current expectations?

The User Guide to the 2012 Performance Tables includes material which explains what it calls ‘progression trajectories’.

The note relating to the primary tables says:

‘The majority of children are expected to leave Key Stage 1 (age 7), working at least at level 2. During Key Stage 2, pupils are expected to make at least two levels’ progress, with the majority achieving at least a level 4 by age 11. Pupils entering Key Stage 2 at level 3 should progress at least to level 5; while those entering at level 1 should progress at least to level 3…These are minimum expectations and opportunities exist for schools to provide greater stretch for more able children, with the introduction of a level 6 test for 11 year olds.


Progression trajectories primary Capture


A few hundred pupils a year reach level 4 at Key Stage 1 in maths and/or the different elements of English. An associated technical note reminds us that it was only the advent of KS2 Level 6 tests that enabled these learners to achieve the expected two levels of progress – previously they were limited to only one.

But Level 3 is the norm for primary high attainers and the introduction of the Level 6 tests has raised the ceiling for them, permitting many to exceed the standard expectation by making three levels of progress from KS1 to KS2. Three is the limit however.

Although the proportions of learners achieving Level 6 are still relatively small, numbers are increasing rapidly, especially in maths. The SFR containing provisional results from the 2013 tests shows that 7% of learners achieved Level 6 in KS2 maths.



The note relating to the secondary performance tables says:

‘The majority of children are expected to leave Key Stage 2 (age 11), working at least at level 4.  By the end of Key Stage 4, pupils who were at level 4 should progress to achieve at least a Grade C at GCSE; while pupils working at level 6 should be expected to achieve at least an A at GCSE…These are minimum expectations.’


Progression trajectories secondary Capture .

But the associated technical note disagrees.

A diagram shows that the minimum expected progress from a KS2 Level 6 is Grade B, equivalent to only two levels of progress.


Secondary progression matrix diagram Capture

The text reinforces this:

Pupils attaining level 5 or level 6 at KS2 are expected to achieve at least a grade B at GCSE. Therefore all pupils achieving an A* – B are deemed to have made the expected progress, whether or not their prior attainment is known.’

The technical note is the current version. I checked the RAISE Online library in case it contained more recent information but – at the time of writing at least – it does not.

It seems that there is currently some confusion about whether or not learners with Level 6 are expected to progress at least three levels to GCSE grade A, at least as far as the Performance Tables are concerned.

This may be because the interpretation in the technical note predates the interpretation in the guidance note and has not been updated.

Clearly the higher level of expectation is preferable, because it is nonsensical that the very highest attainers need make only two levels of progress across five years of secondary schooling when everyone else is expected to make at least three.


Should We Expect More Progress from High Attainers?

Many schools have pushed beyond these minimum expectations, especially for their high attainers. It is fairly common practice for learners to be expected to make somewhere between two and three levels of progress from KS1 to KS2 and four levels of progress from KS 2-4.

Given that this practice is already firmly established, there seems to be a strong case for both arms of the accountability system to emulate it, so raising expectations for high attainers nationally, regardless of the schools they attend.

That would confirm the value and significance of Level 6 tests to primary schools, while secondary schools would reasonably expect the rapidly increasing number of learners arriving with KS2 L6 to reach GCSE A* five years later.

Another option would be to combine this additional stretch with a recalibration of the definition of high attainers – and of course its application to both arms of the accountability regime.

For the evidence from the Secondary Transition Matrices, held in the RAISE online library, shows just how much progress varies according to National Curriculum sub-levels.

When it comes to full levels, the Matrices show that, nationally, 51% of learners with Level 5 in maths made four or more levels of progress (to Grade A or above) in 2012, while 41% with Level 5 did so in English.

(Incidentally, the Matrices do not show progress from Level 6 because the KS2 level relates to performance some years earlier, typically in 2007 for those taking GCSE in 2012.)


Maths TM - full grades CaptureEnfglish TM full grade Capture


But the real value of these Matrices lies in the breakdown they provide of progression by sub-level.

I have already drawn out the key points in an earlier post and will not repeat that material here, other than to note that, in 2012:

  • 87% of learners with a Level 5A at KS2 in English achieved at least four levels of progress, compared with 64% with 5B and 29% with 5C (the latter lower than the comparable conversion rate for those with a Level 4A). Moreover, 47% of those with 5A achieve five levels of progress to A*, compared with 20 of those with 5B and only 4% of those with 5C;
  • 84% of learners with Level 5A in maths secured at least four levels of progress, whereas 57% of those with 5B and 30% with 5C managed this (and once again, the conversion rate from Level 4A was higher than for 5C). And 50% of those with 5A make five levels of progress to A*, compared with 20% of those with 5B and just 6% of those with 5C


TM Maths Capture



TM English Capture



There is a clear distinction between the progress made by learners with Level 5A/B and by those with 5C, which might argue for the Performance Tables to adjust upwards the average point score expected of high attainers, while simultaneously raising the expectation to four levels of progress.

There may be reluctance to adjust the levels-driven progress methodology when it has a limited lifespan of three years at most. On the other hand:

  • There is already an issue – and it will become more pronounced over the next three years as more learners achieve KS2 L6.
  • As the plans for post-2016 assessment and accountability are developed and finalised, it is important that suitably high expectations of high attainers are transferred across from the current system to its successor.
  • Implementation of the 2016 reforms may be dependent on the outcome of the 2015 General Election – there is currently no guarantee that Labour will proceed with the removal of National Curriculum levels and/or follow the timetable laid down by the Government.


Summing Up

This marks the end of the first part of this post. I have tried to show:

  • How Ofsted inspection guidance places greater emphasis on high attainers, what this really means and where the meaning is unclear.
  • That the revisions introduced by Ofsted are a not quite comprehensive response to the self-imposed recommendations in ‘The most able students’.
  • How – in the absence of any guidance to the contrary – Ofsted’s assumed definition of high attainers (aka ‘the most able’) differs from that applied in the School Performance Tables, resulting in inconsistency between the two sides of the of the accountability regime which is sub-optimal for schools.
  • That, if Ofsted’s assumed definition stands, schools need to be prepared for the likelihood that the majority of their learners will fall within it.
  • That expectations of progress for high attainers in the Secondary Performance Tables are currently unclear.
  • That there is a strong case for increasing those expectations – for primary as well as secondary high attainers – which could if necessary be combined with an upwards adjustment of the definitions.

I have called for Ofsted to publish brief supplementary guidance to clarify its definitions and the wider implications of the revisions of its inspection guidance. This would ideally confirm that Ofsted’s definitions and Performance Table definitions are one and the same.

In Part Two, I will review how high attainers will be reported on in the 2013 Performance Tables, and how this differs from the arrangements in the 2012 Tables.

I will also set out how the proposals in the consultations on primary, secondary and post-16 accountability are expected to impact on high attainers. (If the response to the secondary consultation appears imminently I will reflect that in the analysis.)

Finally, I will offer some guidance for schools on how they might set about planning to improve their high attainers’ performance – and what that they might include in a basket of key improvement measures, designed to be shared with learners, parents and other key stakeholders.



October 2013