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

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