HMCI Ups the Ante on the Most Able

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Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Wilshaw made some important statements about the education of what Ofsted most often calls ‘the most able’ learners in his 2013/14 Annual Report and various supporting documents.

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This short post compiles and summarises these statements, setting them in the context of current inspection policy and anticipated changes to the inspection process.

It goes on to consider what further action might be necessary to remedy the deficiencies Ofsted has identified in schools and to boost our national capacity to educate high attainers.

It continues a narrative which runs through several of my previous posts including:

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What the Annual Report documents said

Ofsted’s press release marking publication of the 2013/14 Annual Report utilises a theme that runs consistently through all the documentation: while the primary sector continues to improve, progress has stalled in the secondary sector, resulting in a widening performance gap between the two sectors.

It conveys HMCI’s judgement that primary schools’ improvement is attributable to the fact that they ‘attend to the basics’, one of which is:

‘Enabling the more able [sic] pupils to reach their potential’

Conversely, the characteristics of secondary schools where improvement has stalled include:

‘The most able not being challenged’.

It is unclear whether Ofsted maintains a distinction between ‘more able’ and ‘most able’ since neither term is defined at any point in the Annual Report documentation.

In his speech launching the Annual Report, HMCI Wilshaw said:

‘The problem is also acute for the most able children. Primaries have made steady progress in helping this group. The proportion of pupils at Key Stage 2 gaining a Level 5 or above rose from 21% in 2013 to 24% this year. Attainment at Level 6 has also risen, particularly in mathematics, where the proportion reaching the top grade has increased from 3% to 9% in two years.

Contrast that with the situation in secondary schools. In 2013, nearly a quarter of pupils who achieved highly at primary school failed to gain even a B grade at GCSE. A third of our inspections of secondary schools this year pinpointed specific problems with teaching the most able – a third of inspections this year.

We cannot allow this lack of progress to persist. Imagine how dispiriting it must be for a child to arrive at a secondary school bursting with enthusiasm and keen to learn, only to be forced to repeat lessons already learnt and endure teaching that fails to stimulate them. To help tackle this problem, I have commissioned a report into progress at Key Stage 3 and it will report next year.’

HMCI’s written Commentary on the Annual Report says of provision in primary schools:

‘Many primary schools stretch the more able

Good and outstanding schools encourage wider reading and writing at length. Often, a school’s emphasis on the spiritual, moral, social and cultural aspects of the curriculum benefits all pupils but especially the more able, providing them with opportunities to engage with complex issues.

The proportion of pupils at Key Stage 2 attaining a Level 5 or above in reading, writing and mathematics increased from 21% in 2013 to 24% in 2014.

Attainment at Level 6 has also risen. In mathematics, the proportion of pupils achieving Level 6 rose from 3% in 2012 to 9% in 2014. The proportion achieving Level 6 in grammar, punctuation and spelling rose by two percentage points in the last year to 4%.

These improvements suggest that primary schools are getting better at identifying the brightest children and developing their potential.’ (Page 9)

The parallel commentary on provision in secondary schools says:

Too many secondary schools are not challenging the most able

In 2013, almost two thirds of the pupils in non-selective schools who attained highly at primary school in English and mathematics did not reach an A or A* in those subjects at GCSE. Nearly a quarter of them did not even achieve a B grade.

Around a third of our inspections of secondary schools this year identified issues in the teaching of the most able pupils. Inspectors found that teachers’ expectations of the most able were too low. There is a worrying lack of scholarship permeating the culture of too many schools.

In the year ahead, Ofsted will look even more closely at the performance of the brightest pupils in routine school inspections and will publish a separate report on what we find.’ (Page 13)

The Annual Report itself adds:

‘Challenging the most able

England’s schools are still not doing enough to help the most able children realise their potential. Ofsted drew attention to this last year, but the story has yet to change significantly. Almost two thirds of the pupils in non-selective schools who attained highly at primary school in English and mathematics did not reach an A* or A in those subjects at GCSE in 2013. Nearly a quarter of them did not even achieve a B grade and a disproportionate number of these are boys. Our brightest pupils are not doing as well as their peers in some other countries that are significantly outperforming England. In PISA 2012, fewer 15-year-olds in England were attaining at the highest levels in mathematics than their peers in Germany, Poland and Belgium. In reading, however, they were on a par.

This year, our inspectors looked carefully at how schools were challenging their most able pupils. Further action for individual schools was recommended in a third of our inspection reports. The majority of recommendations related to improved teaching of this group of pupils. Inspectors called on schools to ensure that the most able pupils are being given challenging work that takes full account of their abilities. Stretching the most able is a task for the whole school. It is important that schools promote a culture that supports the most able pupils to flourish, giving them opportunities to develop the skills needed by top universities and tracking their progress at every stage.

‘Ofsted will continue to press schools to stretch their most able pupils. Over the coming year, inspectors will be looking at this more broadly, taking into account the leadership shown in this area by schools. We will also further sharpen our recommendations so that schools have a better understanding of how they can help their most able pupils to reach their potential. Ofsted will follow up its 2013 publication on the most able in secondary schools with another survey focusing on non-selective primary and secondary schools. As part of this survey, we will examine the transition of the most able pupils from one phase to the next.’

Rather strangely, there are substantive references in only two of the accompanying regional reports.

The Report on London – the region that arguably stands above all others in terms of overall pupil performance – says:

More able pupils [sic]

London does reasonably well overall for more able pupils. In 2012/13 the proportion of pupils who were high attainers in Year 6 and then went on to gain A* or A in GCSE English was 46% in London compared with 41% in England.  In mathematics, the proportions were 49% across England and 58% in London.

However, in 2012/13, seven local authorities – Croydon, Bexley, Havering, Lewisham, Lambeth, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest – were below the London and national proportions of previously high attaining pupils who went on to attain grade A* or A in GCSE English. With the exception of Bexley, the same local authorities also fell below the London and national levels for the proportion of previously high-attaining pupils who went on to attain grade A* or A in GCSE mathematics.

We have identified the need to secure more rapid progress for London’s more able pupils as one of our key priorities. Inspectors will be paying particular attention to the performance of the more able pupils in schools and local authorities where these pupils are not reaching their full potential.’

The Report on the North-West identifies a problem:

‘Too many of the more able students underperform at secondary school. Of the 23 local authorities in the North West, 13 are below the national level for the percentage of children achieving at least Level 5 at Key Stage 2 in English and mathematics. The proportion subsequently attaining A* or A at GCSE is very low in some areas, particularly Knowsley, Salford and Blackpool.’

But it does not mention tackling this issue amongst its regional priorities.

The six remaining regional reports are silent on the issue.

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Summarising the key implications

Synthesising the messages from these different sources, it seems that:

  • Primary schools have made ‘steady progress’ in supporting the most able, improving their capacity to identify and develop their potential. 
  • Inspection evidence suggests one third of secondary schools have specific problems with teaching the most able. This is a whole school issue. Too many high attainers at the end of KS2 are no longer high attainers at the end of KS4. Teachers’ expectations are too low. A positive school culture is essential but there is ‘a worrying lack of scholarship permeating the culture of too many schools’.  
  • Ofsted will increase the scrutiny it gives to the performance of the most able in routine school inspections, taking account of the leadership shown by schools (which appears to mean the contribution made by school leaders within schools), and will sharpen their recommendations within school inspection reports to reflect this increased scrutiny. 
  • They will also publish a survey report in 2015 that will feature: the outcomes of their increased scrutiny; provision in ‘non-selective primary and secondary schools’ including transition between phases; and the progress of the most able learners in KS3. 
  • In London the need to secure more rapid progress for more able pupils is a priority for Ofsted’s regional team. They will focus particularly on progress in English and maths between KS2 and KS4 in seven local authorities performing below the national and London average. 

[Postscript: In his Select Committee appearance on 28 January 2015, HMCI said that the 2015 survey report will be published in May.

However, there were press reports a few days ahead that it would be brought forward to Wednesday 4 March.

Publication ahead of the General Election, rather than immediately afterwards, puts pressure on the political parties to set out their response.

Will they continue to advance the familiar line that their generic standards-raising policies will ‘lift all ships’, or will they commit to a more targeted solution, such as the one I proposed here?]

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All this suggests that schools would be wise to concentrate on strengthening leadership, school culture and transition – as well as eradicating any problems associated with teaching the most able.

KS3 is a particular concern in secondary schools. Although there will be comparatively more attention paid to the secondary sector, primary schools will not escape Ofsted’s increased scrutiny.

This is as it should be since my recent analysis of high attainers and high attainment in the 2014 Primary Performance Tables demonstrates that there is significant underachievement amongst high attainers in the primary sector and, in particular, very limited progress in closing achievement gaps between disadvantaged and other learners at higher attainment levels.

Ofsted does not say that they will give particular attention to most able learners in receipt of the pupil premium. The 2013 survey report committed them to doing so, but I could find no such emphasis in my survey of secondary inspection reports.

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Will this be enough?

HMCI’s continuing concern about the quality of provision for the most able raises the question whether Ofsted’s increased scrutiny will be sufficient to bring about the requisite improvement.

Government policy is to leave this matter entirely to schools, although this has been challenged in some quarters. Labour in Opposition has been silent on the matter since Burnham’s Demos speech in July 2011.

More recent political debate about selection and setting has studiously avoided the wider question of how best to meet the needs of the most able, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

If HMCI Wilshaw were minded to up the ante still further, what additional action might he undertake within Ofsted and advocate beyond it?

I sketch out below a ten-step plan for his and your consideration.

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  1. Ofsted should strengthen its inspection procedures by publishing a glossary and supplementary inspection guidance, so that schools and inspectors alike have a clearer, shared understanding of Ofsted’s expectations and what provision should look like in outstanding and good schools. This should feature much more prominently the achievement, progress and HE destinations of disadvantaged high attainers, especially those in receipt of the Pupil Premium.

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  1. The initiative under way in Ofsted’s London region should be extended immediately to all eight regions and a progress report should be included in Ofsted’s planned 2015 survey.

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  1. The Better Inspection for All consultation must result in a clearer and more consistent approach to the inspection of provision for the most able learners across all sectors, with separate inspection handbooks adjusted to reflect the supplementary guidance above. Relevant high attainment, high attainer and excellence gaps data should be added to the School Data Dashboard.

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  1. Ofsted should extend its planned 2015 survey to include a thorough review of the scope and quality of support for educating the most able provided to schools through local authority school improvement services, academy chains, multi-academy trusts and teaching school alliances. It should make recommendations for extending and strengthening such support, eliminating any patchiness of provision.

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  1. Reforms to the assessment and accountability frameworks mean that less emphasis will be placed in future on the achievement of national benchmarks by borderline candidates and more on the attainment and progress of all learners. But there are still significant gaps in the data published about high attainment and high attainers, especially the differential performance of advantaged and disadvantaged learners. The decision to abandon the planned data portal – in which it was expected some of this data would be deposited – is problematic. Increased transparency would be helpful.

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  1. There are unanswered questions about the support that the new levels-free assessment regime will provide for the achievement and progression of the most able. There is a risk that a ‘mastery’-focused approach will emphasise progression through increased depth of study, at the expense of greater breadth and faster pace, thus placing an unnecessary constraint on their education. Guidance is desirable to help eliminate these concerns.

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  1. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) should extend its remit to include excellence gaps. All EEF-sponsored evaluations should routinely consider the impact on disadvantaged high attainers. The EEF should also sponsor projects to evaluate the blend of interventions that are most effective in closing excellence gaps. The Toolkit should be revised where necessary to highlight more clearly where specific interventions have a differential impact on high attainers.

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  1. Efforts should be made to establish national consensus on the effective education of high attainers through consultation on and agreement of a set of common core principles.

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  1. A ‘national conversation’ is needed to identify strategies for supporting (disadvantaged) high attainers, pushing beyond the ideological disagreements over selection and setting to consider a far wider range of options, including more innovative approaches to within-school and between-school provision.

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  1. A feasibility study should be conducted into the viability of a national, non-governmental learner-centred support programme for disadvantaged high attainers aged 11-18. This would be market-driven but operate within a supporting national framework. It would be managed entirely within existing budgets – possibly an annual £50m pupil premium topslice plus a matching contribution from universities’ fair access outreach funding.

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GP

December 2014

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