The most able students: Has Ofsted made progress?

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This post considers Ofsted’s survey report ‘The most able students: An update on progress since June 2013’ published on 4 March 2015.

It is organised into the following sections:

  • The fit with earlier analysis
  • Reaction to the Report
  • Definitions and the consequent size of Ofsted’s ‘most able’ population
  • Evidence base – performance data and associated key findings
  • Evidence base – inspection and survey evidence and associated key findings
  • Ofsted’s recommendations and overall assessment
  • Prospects for success

How this fits with earlier work

The new Report assesses progress since Ofsted’s previous foray into this territory some 21 months ago: ‘The most able students: Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools?’ (June 2013)

The autopsy I performed on the original report was severely critical.

It concluded:

‘My overall impression is of a curate’s egg, whose better parts have been largely overlooked because of the opprobrium heaped on the bad bits.

The Report might have had a better reception had the data analysis been stronger, had the most significant messages been given comparatively greater prominence and had the tone been somewhat more emollient towards the professionals it addresses, with some sort of undertaking to underwrite support – as well as challenge – from the centre.’

In May 2014, almost exactly mid-way between that Report and this, I published an analysis of the quality of Ofsted reporting on support for the most able in a sample of Section 5 secondary school inspection reports.

This uncovered a patchy picture which I characterised as ‘requiring improvement’.

It noted the scant attention given by inspectors to high-attaining disadvantaged learners and called for Ofsted to publish guidance to clarify, for inspectors and schools alike, what they mean by the most able and their expectations of what support schools should provide.

In December 2014, I published ‘HMCI ups the ante on the most able’ which drew attention to commitments in HMCI’s Annual Report for 2013/14 and the supporting documentation released alongside it.

I concluded that post with a series of ten recommendations for further action by Ofsted and other central government bodies that would radically improve the chances of achieving system-wide improvement in this territory.

The new Report was immediately preceded by a Labour commitment to introduce a £15m Gifted and Talented Fund if successful in the forthcoming General Election.

This short commentary discusses that and sets out the wider political context into which Ofsted’s new offering will fall.

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Reactions to Ofsted’s Report

Before considering the Report’s content, it may be helpful to complete this context-setting by charting immediate reactions to it.

  • DfE’s ‘line to take, as quoted by the Mail, is:

‘We know that the best schools do stretch their pupils. They are the ones with a no-excuses culture that inspires every student to do their best.

Our plan for education is designed to shine a bright light on schools which are coasting, or letting the best and brightest fall by the wayside.

That is why we are replacing the discredited system which rewarded schools where the largest numbers of pupils scraped a C grade at GCSE.

Instead we are moving to a new system which encourages high-achievers to get the highest grades possible while also recognising schools which push those who find exams harder.’

‘David Cameron’s government has no strategy for supporting schools to nurture their most able pupils. International research shows we perform badly in helping the most gifted pupils. We’re going to do something about that. Labour will establish a Gifted and Talented Fund to equip schools with the most effective strategies for stretching their most able pupils.’

  • ASCL complains that the Report ‘fails to recognise that school leaders have done an extraordinary job in difficult circumstances in raising standards and delivering a good education for all children’. It is also annoyed because Ofsted’s press release:

‘…should have focused on the significant amount of good practice identified in the report rather than leading with comments that some schools are not doing enough to ensure the most able children fulfil their potential.’

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  • NAHT makes a similarly generic point about volatility and change:

‘The secondary sector has been subject to massive structural change over the past few years. It’s neither sensible nor accurate to accuse secondary schools of failure. The system itself is getting in the way of success…

…Not all of these changes are bad. The concern is that the scale and pace of them will make it very hard indeed to know what will happen and how the changes will interact….

…The obvious answer is quite simple: slow down and plan the changes better; schedule them far enough ahead to give schools time to react….

But the profession also needs to ask what it can do. One answer is not to react so quickly to changes in league table calculations – to continue to do what is right…’

There was no official reaction from ATL, NASUWT or NUT.

Turning to the specialist organisations:

‘If the failure reported by Ofsted was about any other issue there would be a national outcry.

This cannot be an issue laid at the door of schools alone, with so many teachers working hard, and with no budget, to support these children.

But in some schools there is no focus on supporting high potential learners, little training for teachers to cope with their educational needs, and a naive belief that these children will succeed ‘no matter what’.

Ofsted has shown that this approach is nothing short of a disaster; a patchwork of different kinds of provision, a lack of ambitious expectations and a postcode lottery for parents.

We need a framework in place which clearly recognises best practice in schools, along with a greater understanding of how to support these children with high learning potential before it is too late.’

‘NACE concurs with both the findings and the need for urgent action to be taken to remove the barriers to high achievement for ALL pupils in primary and secondary schools…

… the organisation is  well aware that nationally there is a long way to go before all able children are achieving in line with their abilities.’

‘Today’s report demonstrates an urgent need for more dedicated provision for the highly able in state schools. Ofsted is right to describe the situation as ‘especially disappointing’; too many of our brightest students are being let down…

…We need to establish an effective national programme to support our highly able children particularly those from low and middle income backgrounds so that they have the stretch and breath they need to access the best universities and the best careers.’

Summing up, the Government remains convinced that its existing generic reforms will generate the desired improvements.

There is so far no response, from Conservatives or Liberal Democrats, to the challenge laid down by Labour, which has decided that some degree of arms-length intervention from the centre is justified.

The headteacher organisations are defensive because they see themselves as the fall guys, as the centre increasingly devolves responsibility through a ‘school-driven self-improving’ system that cannot yet support its own weight (and might never be able to do so, given the resource implications of building sufficient capacity).

But they cannot get beyond these generic complaints to address the specific issues that Ofsted presents. They are in denial.

The silence of the mainstream teachers’ associations is sufficient comment on the significance they attach to this issue.

The specialist lobby calls explicitly for a national framework, or even the resurrection of a national programme. All are pushing their own separate agendas over common purpose and collaborative action.

Taken together, this does not bode well for Ofsted’s chances of achieving significant traction.

Ofsted’s definitions

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Who are the most able?

Ofsted is focused exclusively on non-selective secondary schools, and primarily on KS3, though most of the data it publishes relates to KS4 outcomes.

My analysis of the June 2013 report took umbrage at Ofsted’s previous definition of the most able:

‘For the purpose of this survey ‘most able’ is defined as the brightest students starting secondary school in Year 7 attaining Level 5 or above, or having the potential to attain Level 5 and above, in English (reading and writing) and/or mathematics at the end of Key Stage 2. Some pupils who are new to the country and are learning English as an additional language, for example, might not have attained Level 5 or beyond at the end of Key Stage 2 but have the potential to achieve it.’

On this occasion, the definition is similarly based on prior attainment at KS2, but the unquantified proportion of learners with ‘the potential to attain Level 5 or above’ are removed, meaning that Ofsted is now focused exclusively on high attainers:

‘For this report, ‘most able’ refers to students starting secondary school in Year 7 having attained Level 5 or above in English (reading and writing) and/or mathematics at the end of Key Stage 2.’

This reinforces the unsuitability of the term ‘most able’, on the grounds that attainment, not ability, is the true focus.

Ofsted adds for good measure:

‘There is currently no national definition for most able’

They fail to point out that the Performance Tables include a subtly different definition of high attainers, essentially requiring an APS of 30 points or higher across Key Stage 2 tests in the core subjects.

The 2014 Secondary Performance Tables show that this high attainer population constitutes 32.3% of the 2014 GCSE cohort in state-funded schools.

The associated SFR indicates that high attainers account for 30.9% of the cohort in comprehensive schools (compared with 88.8% in selective schools).

But Ofsted’s definition is wider still. The SFR published alongside the 2014 Primary Performance Tables reveals that, in 2014:

  • 29% of pupils achieved Level 5 or above in KS2 reading and writing
  • 44% of pupils achieved Level 5 or above in KS2 Maths and
  • 24% of pupils achieved Level 5 or above in KS2 reading, writing and maths.

If this information is fed into a Venn diagram, it becomes evident that, this academic year, the ‘most able’ constitute 49% of the Year 7 cohort.

That’s right – almost exactly half of this year’s Year 7s fall within Ofsted’s definition.

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Ofsted venn Capture

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The population is not quite so large if we focus instead on KS2 data from 2009, when the 2014 GCSE cohort typically took their KS2 tests, but even that gives a combined total of 39%.

We can conclude that Ofsted’s ‘most able’ population is approximately 40% of the KS4 cohort and approaching 50% of the KS3 cohort.

This again calls into question Ofsted’s terminology, since the ‘most’ in ‘most able’ gives the impression that they are focused on a much smaller population at the top of the attainment distribution.

We can check the KS4 figure against numerical data provided in the Report, to demonstrate that it applies equally to non-selective schools, ie once selective schools have been removed from the equation.

The charts in Annex A of the Report give the total number of pupils in non-selective schools with L5 outcomes from their KS2 assessments five years before they take GCSEs:

  • L5 maths and English = 91,944
  • L5 maths = 165,340
  • L5 English (reading and writing) = 138,789

Assuming there is no double-counting, this gives us a total population of 212,185 in 2009.

I could not find a reliable figure for the number of KS2 test takers in 2009 in state-funded primary schools, but the equivalent in the 2011 Primary Performance Tables is 547,025.

Using that, one can calculate that those within Ofsted’s definition constitute some 39% of the 2014 GCSE cohort in non-selective secondary schools. The calculations above suggest that the KS3 cohort will be some ten percentage points larger.

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Distribution between schools

Of course the distribution of these students between schools will vary considerably.

The 2014 Secondary Performance Tables illustrate this graphically through their alternative ‘high attainers’ measure. The cohort information provides the percentage of high attainers in the GCSE cohort in each school.

The highest recorded percentage in a state-funded comprehensive school is 86%, whereas 92 state-funded schools record 10% or fewer high attainers and just over 650 have 20% or fewer in their GCSE cohort.

At the other extreme, 21 non-selective state-funded schools are at 61% or higher, 102 at 51% or higher and 461 at 41% or higher.

However, the substantial majority – about 1,740 state-funded, non-selective schools – fall between 21% and 40%.

The distribution is shown in the graph below.

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Ofsted graph 1

Percentage of high attainers within each state-funded non-selective secondary school’s cohort 2014 (Performance Tables measure)

Ofsted approaches the issue differently, by looking at the incidence of pupils with KS2 L5 in English, maths and both English and maths.

Their tables (again in Annex A of the Report) show that, within the 2014 GCSE cohort there were:

  • 2,869 non-selective schools where at least one pupil previously attained a L5 in KS2 English
  • 2,875 non-selective schools where at least one pupil previously attained a L5 in KS2 maths and
  • 2,859 non-selective schools where at least one pupil previously attained l5 in KS2 English and maths.

According to the cohort data in the 2014 Secondary Performance Tables, this suggests that roughly 9% of state-funded non-selective secondary schools had no pupils in each of these categories within the relevant cohort. (It is of course a different 9% in each case.)

Ofsted’s analysis shows that the lowest decile of schools in the distribution of students with L5 in English will have up to 14 of them.

Similarly the lowest decile for L5 in maths will have up to 18 pupils, and the lowest decile for L5 in maths and English combined will have up to 10 pupils.

Assuming a top set typically contains at least 26 pupils, 50% of state-funded, non-selective schools with at least one pupil with L5 English have insufficient students for one full set. The comparable percentage for maths is 30%.

But Ofsted gives no hint of what might constitute a critical mass of high attainers, appearing to suggest that it is simply a case of ‘the more the better’.

Moreover, it seems likely that Ofsted might simply be identifying the incidence of disadvantage through the proxy of high attainers.

This is certainly true at the extremes of the distribution based on the Performance Tables measure.

  • Amongst the 92 schools with 10% or fewer high attainers, 53 (58%) have a cohort containing 41% or more disadvantaged students.
  • By comparison, amongst the 102 schools with 51% or more high attainers, not one school has such a high proportion of disadvantaged students, indeed, 57% have 10% or fewer.

Disadvantage

When Ofsted discusses the most able from disadvantaged backgrounds, its definition of disadvantage is confined to ‘Ever-6 FSM’.

The Report does not provide breakdowns showing the size of this disadvantaged population in state-funded non-selective schools with L5 English or L5 maths.

It does tell us that 12,150 disadvantaged students in the 2014 GCSE cohort had achieved KS2 L5 in both English and maths.  They form about 13.2% of the total cohort achieving this outcome.

If we assume that the same percentage applies to the total populations achieving L5 English only and L5 maths only, this suggests the total size of Ofsted’s disadvantaged most able population within the 2014 GCSE cohort in state-funded, non-selective schools is almost exactly 28,000 students.

Strangely, the Report does not analyse the distribution of disadvantaged high attainers, as opposed to high attainers more generally, even though the text mentions this as an issue in passing.

One would expect that the so called ‘minority effect’ might be even more pronounced in schools where there are very few disadvantaged high attainers.

Ofsted’s evidence base: Performance data

The Executive Summary argues that analysis of national performance data reveals:

‘…three key areas of underperformance for the most able students. These are the difference in outcomes between:

  • schools where most able students make up a very small proportion of the school’s population and those schools where proportions are higher
  • the disadvantaged most able students and their better off peers
  • the most able girls and the most able boys.

If the performance of the most able students is to be maximised, these differences need to be overcome.’

As noted above, Ofsted does not separately consider schools where the incidence of disadvantaged most able students is low, nor does it look at the interaction between these three categories.

It considers all three areas of underperformance through the single prism of prior attainment in KS2 tests of English and maths.

The Report also comments on a fourth dimension: the progression of disadvantaged students to competitive universities. Once again this is related to KS2 performance.

There are three data-related Key Findings:

  • National data show that too many of the most able students are still being let down and are failing to reach their full potential. Most able students’ achievement appears to suffer even more when they are from disadvantaged backgrounds or when they attend a school where the proportion of previously high-attaining students is small.’
  • ‘Nationally, too many of our most able students fail to achieve the grades they need to get into top universities. There are still schools where not a single most able student achieves the A-level grades commonly preferred by top universities.’
  • The Department for Education has developed useful data about students’ destinations when they leave Key Stage 4. However, information about students’ destinations when they leave Key Stage 5 is not as comprehensive and so is less useful.’

The following sections look at achievement compared with prior attainment, followed by each of the four dimensions highlighted above.

GCSE attainment compared with KS2 prior attainment

Ofsted’s approach is modelled on the transition matrices, as applied to non-selective schools, comparing KS2 test performance in 2009 with subsequent GCSE performance in 2014.

Students with KS2 L5 are expected to make at least three levels of progress, to GCSE Grade B or higher, but this is relatively undemanding for high attainers, who should ideally be aiming for A/A* grades.

Ofsted presents two charts which illustrate the relatively small proportions who are successful in these terms – and the comparatively large proportions who undershoot even a grade B.

Ofsted Capture 1

Ofsted Capture 2

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  • In English, 39% manage A*/A grades while 77% achieve at least a Grade B, meaning that 23% achieve C or below.
  • In maths, 42% achieve A*/A grades, 76% at least a B and so 24% achieve C or lower.
  • In English and maths combined, 32% achieve A*/A grades in both subjects, 73% manage at least 2 B grades, while 27% fall below this.

Approximately one in four high attainers is not achieving each of these progression targets, even though they are not particularly demanding.

The Report notes that, in selective schools, the proportion of Level 5 students not achieving at least a Grade B is much lower, at 8% in English and 6% in maths.

Even allowing for the unreliability of these ‘levels of progress’ assumptions, the comparison between selective and non-selective schools is telling.

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The size of a school’s most able population

The Report sets out evidence to support the contention that ‘the most able do best when there are more of them in a school’ (or, more accurately, in their year group).

It provides three graphs – for English, for maths and for maths and English combined – which divide non-selective schools with at least one L5 student into deciles according to the size of that L5 population.

These show consistent increases in the proportion of students achieving GCSE Grade B and above and Grades A*/A, with the lowest percentages for the lowest deciles and vice versa.

Comparing the bottom (fewest L5) and top (most L5) deciles:

  • In English 27% of the lowest decile achieved A*/A and 67% at least a B, whereas in the highest decile 48% achieved A*/A and 83% at least B.
  • In maths 28% of the bottom decile recorded A*/A while 65% managed at least a B, whereas in the top decile 54% achieved A*/A and 83% at least a B.
  • In maths and English combined, the lowest decile schools returned 17% A*/A grades and 58% at B or above, while in the highest decile the percentages were 42% and 81% respectively.

Selective schools record higher percentages than the highest decile on all three measures.

There is a single reference to the impact of sublevels, amply evidenced by the transition matrices.

‘For example, in schools where the lowest proportions of most able students had previously gained Level 5A in mathematics, 63% made more than expected progress. In contrast, in schools where the highest proportion of most able students who had previously attained Level 5A in mathematics, 86% made more than expected progress.’

Ofsted does not draw any inferences from this finding.

As hinted above, one might want to test the hypothesis that there may be an association with setting – in that schools with sufficient Level 5 students to constitute a top set might be relatively more successful.

Pursued to its logical extreme the finding would suggest that Level 5 students will be most successful where they are all taught together.

Interestingly, my own analysis of schools with small high attainer populations (10% or less of the cohort), derived from the 2014 Secondary Performance Tables, shows just how much variation there can be in the performance of these small groups when it comes to the standard measures:

  • 5+ A*-C grades including English and maths varies from 44% to 100%
  • EBacc ranges from 0% to 89%
  • Expected progress in English varies between 22% and 100% and expected progress in maths between 27% and 100%.

This is partly a function of the small sample sizes. One suspects that Ofsted’s deciles smooth over similar variations.

But the most obvious point is that already emphasised in the previous section – the distribution of high attainers seems in large part a proxy for the level of advantage in a school.

Viewed from this perspective, Ofsted’s data on the variation in performance by distribution of high attaining students seems unsurprising.

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Excellence gaps

Ofsted cites an ‘ever 6’ gap of 13 percentage points at GCSE grade B and above in English (66% compared with 79%) and of 17 percentage points in maths (61% compared with 78%).

Reverting again to progression from KS2, the gap between L5 ‘ever 6 FSM’ and other students going on to achieve A*/A grades in both English and maths is also given as 17 percentage points (20% versus 37%). At Grade B and above the gap is 16 points (59% compared with 75%).

A table is supplied showing progression by sub-level in English and maths separately.

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Ofsted Capture 3

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A footnote explains that the ‘ever 6 FSM’ population with L5a in English was small, consisting of just 136 students.

I have transferred these excellence gaps to the graph below, to illustrate the relationship more clearly.

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Ofsted chart 2

GCSE attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged learners by KS2 prior attainment

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It shows that, for grades A*-B, the size of the gap reduces the higher the KS2 sub-level, but the reverse is true at grades A*/A, at least as far as the distinction between 5c and 5b/a is concerned. The gaps remain similar or identical for progression from the higher two sub-levels.

This might suggest that schools are too little focused on pushing high-attaining disadvantaged learners beyond grade B.

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Gender

There is a short section on gender differences which points out that, for students with KS2 L5:

  • In English there was a 10 percentage point gap in favour of girls at Grade B and above and an 11 point gap in favour of girls at A*/A.
  • In maths there was a five percentage point gap at both Grade B and above and Grade A*/A.

But the interrelationship with excellence gaps and the size of the high attainer population is not explored.

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Progression to competitive higher education

The Executive Summary mentions one outcome from the 2012/13 destinations data – that only 5% of disadvantaged students completing KS5 in 2012 progressed to ‘the top universities’. (The main text also compares the progression rates for state-funded and independent schools).

It acknowledges some improvement compared with previous years, but notes the disparity with progression rates for students from comparatively advantaged backgrounds.

A subsequent footnote reveals that Ofsted is referring throughout to progression to Russell Group universities

The Executive Summary also highlights regional differences:

‘For example, even within a high-achieving region like London, disadvantaged students in Brent are almost four times as likely to attend a prestigious university as those in Croydon.’

The main text adds:

‘For example, of the 500 or so disadvantaged students in Kent, only 2% go on to attend a top university. In Manchester, this rises to 9%. Disadvantaged students in Barnet are almost four times as likely as their peers in Kent to attend a prestigious university.’

Annex A provides only one statistic concerning progression from KS2 to KS5:

‘One half of students achieving Level 5 in English and mathematics at Key Stage 2 failed to achieve any A or A* grades at A level in non-selective schools’

There is no attempt to relate this data to the other variables discussed above.

Ofsted’s Evidence base – inspection and survey evidence

The qualitative evidence in Ofsted’s report is derived from:

  • A survey of 40 non-selective secondary schools and 10 primary schools. All the secondary schools had at least 15% of students ‘considered to be high attaining at the end of Key Stage 2’ (as opposed to meeting Ofsted’s definition), as well as 10% or more considered to be low-attaining. The sample varied according to size, type and urban or rural location. Fifteen of the 40 were included in the survey underpinning the original 2013 report. Nine of the 10 primary schools were feeders for the secondaries in the sample. In the secondary schools, inspectors held discussions with senior leaders, as well as those responsible for transition and IAG (so not apparently those with lead responsibility for high attainers). They also interviewed students in KS3 and KS5 and looked at samples of students’ work.

The six survey questions are shown below

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Ofsted Capture 4

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  • Supplementary questions asked during 130 Section 5 inspections, focused on how well the most able students are maintaining their progress in KS3, plus challenge and availability of suitable IAG for those in Year 11.
  • An online survey of 600 Year 8 and Year 11 students from 17 unidentified secondary schools, plus telephone interviews with five Russell Group admissions tutors.

The Report divides the qualitative dimension of its report into seven sections that map broadly on to the six survey questions.

The summary below is organised thematically, pulling together material from the key findings and supporting commentary. Relevant key findings are emboldened. Some of these have relevance to sections other than that in which they are located.

The length of each section is a good guide to the distribution and relative weight of Ofsted’s qualitative evidence

Most able disadvantaged

‘Schools visited were rarely meeting the distinct needs of students who are most able and disadvantaged. Not enough was being done to widen the experience of these students and develop their broader knowledge or social and cultural awareness early on in Key Stage 3. The gap at Key Stage 4 between the progress made by the most able disadvantaged students and their better off peers is still too large and is not closing quickly enough.’

The 2013 Report found few instances of pupil premium being used effectively to support the most able disadvantaged. This time round, about a third of survey schools were doing so. Six schools used the premium effectively to raise attainment.

Funding was more often used for enrichment activities but these were much less common in KS3, where not enough was being done to broaden students’ experience or develop social and cultural awareness.

In less successful schools, funding was not targeted ‘with the most able students in mind’, nor was its impact evaluated with sufficient precision.

In most survey schools, the proportion of most able disadvantaged was small. Consequently leaders did not always consider them.

In the few examples of effective practice, schools provided personalised support plans.

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Leadership

Ofsted complains of complacency. Leaders are satisfied with their most able students making the expected progress – their expectations are not high enough.

School leaders in survey schools:

‘…did not see the need to do anything differently for the most able as a specific group.’

One head commented that specific support would be ‘a bit elitiist’.

In almost half of survey schools, heads were not prioritising the needs of their most able students at a sufficiently early stage.

Just 44 of the 130 schools asked supplementary questions had a senior leader with designated responsibility for the most able. Of these, only 16 also had a designated governor.

The Report comments:

‘This suggests that the performance of the most able students was not a high priority…’

Curriculum

Too often, the curriculum did not ensure that work was hard enough for the most able students in Key Stage 3. Inspectors found that there were too many times when students repeated learning they had already mastered or did work that was too easy, particularly in foundation subjects.’

Although leaders have generally made positive curriculum changes at KS4 and 5, issues remain at KS3. General consensus amongst students in over half the survey schools was that work is too easy.

Students identified maths and English as more challenging than other subjects in about a third of survey schools.

In the 130 schools asked supplementary questions, leaders rarely prioritised the needs of the most able at KS3. Only seven offered a curriculum designed for different abilities.

In the most effective survey schools the KS3 curriculum was carefully structured:

‘…leaders knew that, for the most able, knowledge and understanding of content was vitally important alongside the development of resilience and knowing how to conduct their own research.’

By comparison, the KS4 curriculum was tailored in almost half of survey schools. All the schools introduced enrichment and extra-curricular opportunities, though few were effectively evaluated.

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Assessment and tracking

Assessment, performance tracking and target setting for the most able students in Key Stage 4 were generally good, but were not effective enough in Key Stage 3. The schools visited routinely tracked the progress of their older most able students, but this remained weak for younger students. Often, targets set for the most able students were too low, which reflected the low ambitions for these students. Targets did not consistently reflect how quickly the most able students can make progress.’

Heads and assessment leaders considered tracking the progress of the most able sufficient to address their performance, but only rarely was this information used to improve curriculum and teaching strategies.

Monitoring and evaluation tends to be focused on KS4. There were some improvements in tracking at KS4 and KS5, but this had caused many schools to lose focus on tracking from the start of KS3.

KS3 students in most survey schools said their views were sought, but could not always point to changes as a consequence. Only in eight schools were able students’ views sought as a cohort.

Year 8 respondents to the online survey typically said schools could do more to develop their interests.

At KS3, half the survey schools did not track progress in all subjects. Where tracking was comprehensive, progress was inconsistent, especially in foundation subjects.

Assessment and tracking ‘generally lacked urgency and rigour’. This, when combined with ineffective use of KS2 assessments:

‘… has led to an indifferent start to secondary school for many of the most able students in these schools.’

KS2 tests were almost always used to set targets but five schools distrusted these results. Baseline testing was widely used, but only about a quarter of the sample used it effectively to spot gaps in learning or under-achievement.

Twenty-six of the 40 survey schools set targets ‘at just above national expectations’. For many students these were insufficiently demanding.

Expectations were insufficiently high to enable them to reach their potential. Weaknesses at KS3 meant there was too much to catch up at KS4 and 5.

In the better examples:

‘…leaders looked critically at national expectations and made shrewd adjustments so that the most able were aiming for the gold standard of A and A* at GCSE and A levels rather than grade B. They ensured that teachers were clear about expectations and students knew exactly what was expected of them. Leaders in these schools tracked the progress of their most able students closely. Teachers were quickly aware of any dips in performance and alert to opportunities to stretch them.’

The expectations built into levels-based national curriculum assessment imposed ‘a glass ceiling’. It is hoped that reforms such as Progress 8 will help raise schools’ aspirations.

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Quality of teaching

‘In some schools, teaching for the most able lacked sufficient challenge in Key Stage 3. Teachers did not have high enough expectations and so students made an indifferent start to their secondary education. The quality of students’ work across different subjects was patchy, particularly in foundation subjects. The homework given to the most able was variable in how well it stretched them and school leaders did not routinely check its effectiveness.’

The most common methods of introducing ‘stretch’ reported by teachers and students were extension work, challenge questions and differentiated tasks.

But in only eight of the survey schools did teachers have specific training in applying these techniques to the most able.

As in 2013, teaching at KS3 was insufficiently focused on the most able. The quality of work and tasks set was patchy, especially in foundation subjects. In two-thirds of survey schools work was insufficiently challenging in foundation subjects; in just under half, work was insufficiently challenging in maths and English.

Students experienced a range of teaching quality, even in the same school. Most said there were lessons that did not challenge them. Older students were more content with the quality of stretch and challenge.

In only about one fifth of survey schools was homework adapted to the needs of the most able. Extension tasks were increasingly common.

The same was true of half of the 130 schools asked supplementary questions.  Only 14 had a policy of setting more challenging homework for the most able.

Most schools placed students in maths and science sets fairly early in Year 7, but did so less frequently in English.

In many cases, older students were taught successfully in mixed ability classes, often because there were too few students to make sets viable:

‘The fact that these schools were delivering mixed ability classes successfully suggests that the organisation of classes by ability is not the only factor affecting the quality of teaching. Other factors, such as teachers not teaching their main subject or sharing classes or leaders focusing the skills of their best teachers disproportionately on the upper key stages, are also influential.’

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School culture and ethos

Leaders had not embedded an ethos in which academic excellence was championed with sufficient urgency. Students’ learning in Key Stage 3 in the schools visited was too frequently disrupted by low-level disruption, particularly in mixed-ability classes. Teachers had not had enough effective training in using strategies to accelerate the progress of their most able students.’

Where leadership was effective, leaders placed strong emphasis on creating the right ethos. School leaders had not prioritised embedding a positive ethos at KS3 in 22 of the survey schools.

In half of the survey schools, the most able students said their learning was affected by low-level disruption, though teachers in three-quarters of schools maintained this was rare. Senior leaders also had a more positive view than students.

In 16 of the schools, students thought behaviour was less good in mixed ability classes and staff tended to agree.

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Transition

‘Inspectors found that the secondary schools visited were not using transition information from primary schools effectively to get the most able off to a flying start in Key Stage 3. Leaders rarely put in place bespoke arrangements for the most able students. In just under half of the schools visited, transition arrangements were not good enough. Some leaders and teachers expressed doubt about the accuracy of Key Stage 2 results. The information that schools gathered was more sophisticated, but, in too many cases, teachers did not use it well enough to make sure students were doing work with the right level of difficulty.

Too often poor transition arrangements meant students were treading water in KS3. The absence of leadership accountability for transition appeared a factor in stifled progress at KS4 and beyond.

Transfer arrangements with primary schools were not well developed in 16 of the survey schools. Compared with 2013, schools were more likely to find out about pupils’ strengths and weaknesses, but the information was rarely used well.

Secondary schools had more frequent and extended contact with primary schools through subject specialists to identify the most able, but these links were not always used effectively. Only one school had a specific curriculum pathway for such students.

Leaders in four of the ten primary schools surveyed doubted whether secondary schools used transition information effectively.

However, transition worked well in half of the secondary schools.  Six planned the Year 7 curriculum jointly with primary teachers. Leaders had the highest expectations of their staff to ensure that the most able were working at the appropriate level of challenge.

Transition appeared more effective where schools had fewer feeder primaries. About one third of the sample had more than 30 feeder schools, which posed more difficulties, but four of these schools had effective arrangements.

Progression to HE

‘Information, advice and guidance to students about accessing the most appropriate courses and universities were not good enough. There were worrying occasions when schools did too little to encourage the most able students to apply to prestigious universities. The quality of support was too dependent on the skills of individual staff in the schools visited.

While leaders made stronger links with universities to provide disadvantaged students in Key Stages 4 and 5 with a wider range of experiences, they were not evaluating the impact sharply enough. As a result, there was often no way to measure how effectively these links were supporting students in preparing successful applications to the most appropriate courses.’

Support and guidance about university applications is ‘still fragile’ and ‘remains particularly weak’.

Students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, were not getting the IAG they need. Ten survey schools gave no specific support to first generation university attendees or those eligible for the pupil premium.

Forty-nine of the 130 school asked additional questions did not prioritise the needs of such students. However, personalised mentoring was reported in 16 schools.

In four survey schools students were not encouraged to apply to the top universities.

‘The remnants of misplaced ideas about elitism appear to be stubbornly resistant to change in a very small number of schools. One admissions tutor commented: ‘There is confusion (in schools) between excellence and elitism’.

Only a third of survey schools employed dedicated staff to support university applications. Much of the good practice was heavily reliant on the skills of a few individuals. HE admissions staff agreed.

In 13 of the schools visited, students had a limited understanding of the range of opportunities available to them.

Survey schools had a sound understanding of subject requirements for different degree courses. Only about one-quarter engaged early with parents.

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Ofsted and other Central Government action

‘Ofsted has sharpened its focus on the progress and quality of teaching of the most able students. We routinely comment on the achievement of the most able students in our inspection reports. However, more needs to be done to develop a clearer picture of how well schools use pupil premium funding for their most able students who are disadvantaged and the quality of information, advice and guidance provided for them. Ofsted needs to sharpen its practice in this area.’

The Department for Education has developed useful data about students’ destinations when they leave Key Stage 4. However, information about students’ destinations when they leave Key Stage 5 is not as comprehensive and so is less useful.’

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Ofsted’s recommendations and conclusions

This is a somewhat better Report than its June 2013 predecessor, although it continues to fall into several of the same statistical and presentational traps.

It too is a curate’s egg.

For any student of effective provision for the most able, the broad assessment in the previous section is profoundly unsurprising, but its endorsement by Ofsted gives it added power and significance.

We should be grateful that HMCI has chosen to champion this issue when so many others are content to ignore it.

The overall message can best be summarised by juxtaposing two short statements from the Report, one expressed positively, another negatively:

  • In over half of survey schools, the most able KS3 students were progressing as well as, or better than, others. 
  • The needs of the most able were not being met effectively in the majority of survey schools.

Reading between the lines, too often, the most able students are succeeding despite their schools, rather than because of them.

What is rather more surprising – and potentially self-defeating – is Ofsted’s insistence on laying the problem almost entirely at the door of schools, and especially of headteachers.

There is most definitely a degree of complacency amongst school leaders about this issue, and Ofsted is quite right to point that out.

The determination of NAHT and ASCL to take offence at the criticism being directed towards headteachers, to use volatility and change as an excuse and to urge greater focus on the pockets of good practice is sufficient evidence of this.

But there is little by way of counterbalance. Too little attention is paid to the question whether the centre is providing the right support – and the right level of support – to facilitate system-wide improvement. It as if the ‘school-led, self-improving’ ideal is already firmly in place.

Then again, any commitment on the part of the headteachers’ associations to tackling the root causes of the problem is sadly lacking. Meanwhile, the teachers;’ associations ignored the Report completely.

Ofsted criticises this complacency and expresses concern that most of its survey schools:

‘…have been slow in taking forward Ofsted’s previous recommendations, particularly at KS3’

There is a call for renewed effort:

‘Urgent action is now required. Leaders must grasp the nettle and radically transform transition from primary school and the delivery of the Key Stage 3 curriculum. Schools must also revolutionise the quality of information, advice and guidance for their most able students.’

Ofsted’s recommendations for action are set out below. Seven are directed at school leaders, three at Ofsted and one at DfE.

Ofsted capture 5

Ofsted Capture 6

Those aimed by Ofsted towards itself are helpful in some respects.

For example, there is implicit acknowledgement that, until now, inspectors have been insufficiently focused on the most able from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Ofsted stops short of meeting my call for it to produce guidance to help schools and inspectors to understand Ofsted’s expectations.

But it is possible that it might do so. Shortly after publication of the Report, its Director for Schools made a speech confirming that: 

‘… inspectors are developing a most able evaluation toolkit for schools, aligned to that which is in place for free school meals’. 

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If Ofsted is prepared to consult experts and practitioners on the content of that toolkit, rather than producing it behind closed doors, it is more likely to be successful.

There are obvious definitional issues stemming from the fact that, according to Ofsted’s current approach, the ‘most able’ population constitutes 40-50% of all learners.

While this helps to ensure relevance to every school, no matter how depressed the attainment of its intake, it also highlights the need for further differentiation of this huge population.

Some of Ofsted’s statistical indicators and benchmarking tools will need sharpening, not least to avoid the pitfalls associated with the inverse relationship between the proportion of high attainers and the proportion of disadvantaged learners.

They might usefully focus explicitly on the distribution and incidence of the disadvantaged most able.

Prospects for success

But the obvious question is why schools should be any more likely to respond this time round than in 2013?

Will the references in the Ofsted inspection handbook plus reformed assessment arrangements be sufficient to change schools’ behaviour?

Ofsted is not about to place explicit requirements on the face of the inspection framework.

We are invited to believe that Progress 8 in particular will encourage secondary schools to give due attention to the needs of high attainers.

Yet there is no commitment to the publication of a high attainers’ performance measure (comparable to the equivalent primary measure) or the gap on that measure between those from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Data about the performance of secondary high attainers was to have been made available through the now-abandoned Data Portal – and there has been no information about what, if anything, will take its place.

And many believe that the necessary change cannot be achieved by tinkering with the accountability framework.

The specialist organisations are united in one respect: they all believe that schools – and learners themselves – need more direct support if we are to spread current pockets of effective practice throughout the system.

But different bodies have very different views about what form that support should take. Until we can:

  • Establish the framework necessary to secure universally high standards across all schools without resorting to national prescription

we – and Ofsted – are whistling in the wind.

GP

March 2015

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A Summer of Love for English Gifted Education? Episode 2: Ofsted’s ‘The Most Able Students’

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This post provides a close analysis of Ofsted’s Report: ‘The most able students: Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools?’ (June 2013)

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summer of love 1967 by 0 fairy 0

summer of love 1967 by 0 fairy 0

This is the second post in a short series, predicated on the assumption that we are currently enjoying a domestic ‘summer of love’ for gifted education.

According to this conceit, the ‘summer of love’ is built around three official publications, all of them linked in some way with the education of gifted learners, and various associated developments.

Part One in the series introduced the three documents:

  • An Ofsted Survey of how schools educate their most able pupils (still unpublished at that point); and
  • A planned ‘Investigation of school and college level strategies to raise the aspirations of high-achieving disadvantaged pupils to pursue higher education’, this report programmed for publication in September 2013.

It provided a full analysis of the KS2 L6 Investigation and drew on the contractual specification for the Investigation of aspiration-raising strategies to set out what we know about its likely content and coverage.

It also explored the pre-publicity surrounding Ofsted’s Survey, which has been discussed exclusively by HMCI Wilshaw in the media. (There was no official announcement on Ofsted’s own website, though it did at least feature in their schedule of forthcoming publications.)

Part One also introduced a benchmark for the ‘The most able students’, in the shape of a review of Ofsted’s last foray into this territory – a December 2009 Survey called ‘Gifted and talented pupils in schools’.

I will try my best not to repeat too much material from Part One in this second Episode so, if you feel a little at sea without this background detail, I strongly recommend that you start with the middle section of that first post before reading this one.

I will also refer you, at least once, to various earlier posts of mine, including three I wrote on the day ‘The most able students’ was published:

  • My Twitter Feed – A reproduction of the real time Tweets I published immediately the Report was made available online, summarising its key points and recommendations and conveying my initial reactions and those of several influential commentators and respondents. (If you don’t like long posts, go there for the potted version!);

Part Two is dedicated almost exclusively to analysis of ‘The most able students’ and the reaction to its publication to date.

It runs a fine tooth comb over the content of the Report, comparing its findings with those set out in Ofsted’s 2009 publication and offering some judgement as to whether it possesses the ‘landmark’ qualities boasted of it by HMCI in media interviews and/or whether it justifies the criticism heaped on it in some quarters.

It also matches Ofsted’s findings against the Institutional Quality Standards (IQS) for Gifted Education – the planning and improvement tool last refreshed in 2010 – to explore what that reveals about the coverage of each document.

For part of my argument is that, if schools are to address the issues exposed by Ofsted, they will need help and support to do so – not only a collaborative mechanism such as that proposed in ‘Driving Gifted Education Forward – but also some succinct, practical guidance that builds on the experience developed during the lifetime of the late National Gifted and Talented Programme.

For – if you’d like a single succinct take-away from this analysis – I firmly believe that it is now timely for the IQS to be reviewed and updated to better reflect current policy and the new evidence base created in part by Ofsted and the other two publications I am ‘celebrating’ as part of the Summer of Love.

Oh, and if you want to find out more about my ‘big picture’ vision, may I refer you finally to the Gifted Phoenix Manifesto for Gifted Education.

But now it’s high time I began to engage you directly with what has proved to be a rather controversial text.

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Ofsted’s Definition of ‘Most Able’

The first thing to point out is that Ofsted’s Report is focused very broadly in one sense, but rather narrowly in another.

The logic-defying definition of ‘most able students’ Ofsted adopts – for the survey that informs the Report – is tucked away in a footnote divided between the bottom of pages 6 and 7 of the Report.

This says:

For the purpose of this survey ‘most able’ is defined as the brightest students starting secondary school in Year 7 attaining Level 5 or above, or having the potential to attain Level 5 and above, in English (reading and writing) and/or mathematics at the end of Key Stage 2. Some pupils who are new to the country and are learning English as an additional language, for example, might not have attained Level 5 or beyond at the end of Key Stage 2 but have the potential to achieve it.

It is hard to reconcile this definition with the emphasis in the title of the Report on ‘the most able students’, which suggests a much narrower population at one extreme of an ability distribution (not an attainment distribution, although most of the Report is actually about high attaining students, something quite different).

In fact, Ofsted’s sample includes:

  • All pupils achieving Level 5 and above in English – 38% of all pupils taking end KS2 tests in 2012 achieved this.
  • All pupils achieving Level 5 and above in maths – 39% of all pupils achieved this in 2012.
  • We also know that 27% of pupils achieved Level 5 or above in both English and maths in 2012. This enables us to deduce that approximately 11% of pupils managed Level 5 only in English and approximately 12% only in maths.
  • So adding these three together we get 27% + 11% + 12% = 50%. In other words, we have already included exactly half of the entire pupil population and have so far counted only ‘high attaining’ pupils.
  • But we also need to include a further proportion of pupils who ‘have the potential’ to achieve Level 5 in one or other of these subject but do not do so. This sub-population is unquantifiable, since Ofsted gives only the example of EAL pupils, rather than the full range of qualifying circumstances it has included. A range of different special needs might also cause a learner to be categorised thus. So might a particularly disadvantaged background (although that rather cuts across other messages within the Report). In practice, individual learners are typically affected by the complex interaction of a whole range of different factors, including gender, ethnic and socio-economic background, special needs, month of birth – and so on. Ofsted fails to explain which factors it has decided are within scope and which outside, or to provide any number or percentage for this group that we can tack on to the 50% already deemed high attainers.

Some might regard this lack of precision as unwarranted in a publication by our national Inspectorate, finding reason therein to ignore the important findings that Ofsted presents later in the Report. That would be unfortunate.

Not only is Ofsted’s definition very broad, it is also idiosyncratic, even in Government terms, because it is not the same as the slightly less generous version in the Secondary School Performance Tables, which is based on achievement of Level 5 in Key Stage 2 tests of English, maths and science.

So, according to this metric, Ofsted is concerned with the majority of pupils in our secondary schools – several million in fact.

But ‘The Most Able Students’ is focused exclusively on the segment of this population that attends non-selective 11-16 and 11-18 state schools.

We are told that only 160,000 students from a total of 3.235m in state-funded secondary schools attend selective institutions.

Another footnote adds that, in 2012, of 116,000 students meeting Ofsted’s ‘high attainers’ definition in state-funded schools who took GCSEs in English and maths, around 100,000 attended non-selective schools, compared with 16,000 in selective schools (so some 86%).

This imbalance is used to justify the exclusion of selective schools from the evidence base, even though some further direct comparison of the two sectors might have been instructive – possibly even supportive of the claim that there is a particular problem in comprehensive schools that is not found in selective institutions. Instead, we are asked to take this claim largely on trust.

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Exeter1 by Gifted Phoenix

Exeter1 by Gifted Phoenix

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The Data-Driven Headlines

The Report includes several snippets of data-based evidence to illustrate its argument, most of which relate to subsets of the population it has rather loosely defined, rather than that population as a whole. This creates a problematic disconnect between the definition and the data.

One can group the data into three categories: material relating to progression between Key Stages 2 and 4, material relating to achievement of AAB+ grades at A level in the so-called ‘facilitating subjects’ and material drawn from international comparisons studies. The former predominates.

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Data About Progression from KS2 to KS4

Ofsted does not explain up front the current expectation that pupils should make at least three full levels of progress between the end of Key Stage 2 and the end of Key Stage 4, or explore the fact that this assumption must disappear when National Curriculum levels go in 2016.

The conversion tables say that pupils achieving Level 5 at the end of Key Stage 2 should manage at least a Grade B at GCSE. Incidentally – and rather confusingly – that also includes pupils who are successful in the new Level 6 tests.

Hence the expectation does not apply to some of the very highest attainers who, rather than facing extra challenge, need only make two levels of progress in (what is typically) five years of schooling.

I have argued consistently that three levels of progress is insufficiently challenging for many high attainers. Ofsted makes that assumption too – even celebrates schools that push beyond it – but fails to challenge the source or substance of that advice.

We are supplied with the following pieces of data, all relating to 2012:

  • 65% of ‘high attainers’ in non-selective secondary schools – not according to Ofsted’s definition above, but the narrower one of those achieving  Key Stage 2 Level 5 in both English and maths – did not achieve GCSEs at A/A* in both those subjects. (So this is equivalent to 4 or 5 levels of progress in the two subjects combined.) This group includes over 65,000 students (see pages 4, 6, 8, 12).
  • Within the same population, 27% of students did not achieve GCSEs at B or above in both English and maths. (So this is the expected 3+ levels of progress.) This accounts for just over 27,000 students.) (see pages 4, 6 and 12).
  • On the basis of this measure, 42% of FSM-eligible students did not achieve GCSEs at B or above in both English and maths, whereas the comparable figure for non-FSM students was 25%, giving a gap between FSM and non-FSM (rather than between FSM and all students) of 17%. We are not told what the gap was at A*/A, or for the ‘survey population’ as a whole  (page 14)
  • Of those who achieved Level 5 in English (only) at Key Stage 2, 62% of those attending non-selective state schools did not achieve an A* or A Grade at GCSE (so making 4 or 5 levels of progress) and 25% did not achieve a GCSE B grade or higher (so making 3+ levels of progress) (page 12)
  • Of those who achieved Level 5 in maths (only) at Key Stage 2, 53% did not achieve A*/A at GCSE (4 or 5 levels of progress) and 22% did not achieve B or higher (3+ levels of progress) (page 12)
  • We are also given the differentials between boys and girls on several of these measures, but not the percentages for each gender. In English, for A*/A and for B and above, the gap is 11% in favour of girls. In maths, the gap is 6% in favour of girls at A*/A and 5% at B and above. In English and maths combined, the gap is 10% in favour of girls for A*/A and B and above alike (page 15).
  • As for ethnic background, we learn that non-White British students outperformed White British students by 2% in maths and 1% in English and maths together, but the two groups performed equally in English at Grades B and above. The comparable data for Grades A*/A show non-White British outperforming White British by 3% in maths and again 1% in English and maths together, while the two groups again performed equally in English (page 16)

What can we deduce from this? Well, not to labour the obvious, but what is the point of setting out a definition, however exaggeratedly inclusive, only to move to a different definition in the data analysis?

Why bother to spell out a definition based on achievement in English or maths, only to rely so heavily on data relating to achievement in English and maths?

There are also no comparators. We cannot see how the proportion of high attainers making expected progress compares with the proportion of middle and low attainers doing so, so there is no way of knowing whether there is a particular problem at the upper end of the spectrum. We can’t see the comparable pattern in selective schools either.

There is no information about the trend over time – whether the underperformance of high attainers is improving, static or deteriorating compared with previous years – and how that pattern differs from the trend for middle and low attainers.

The same applies to the information about the FSM gap, which is confined solely to English and maths, and solely to Grade B and above, so we can’t see how their performance compares between the two subjects and for the top A*/A grades, even though that data is supplied for boys versus girls and white versus non-white British.

The gender, ethnic and socio-economic data is presented separately so we cannot see how these different factors impact on each other. This despite HMI’s known concern about the underperformance of disadvantaged white boys in particular. It would have been helpful to see that concern linked across to this one.

Overall, the findings do not seem particularly surprising. The large gaps between the percentages of students achieving four and three levels of progress respectively is to be expected, given the orthodoxy that students need only make a minimum of three levels of progress rather than the maximum progress of which they are capable.

The FSM gap of 17% at Grade B and above is actually substantively lower than the gap at Grade C and above which stood at 26.2% in 2011/12. Whether the A*/A gap demonstrates a further widening at the top end remains shrouded in mystery.

Although it is far too soon to have progression data, the report almost entirely ignores the impact of Level 6 on the emerging picture. And it forbears to mention the implications for any future data analysis – including trend analysis – of the decision to dispense with National Curriculum levels entirely with effect from 2016.

Clearly additional data of this kind might have overloaded the main body of the Report, but a data Annex could and should have been appended.

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Why Ignore the Transition Matrices?

There is a host of information available about the performance of high attaining learners at Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 respectively, much of which I drew on for this post back in January 2013.

This applies to all state-funded schools and makes the point about high attainers’ underachievement in spades.

It reveals that, to some extent at least, there is a problem in selective schools too:

‘Not surprisingly (albeit rather oddly), 89.8% of students in selective schools are classified as ‘above Level 4’, whereas the percentage for comprehensive schools is 31.7%. Selective schools do substantially better on all the measures, especially the EBacc where the percentage of ‘above Level 4’ students achieving this benchmark is double the comprehensive school figure (70.7% against 35.0%). More worryingly, 6.6% of these high-attaining pupils in selective schools are not making the expected progress in English and 4.1% are not doing so in maths. In comprehensive school there is even more cause for concern, with 17.7% falling short of three levels of progress in English and 15.3% doing so in maths.’

It is unsurprising that selective schools tend to perform relatively better than comprehensive schools in maximising the achievement of high attainers, because they are specialists in that field.

But, by concentrating exclusively on comprehensive schools, Ofsted gives the false impression that there is no problem in selective schools when there clearly is, albeit not quite so pronounced.

More recently, I have drawn attention to the enormous contribution that can be added to this evidence base by the Key Stage 2 to 4 Transition Matrices available in the Raise Online library.

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Transition  Matrices and student numbers English (top) and maths (bottom)

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TM English CaptureTransition matrices numbers English captureTM Maths CaptureTransition matrices maths numbers Capture.

These have the merit of analysing progress to GCSE on the basis of National Curriculum sub-levels, and illustrate the very different performance of learners who achieve 5C, 5B and 5A respectively.

This means we are able to differentiate within the hugely wide Ofsted sample and begin to see how GCSE outcomes are affected by the strength of learners’ KS2 level 5 performance some five years previously.

The tables above show the percentages for English and maths respectively, for those completing GCSEs in 2012. I have also included the tables giving the pupil numbers in each category.

We can see from the percentages that:

  • Of those achieving 5A in English, 47% go on to achieve an A* in the subject, whereas for 5B the percentage is 20% and for 5C as low as 4%.
  • Similarly, of those achieving 5A in Maths, 50% manage an A*, compared with 20% for those with 5B and only 6% for those with 5C.
  • Of those achieving 5A in English, 40% achieve Grade A, so there is a fairly even split between the top two grades. Some 11% achieve a Grade B and just 1% a Grade C.
  • In maths, 34% of those with 5A at KS2 go on to secure a Grade A, so there is a relatively heavier bias in favour of A* grades. A slightly higher 13% progress to a B and 3% to a Grade C.
  • The matrices show that, when it comes to the overall group of learners achieving Level 5, in English 10% get A*, 31% get A and 36% a B. Meanwhile, in maths, 20% get an A*, 31% an A and 29% a B. This illustrates perfectly the very significant advantage enjoyed by those with a high Level 5 compared with Level 5 as a whole.
  • More worryingly, the progression made by learners who achieve upper Level 4s at Key Stage 2 tends to outweigh the progression of those with 5Cs. In English, 70% of those with 5C made 3 levels of progress and 29% made 4 levels of progress. For those with 4A, the comparable percentages were 85% and 41% respectively. For those with 4B they were 70% (so equal to the 5Cs) and 21% respectively.
  • Turning to maths, the percentages of those with Level 5C achieving three and four levels of progress were 67% and 30% respectively, while for those with 4A they were 89% and 39% respectively and for 4B, 76% (so higher) and 19% (lower) respectively.

This suggests that, while there is undeniably an urgent and important issue at the very top, with half or fewer of 5As being translated into A* Grades, the bulk of the problem seems to be at the lower end of Level 5, where there is a conspicuous dip compared with both comparatively higher and comparatively lower attainers.

I realise that there are health warnings attached to the transition matrices, but one can immediately see how this information significantly enriches Ofsted’s relatively simplistic analysis.

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Data About A Level Achievement and International Comparisons

The data supplied to illustrate progression to A level and international comparisons is comparatively limited.

For A Level:

  • In 2012, 334 (so 20%) of a total of 1,649 non-selective 11-18 schools had no students achieving AAB+ Grades at A Level including at least two of the facilitating subjects.  A footnote tells us that this applies only to 11-18 schools entering at least five pupils at A level. There is nothing about the controversy surrounding the validity of the ‘two facilitating subjects’ proviso (pages 4, 6, 14)
  • Sutton Trust data is quoted from a 2008 publication suggesting that some 60,000 learners who were in the top quintile (20%) of performers in state schools at ages 11, 14 and 16 had not entered higher education by the age of 18; also that those known to have been eligible for FSM were 19% less likely than others to enter higher education by age 19. The most significant explanatory factor was ‘the level and nature of the qualifications’ obtained by those who had been FSM-eligible (page 15).
  • A second Sutton Trust report is referenced showing that, from 2007-2009, students from independent schools were over twice as likely to gain admission to ‘one of the 30 most highly selective universities’ as students from non-selective state schools (48.2% compared with 18 %). However, this ‘could not be attributed solely to the schools’ average A level or equivalent results’ since 58% of applicants from the 30 strongest-performing comprehensive schools on this measure were admitted to these universities, compared with 87.1% from the highest-performing independent schools and 74.1% from the highest-performing grammar schools (pages 16-17)
  • The only international comparisons data is drawn from PISA 2009. The Report uses performance against the highest level in the tests of reading, maths and science respectively. It notes that, in reading, England ranked 15th on this measure though above the OECD average, in maths England ranked 33rd and somewhat below the OECD average and in science England was a strong performer somewhat above the OECD average (page 17)

Apart from the first item, all this material is now at least four years old.

There is no attempt to link KS2 progression to KS5 achievement, which would have materially strengthened the argument (and which is the focus of one of the Report’s central recommendations).

Nor is there any effort to link the PISA assessment to GCSE data, by explaining the key similarities and differences between the two instruments and exploring what that tells us about particular areas of strength and weakness for high attainers in these subjects.

There is again, a wealth of pertinent data available, much of it presented in previous posts on this blog:

Given the relatively scant use of data in the Report, and the significant question marks about the manner in which it has been applied to support the argument, it is hardly surprising that much of the criticism levelled at Ofsted can be traced back to this issue.

All the material I have presented on this blog is freely available online and was curated by someone with no statistical expertise.

While I cannot claim my analysis is error-free, it seems to me that Ofsted’s coverage of the issue is impoverished by comparison. Not only is there too little data, there is too little of the right data to exemplify the issues under discussion.

But, as I have already stated, that is not sufficient reason to condemn the entire Report out of hand.

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Exeter2 by Gifted Phoenix

Exeter2 by Gifted Phoenix

 

The Qualitative Dimension of the Report

The Evidence Base

If you read some of the social media criticism heaped upon ‘The most able students’ you would be forgiven for thinking that the evidence base consisted entirely of a few dodgy statistics.

But Ofsted also drew on:

  • Field visits to 41 non-selective secondary schools across England, undertaken in March 2013. The sample (which is reproduced as an Annex to the Report) was drawn from each of Ofsted’s eight regions and included schools of different sizes and ‘type’ and ‘different geographical contexts’. Twenty-seven were 11-18 schools, two are described as 11-19 schools, 11 were 11-16 schools and one admitted pupils at 14. Eighteen were academy converters. Inspectors spent a day in each school, discussing issues with school leaders, staff and pupils (asking similar questions to check sources against each other) and they ‘investigated analyses of the school’s [sic] current data’. We know that:

‘Nearly all of the schools visited had a broadly average intake in terms of their students’ prior attainment at the end of Key Stage 2, although this varied from year group to year group.’

Three selective schools were also visited ‘to provide comparison’ but – rather strangely – that comparative evidence was not used in the Report.

  • A sample of 2,327 lesson observation forms collected from Section 5 inspections of a second sample of 109 non-selective secondary schools undertaken in academic year 2012/13. We are not told anything about the selection of this sample, so we have no idea how representative it was.
  • A survey of 93 responses made by parents and carers to a questionnaire Ofsted placed on the website of the National Association for Able Children in Education (NACE)’. Ofsted also ‘sought the views of some key external organisations and individuals’ but these are not named. I have been able to identify just one organisation and one individual who were approached, which perhaps betrays a rather thin sample.

I have no great problem with the sample of schools selected for the survey. Some have suggested that 41 is too few. It falls short of the 50 mentioned in HMCI’s pre-publicity but it is enough, especially since Ofsted’s last Report in December 2009 drew on evidence from just 26 primary and secondary schools.

The second sample of lesson observations is more suspect, in that no information is supplied about how it was drawn. So it is entirely possible that it included all observations from those schools whose inspections were critical of provision for high attainers, or that all the schools were rated as underperforming overall, or against one of Ofsted’s key measures. There is a sin of omission here.

The parental survey is very small and, since it was filtered through a single organisation that focuses predominantly on teacher support, is likely to have generated a biased sample. The failure to engage a proper cross-section of organisations and individuals is regrettable: in these circumstances one should either consult many or none at all.

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Survey Questions

Ofsted is comparatively generous with information about its Survey instrument.

There were two fundamental questions, each supported by a handful of supplementary questions:

‘Are the most able students in non-selective state secondary schools achieving as well as they should?’ (with ‘most able’ defined as set out above). This was supported by four supplementary questions:

  • Are comprehensive schools challenging bright students in the way that the independent sector and selective system do?
  • Do schools track progression effectively enough? Do they know how their most able students are doing? What enrichment programme is offered to the most able students and what is its impact?
  • What is the effect of mixed ability classes on the most able students?
  • What is the impact of early entry at GCSE on the most able students?

Why is there such disparity in admissions to the most prestigious universities between a small number of independent and selective schools and the great majority of state-maintained non-selective schools and academies?’

  • What is the quality of careers advice and its impact on A level students, particularly in terms of their successful application to top universities? Are students receiving good advice and support on how to complete their UCAS forms/personal statements?
  • Are the most able students from disadvantaged backgrounds as likely as the most able students from more affluent families to progress to top universities, and if not why?
  • What are successful state schools doing to increase application success rates and what lessons can be learnt?

Evidence from the 41 non-selective schools was collected under six broad themes:

  • ‘the leadership of the school
  • the achievement of the most able students throughout the school
  • the transfer and transition of these students from their primary schools and their induction into secondary school
  • the quality of teaching, learning and assessment of the most able students
  • the curriculum and extension activities offered to the most able student
  • the support and guidance provided for the most able students, particularly when they were choosing subjects and preparing for university.’

But  the survey also ‘focused on five key elements’ (page 32) which are virtually identical to the last five themes above.

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Analysis of Key Findings

 

Top Level Conclusions

Before engaging in detail with the qualitative analysis from these sources, it is worth pausing to highlight two significant quantitative findings which are far more telling than those generated by the data analysis foregrounded in the Report.

Had I the good fortune to have reviewed the Report’s key findings prior to publication, I would have urged far greater prominence for:

  • ‘The 2,327 lesson observation evidence forms… showed that the most able students in only a fifth of these lessons were supported well or better.’
  • ‘In around 40% of the schools visited in the survey, the most able students were not making the progress of which they were capable. In a few of the schools visited, teachers did not even know who the most able students were.’

So, in a nutshell, one source of evidence suggests that, in 80% of lessons, support for the most able students is either inadequate or requires improvement.

Another source suggests that, in 40% of schools, the most able students are underachieving in terms of progress while, in a few schools, their identity is unknown.

And these findings apply not to a narrow group of the very highest attaining learners but, on the basis of Ofsted’s own definition, to over 50% of pupils!

Subject to the methodological concerns above, the samples appear sufficiently robust to be extrapolated to all English secondary schools – or the non-selective majority at least.

We do not need to apportion blame, or make schools feel that this is entirely their fault. But this is scandalous – indeed so problematic that it surely requires a concerted national effort to tackle it.

We will consider below whether the recommendations set out in the Report match that description, but first we need to engage with some of the qualitative detail.

The analysis below looks in turn at each of the six themes, in the order that they appear in the main body of the Report.

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Theme 1 – Achievement of the Most Able Students

 Key finding: ‘The most able students in non-selective secondary schools are not achieving as well as they should. In many schools, expectations of what the most able students should achieve are too low.’

 Additional points:

  • [Too] many of the students in the problematic 40% of surveyed schools ‘failed to attain the highest levels at GCSE and A level’.
  • Academic progress in KS3 required improvement in 17 of the 41 schools. Data was neither accurate nor robust in seven of the 41. Progress differed widely by subject.
  • At KS4, the most able were making less progress than other students in 19 of the 41 schools.
  • At KS5, the most able were making ‘less than expected progress’ in one or more subjects at 17 of the 41 schools.

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Theme 2 – Leadership and Management

Key Finding: ‘Leaders in our secondary schools have not done enough to create a culture of scholastic excellence, where the highest achievement in academic work is recognised as vitally important. Schools do not routinely give the same attention to the most able as they do to low-attaining students or those who struggle at school.’

Additional points:

  • Nearly all school leaders claimed to be ambitious for their most able students, but this was not realised in practice in over 40% of the sample.
  • In less effective schools initiatives were usually new or rudimentary and had not been evaluated.
  • Students were taught mainly in mixed ability groups in about a third of the schools visited. Setting was typically restricted to core subjects and often introduced for English and science relatively late in KS3.
  • This had no detrimental effect in ‘the very best schools’ but, in the less effective, work was typically pitched to average attainers.
  • Seven schools had revised their policy on early GCSE entry because of a negative impact on the number of the most able achieving top grades.
  • Leaders in the best schools showed high aspirations for their most able students, providing high-quality teaching and work matched to their needs. Results were well above average and high proportions achieved A*/A grades at GCSE and A level.
  • The best leaders ensure their high aspirations are understood throughout the school community, set high expectations embodied in stretching targets, recruit strong staff and deploy them as specialists and create ‘a dynamic, innovative learning environment’.

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Theme 3 – Transfer and Transition

Key Finding: ‘Transition arrangements from primary to secondary school are not effective enough to ensure that students maintain their academic momentum into Year 7. Information is not used carefully so that teachers can plan to meet the most able students’ needs in all lessons from the beginning of their secondary school career.’

Additional points:

  • The quality of transition is much too variable. Arrangements were weak in over one quarter of schools visited. Work was repeated in KS3 or was insufficiently challenging. Opportunities were missed to extend and consolidate previous learning.
  • Simple approaches were most effective, easier to implement in schools with few primary feeders or long-established cluster arrangements.
  • In the best examples secondary schools supported the most able before transfer, through specialist teaching and enrichment/extension activities.
  • In many schools activities were typically generic rather than targeted at the most able and many leaders didn’t know how effective they were for this group.
  • In over a quarter of schools the most able ‘did not get off to a good start’ in Year 7 because expectations were too low, work was insufficiently demanding and pupils were under-challenged.
  • Overall inspectors found serious weaknesses in this practice.
  • Effective practice includes: pre-transfer liaison with primary teachers and careful discussion about the most able; gathering a wide range of data to inform setting or class groups; identifying the most able early and implementing support for them to maintain their momentum; and fully evaluating pre-transfer activities and adapting them in the light of that.

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Exeter3 by Gifted Phoenix

Exeter3 by Gifted Phoenix

 .

Theme 4 – The Quality of Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Key Findings:

‘Teaching is insufficiently focused on the most able at KS3. In over two-fifths of the schools visited for the survey, students did not make the progress that they should, or that they were capable of, between the ages of 11 and 14. Students said that too much work was repetitive and undemanding in KS3. As a result, their progress faltered and their interest in school waned.

Many students became used to performing at a lower level than they are capable of. Parents or carers and teachers accepted this too readily. Students did not do the hard work and develop the resilience needed to perform at a higher level because more challenging tasks were not regularly demanded of them. The work was pitched at the middle and did not extend the most able. School leaders did not evaluate how well mixed-ability group teaching was challenging the most able students.’

Additional points:

  • The reasons for slow progress varied between schools and subjects but included: failure to recognise and challenge the most able; variability in approaches across subjects and year groups; inconsistent application of school policy; and lack of focus by senior and middle leaders.
  • Weaker provision demonstrated: insufficient tracking of the most able, inadequate rapid intervention strategies, insufficiently differentiated homework, failure to apply Pupil Premium funding and little evaluation of the impact of teaching and support.
  • In a few schools the organisation of classes inhibited progress, as evidenced by limited knowledge of the effectiveness of differentiation in mixed ability settings and lack of challenge, particularly in KS3.
  • Eight schools had moved recently to grouping by ability, particularly in core subjects. Others indicated they were moving towards setting, streaming or banding most subjects. Schools’ data showed this beginning to have a positive impact on outcomes.

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Theme 5 – Curriculum and Extension Activities

Key Findings:

‘The curriculum and the quality of homework required improvement. The curriculum in KS3 and early entry to GCSE examination are among the key weaknesses found by inspectors. Homework and the programme of extension activities for the most able students, where they existed, were not checked routinely for their impact or quality. Students said that too much homework was insufficiently challenging; it failed to interest them, extend their thinking or develop their skills.

Inequalities between different groups of the most able students are not being tackled satisfactorily. The attainment of the most able students who are eligible for FSM, especially the most able boys, lags behind that of other groups. Few of the schools visited used the Pupil Premium funding to support the most able students from the poorest backgrounds.

Assessment, tracking and targeting are not used sufficiently well in many schools. Some of the schools visited paid scant attention to the progress of their most able students.’

Additional points:

  • In over a quarter of schools visited, aspects of the curriculum, including homework, required improvement. In two schools the curriculum failed to meet the needs of the most able.
  • In one in seven schools, leaders had made significant changes recently, including more focus on academic subjects and more setting.
  • But schools did not always listen to feedback from their most able students. Many did not ask students how well the school was meeting their needs or how to improve further.
  • In weaker schools students were rarely given extension work. Sixth form students reported insufficient opportunities to think reflectively and too few suggestions for wider, independent reading.
  • Many in less effective schools felt homework could be more challenging. Few were set wider research or extension tasks.
  • While some leaders said extra challenge was incorporated in homework, many students disagreed. Few school leaders were aware of the homework provided to these students. Many schools had limited strategies for auditing and evaluating its quality.
  • Most school leaders said a wide range of extension tasks, extra-curricular and enrichment activities was provided for the most able, but these were usually for all students. Targeted activities, when undertaken, were rarely evaluated.
  • Research suggests it is important to provide access to such activities for the most able students where parents are not doing so. Schools used Pupil Premium for this in only a few instances.
  • The Premium was ‘generally spent on providing support for all underachieving and low-attaining students rather than on the most able students from disadvantaged backgrounds’.
  • Strong, effective practice was exemplified by a curriculum well-matched to the needs of most able students, a good range and quality of extra-curricular activity, effective use of the Pupil Premium to enrich students’ curriculum and educational experience and motivating and engaging homework, tailored to students’ needs, designed to develop creativity and independence.
  • In over a third of schools visited, tracking of the most able was ‘not secure, routine or robust’. Intervention was often too slow.
  • In weaker schools, leaders were focused mainly on the C/D borderline; stronger schools also focused on A*/A grades too, believing their pupils could do better than ‘the B grade that is implied by the expected progress measure’.
  • Some schools used assessment systems inconsistently, especially in some KS3 foundation subjects where there was insufficient or inaccurate data. In one in five schools, targets for the most able ‘lacked precision and challenge’.
  • In a fifth of schools, senior leaders had introduced improved monitoring systems to hold staff to account, but implementation was often at a very early stage. Only in the best schools were such systems well established.
  • The most effective included lesson observation, work scrutiny, data analysis and reviews of teacher planning. In the better schools students knew exactly what they needed to do to attain the next level/grade and received regular feedback on progress.
  • The most successful schools had in place a wide range of strategies including: ensuring staff had detailed knowledge of the most able, their strengths and interests; through comprehensive assessment, providing challenging programmes and high quality support that met students’ needs;  and rigorous tracking by year, department and key stage combined with swift intervention where needed.
  • Many leaders had not introduced professional development focused on the most able students. Their needs had not been tackled by staff in over one fifth of schools visited, so teachers had not developed the required skills to meet their needs, or up-to-date knowledge of the Year 6 curriculum and assessment arrangements. Stronger schools were learning with and from their peers and had formed links with a range of external agencies.

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Theme 6 – Support and Guidance for University Entry

Key Findings:

‘Too few of the schools worked with families to support them in overcoming the cultural and financial obstacles that stood in the way of the most able students attending university, particularly universities away from the immediate local area. Schools did not provide much information about the various benefits of attending different universities or help the most able students to understand more about the financial support available.

Most of the 11-16 schools visited were insufficiently focused on university entrance. These schools did not provide students with sufficiently detailed advice and guidance on all the post-16 options available.

Schools’ expertise in and knowledge about how to apply to the most prestigious universities was not always current and relevant. Insufficient support and guidance were provided to those most able students whose family members had not attended university.’

Additional points:

  • Support and guidance varied in quality, accuracy and depth. Around half of schools visited ‘accepted any university as an option’. Almost a quarter had much to do to convince students and their families of the benefits of higher education, and began doing so too late.
  • Data provided by 26 of the 29 11-18 schools showed just 16 students went to Oxbridge in 2011, one eligible for FSM, but almost half came from just two of the schools. Nineteen had no students accepted at Oxbridge. The 2012 figures showed some improvement with 26 admitted to Oxbridge from 28 schools, three of them FSM-eligible.
  • In 2011, 293 students went to Russell Group universities, but only six were FSM eligible. By 2012 this had increased to 352, including 30 eligible for FSM, but over a quarter of the 352 came from just two schools.
  • Factors inhibiting application to prestigious universities included pressure to stay in the locality, cost (including fees), aversion to debt and low expectations. Almost half of the schools visited tackled this through partnership with local universities.
  • Schools did not always provide early or effective careers advice or information about the costs and benefits of attending university.
  • Some schools showed a lack of up-to-date intelligence about universities and their entrance requirements, but one third of those visited provided high quality support and guidance.
  • Some schools regarded going to any university as the indicator of success, disagreeing that it was appropriate to push students towards prestigious universities, rather than the ‘right’ institution for the student.
  • Most of the 11-16 schools visited were insufficiently focused on university entrance. They did not provide sufficiently detailed advice on post-16 options and did not track students’ destinations effectively, either post-16 or post-18.
  • The best schools: provided early on a planned programme to raise students’ awareness of university education; began engaging with students and parents about this as soon as they entered the school; provided support and guidance about subject choices, entry requirements and course content; supported UCAS applications; enabled students to visit a range of universities; and used alumni as role models.

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Exeter4 by Gifted Phoenix

Exeter4 by Gifted Phoenix

 

Ofsted’s Recommendations

There are two sets of recommendations in the Report, each with an associated commentary about the key constituents of good and bad practice. The first is in HMCI’s Foreword; the second in the main body of the Report.

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HMCI’s Version

This leads with material from the data analysis, rather than some of the more convincing data from the survey, or at least a judicious blend of both sources.

He rightly describes the outcomes as unacceptable and inconsistent with the principle of comprehensive education, though his justification for omitting selective schools from the analysis is rather less convincing, especially since he is focused in part on narrowing the gap between the two as far as admission to prestigious universities is concerned.

Having pointed up deficiencies at whole school level and in lessons he argues that:

‘The term ‘special needs’ should be as relevant to the most able as it is to those who require support for their learning difficulties’

This is rather out of left field and is not repeated in the main body or the official recommendations. There are pros and cons to such a route – and it would anyway be entirely inappropriate for a population comprising over 50% of the secondary population.

HMCI poses ‘three key challenges’:

‘First, we need to make sure that our most able students do as well academically as those of our main economic competitors. This means aiming for A* and A grades and not being satisfied with less. Not enough has changed since 2009, when the PISA tests found that England’s teenagers were just over half as likely as those from other developed nations to reach the highest levels in mathematics in international tests.

The second challenge is to ensure, from early on, that students know what opportunities are open to them and develop the confidence to make the most of these. They need tutoring, guidance and encouragement, as well as a chance to meet other young people who have embraced higher education. In this respect, independent schools as well as universities have an important role to play in supporting state schools.

The third challenge is to ensure that all schools help students and families overcome cultural barriers to attending higher education. Many of our most able students come from homes where no parent or close relative has either experienced, or expects, progression to university. Schools, therefore, need to engage more effectively with the parents or carers of these students to tackle this challenge.’

This despite the fact that comparison with international competitors is almost entirely lacking from the Report, save for one brief section on PISA data.

The role of independent schools is also underplayed, while the role of universities is seen very much from the schools’ perspective – there is no effort to link together the ‘fair access’ and ‘most able’ agendas in any meaningful fashion.

Parental engagement is also arguably under-emphasised or, at least, confined almost exclusively to the issue of progression.

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Ofsted’s Version

The ‘official’ text provides a standard overarching bullet point profile of poor and strong provision respectively.

  • Poor provision is characterised by: ‘fragile’ primary/secondary transfer; placement in groups where teaching is not challenging; irregular progress checks; a focus on D/C borderline students at the expense of the more able; and failure to prepare students well for A levels.
  • Strong provision features: leadership determined to improve standards for all students; high expectations of the most able amongst students, families and teachers; effective transition to sustain the momentum of the most able; early identification to inform tailoring of teaching and the curriculum; curricular flexibility to permit challenge and extension; grouping to support stretch from the start of secondary school;  expert teaching, formative assessment and purposeful homework; effective training and capacity for teachers to learn from each other; close monitoring of progress to inform rapid intervention where necessary; and effective support for application to prestigious universities.

A series of 13 recommendations is provided, alongside three Ofsted commitments. Ten of the 13 are aimed at schools and three at central Government.

I have set out the recommendations in the table below, alongside those from the previous Report, published in 2009.

 

2009 Report 2013 Report
Central Government Central Government
Ensure planned catalogue of learning and professional development opportunities meets the needs of parents, schools and LAs DfE to ensure parents receive annual report recording whether students are on track to achieve as well as they should in national tests and exams
Ensure LAs hold schools more rigorously to account for the impact of their G&T provision DfE to develop progress measures from KS2 to KS4 and KS5
DfE to promote new destination data showing progression to (Russell Group) universities
Ofsted will focus inspections more closely on teaching and progress of most able, their curriculum and the information, advice and guidance provided to them
Ofsted will consider in more detail during inspection how well Pupil Premium is used to support disadvantaged most able
Ofsted will report inspection findings about this group more clearly in school, sixth form and college reports
Local Authorities Local Authorities
Hold schools more rigorously to account for the impact of their G&T provision
Encourage best practice by sharing with schools what works well and how to access appropriate resources and training
Help schools produce clearer indicators of achievement and progress at different ages
Schools Schools
Match teaching to pupils’ individual needs Develop culture and ethos so needs of most able are championed by school leaders
Listen to pupil feedback and act on it Help most able to leave school with best qualifications by developing skills, confidence and attitudes needed to succeed at the best universities
Inform parents and engage them more constructively Improve primary-secondary transfer so all Year 7 teachers know which students achieved highly and what aspects of the curriculum they studied in Year 6, and use this to inform KS3 teaching.
Use funding to improve provision through collaboration Ensure work remains challenging throughout KS3 so most able make rapid progress.
Ensure lead staff have strategic clout Ensure leaders evaluate mixed ability teaching so most able are sufficiently challenged and make good progress
Ensure rigorous audit and evaluation processes Evaluate homework to ensure it is sufficiently challenging
Give parents better and more frequent information about what their children should achieve and raise expectations where necessary.
Work more closely with families, especially first generation HE applicants and FSM-eligible to overcome cultural and financial obstacles to HE application
Develop more knowledge and expertise to support applications to the most prestigious universities
Publish more widely the university destinations of their students

TABLE 1: COMPARING OFSTED RECOMMENDATIONS IN 2009 AND 2013

The comparison serves to illustrate the degree of crossover between the two Reports – and to what extent the issues raised in the former remain pertinent four years on.

The emboldened Items in the left-hand column are still outstanding and are not addressed in the latest Report. There is nothing about providing support for schools from the centre; and nothing whatsoever about the role of the ‘middle tier’, however that is composed. Ofsted’s new Report might have been enriched by some cross-reference to its predecessor.

The three recommendations directed at the centre are relatively limited in scope – fundamentally restricted to elements of the status quo and probably demanding negligible extra work or resource

  • The reference to an annual report to parents could arguably be satisfied by the existing requirements, which are encapsulated in secondary legislation.
  • It is not clear whether promoting the new destination measures requires anything more than their continuing publication – the 2013 version is scheduled for release this very week.
  • The reference to development of progress measures may be slightly more significant but probably reflects work already in progress. The consultation document on Secondary School Accountability proposed a progress measure based on a new ‘APS8’ indicator, calculated through a Value Added method and using end KS2 results in English and maths as a baseline:

‘It will take the progress each pupil makes between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4 and compare that with the progress that we expect to be made by pupils nationally who had the same level of attainment at Key Stage 2 (calculated by combining results at end of Key Stage 2 in English and mathematics).’

However this applies only to KS4, not KS5, and we are still waiting to discover how the KS2 baseline will be graded from 2016 when National Curriculum levels disappear.

This throws attention back on the Secretary of State’s June 2012 announcement, so far unfulfilled by any public consultation:

‘In terms of statutory assessment, however, I believe that it is critical that we both recognise the achievements of all pupils, and provide for a focus on progress. Some form of grading of pupil attainment in mathematics, science and English will therefore be required, so that we can recognise and reward the highest achievers as well as identifying those that are falling below national expectations. We will consider further the details of how this will work.’

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The Balance Between Challenge and Support

It is hard to escape the conclusion that Ofsted believe inter-school collaboration, the third sector and the market can together provide all the support that schools can  need (while the centre’s role is confined to providing commensurate challenge through a somewhat stiffened accountability regime).

After four years of school-driven gifted education, I am not entirely sure I share their confidence that schools and the third sector can rise collectively to that challenge.

They seem relatively hamstrung at present by insufficient central investment in capacity-building and an unwillingness on the part of key players to work together collaboratively to update existing guidance and provide support. The infrastructure is limited and fragmented and leadership is lacking.

As I see it, there are two immediate priorities:

  • To provide and maintain the catalogue of learning opportunities and professional support mentioned in Ofsted’s 2009 report; and
  • To update and disseminate national guidance on what constitutes effective whole school gifted and talented education.

The latter should in my view be built around an updated version of the Quality Standards for gifted education, last refreshed in 2010. It should be adopted once more as the single authoritative statement of effective practice which more sophisticated tools – some, such as the Challenge Award, with fairly hefty price tags attached – can adapt and apply as necessary.

The Table appended to this post maps the main findings in both the 2009 and 2013 Ofsted Reports against the Standards. I have also inserted a cross in those sections of the Standards which are addressed by the main text of the more recent Report.

One can see from this how relevant the Standards remain to discussion of what constitutes effective whole school practice.

But one can also identify one or two significant gaps in Ofsted’s coverage, including:

  • identification – and the issues it raises about the relationship between ability and attainment
  • the critical importance of a coherent, thorough, living policy document incorporating an annually updated action plan for improvement
  • the relevance of new technology (such as social media)
  • the significance of support for affective issues, including bullying, and
  • the allocation of sufficient resources – human and financial –  to undertake the work.

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Exeter5 by Gifted Phoenix

Exeter5 by Gifted Phoenix

 

Reaction to the Report

I will not trouble to reproduce some of the more vituperative comment from certain sources, since I strongly suspect much of it to be inspired by personal hostility to HMCI and to gifted education alike.

  • To date there has been no formal written response from the Government although David Laws recorded one or two interviews such as this which simply reflects existing reforms to accountability and qualifications. At the time of writing, the DfE page on Academically More Able Pupils has not been updated to reflect the Report.
  •  The Opposition criticised the Government for having ‘no plan for gifted and talented children’ but did not offer any specific plan of their own.
  • The Sutton Trust called the Report ‘A wake-up call to Ministers’ adding:

‘Schools must improve their provision, as Ofsted recommends. But the Government should play its part too by providing funding to trial the most effective ways to enable our brightest young people to fulfil their potential. Enabling able students to fulfil their potential goes right to the heart of social mobility, basic fairness and economic efficiency.’

Contrary to my expectations, there was no announcement arising from the call for proposals the Trust itself issued back in July 2012 (see word attachment at bottom). A subsequent blog post called for:

‘A voluntary scheme which gives head teachers an incentive – perhaps through a top-up to their pupil premium or some other matched-funding provided centrally – to engage with evidence based programmes which have been shown to have an impact on the achievement of the most able students.’

‘We warned the Government in 2010 when it scrapped the gifted and talented programme that this would be the result. Many schools are doing a fantastic job in supporting these children. However we know from experience that busy schools will often only have time to focus on the latest priorities. The needs of the most able children have fallen to the bottom of the political and social agenda and it’s time to put it right to the top again.’

‘It is imperative that Ofsted, schools and organisations such as NACE work in partnership to examine in detail the issues surrounding this report. We need to disseminate more effectively what works. There are schools that are outstanding in how they provide for the brightest students. However there has not been enough rigorous research into this.’

  • Within the wider blogosphere, Geoff Barton was first out of the traps, criticising Ofsted for lack of rigour, interference in matters properly left to schools, ‘fatuous comparisons’ and ‘easy soundbites’.
  • The same day Tom Bennett was much more supportive of the Report and dispensed some commonsense advice based firmly on his experience as a G&T co-ordinator.
  • Then Learning Spy misunderstood Tom’s suggestions about identification asking ‘how does corralling the boffins and treating them differently’ serve the aim of high expectations for all? He far preferred Headguruteacher’s advocacy for a ‘teach to the top’ curriculum, which is eminently sensible.
  • Accordingly, Headguruteacher contributed The Anatomy of High Expectations which drew out the value of the Report for self-evaluation purposes (so not too different to my call for a revised IQS).
  • Finally Chris Husbands offered a contribution on the IoE Blog which also linked Ofsted’s Report to the abolition of National Curriculum levels, reminding us of some of the original design features built in by TGAT but never realised in practice.

Apologies to any I have missed!

As for yours truly, I included the reactions of all the main teachers’ associations in the collection of Tweets I posted on the day of publication.

I published Driving Gifted Education Forward, a single page proposal for the kind of collaborative mechanism that could bring about system-wide improvement, built on school-to-school collaboration. It proposes a network of Learning Schools, complementing Teaching Schools, established as centres of excellence with a determinedly outward-looking focus.

And I produced a short piece about transition matrices which I have partly integrated into this post.

Having all but completed this extended analysis, have I changed the initial views I Tweeted on the day of publication?

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Well, not really. My overall impression is of a curate’s egg, whose better parts have been largely overlooked because of the opprobrium heaped on the bad bits.

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Curate's Egg 370px-True_humility

Bishop: ‘I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg Mr Jones’, Curate: ‘Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!’

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The Report might have had a better reception had the data analysis been stronger, had the most significant messages been given comparatively greater prominence and had the tone been somewhat more emollient towards the professionals it addresses, with some sort of undertaking to underwrite support – as well as challenge – from the centre.

The commitments to toughen up the inspection regime are welcome but we need more explicit details of exactly how this will be managed, including any amendments to the framework for inspection and supporting guidance. Such adjustments must be prominent and permanent rather than tacked on as an afterthought.

We – all of us with an interest – need to fillet the key messages from the text and integrate them into a succinct piece of guidance as I have suggested, but carefully so that it applies to every setting and has built-in progression for even the best-performing schools. That’s what the Quality Standards did – and why they are still needed. Perhaps Ofsted should lead the revision exercise and incorporate them wholesale into the inspection framework.

As we draw down a veil over the second of these three ‘Summer of Love’ publications, what are the immediate prospects for a brighter future for English gifted education?

Well, hardly incandescent sunshine, but rather more promising than before. Ofsted’s Report isn’t quite the ‘landmark’ HMCI Wilshaw promised and it won’t be the game changer some of us had hoped for, but it’s better than a poke in the eye with the proverbial blunt stick.

Yet the sticking point remains the capacity of schools, organisations and individuals to set aside their differences and secure the necessary collateral to work collectively together to bring about the improvements called for in the Report.

Without such commitment too many schools will fail to change their ways.

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GP

June 2013

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ANNEX: MAPPING KEY FINDINGS FROM THE 2009 AND 2013 REPORTS AGAINST THE IQS

IQS Element IQS Sub-element Ofsted 2009 Ofsted 2013
Standards and progress Attainment levels high and progress strong Schools need more support and advice about standards and expectations Most able aren’t achieving as well as they should. Expectations are too low.65% who achieved KS2 L5 in English and maths failed to attain GCSE A*/A gradesTeaching is insufficiently focused on the most able at KS3Inequalities between different groups aren’t being tackled satisfactorily
SMART targets set for other outcomes x
Effective classroom provision Effective pedagogical strategies Pupil experienced inconsistent level of challenge x
Differentiated lessons x
Effective application of new technologies
Identification Effective identification strategies x
Register is maintained
Population is broadly representative of intake
Assessment Data informs planning and progression Assessment, tracking and targeting not used sufficiently well in many schools
Effective target-setting and feedback x
Strong peer and self-assessment
Transfer and transition Effective information transfer between classes, years and institutions Transition doesn’t ensure students maintain academic momentum into Year 7
Enabling curriculum entitlement and choice Curriculum matched to learners’ needs Pupils’ views not reflected in curriculum planning The KS3 curriculum is a key weakness, as is early GCSE entry
Choice and accessibility to flexible pathways
Leadership Effective support by SLT, governors and staff Insufficient commitment in poorer performing schools School leaders haven’t done enough to create a culture of scholastic excellence.Schools don’t routinely give the same attention to most able as low-attaining or struggling students.
Monitoring and evaluation Performance regularly reviewed against challenging targets Little evaluation of progression by different groups x
Evaluation of provision for learners to inform development x
Policy Policy is integral to school planning, reflects best practice and is reviewed regularly Many policies generic versions from other schools or the LA;Too much inconsistency and incoherence between subjects
School ethos and pastoral care Setting high expectations and celebrating achievement Many students become used to performing at a lower level than they are capable of. Parents and teachers accept this too readily.
Support for underachievers and socio-emotional needs
Support for bullying and academic pressure/opportunities to benefit the wider community
Staff development Effective induction and professional development x
Professional development for managers and whole staff x
Resources Appropriate budget and resources applied effectively
Engaging with the community, families and beyond Parents informed, involved and engaged Less than full parental engagement Too few schools supporting families in overcoming cultural and financial obstacles to attending university
Effective networking and collaboration with other schools and organisations Schools need more support to source best resources and trainingLimited collaboration in some schools; little local scrutiny/accountability Most 11-16 schools insufficiently focused on university entranceSchools’ expertise and knowledge of prestigious universities not always current and relevant
Learning beyond the classroom Participation in a coherent programme of out-of-hours learning Link with school provision not always clear; limited evaluation of impact Homework and extension activities were not checked routinely for impact and quality