Too many schools letting down gifted children


A landmark Ofsted survey, the most extensive investigation of gifted and talented provision they have ever undertaken, was published on 13 June.

The report The Most Able Students: Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools? -found that thousands of bright children are being let down by England’s non-selective secondary schools. More than a quarter (27%) of previously high-attaining pupils had failed to achieve at least a B grade in both English and maths.

A culture of low expectations meant able pupils were failing to achieve top GCSE grades, Ofsted said in a report.

In 2012, 65% of pupils – 65,000 children – who had achieved Level 5 in maths and English tests at the end of primary school failed to attain A* or A grades in both these subjects at GCSE.

Head teachers said school league tables pushed schools into the middle ground.

Ofsted defines high-achievers as those pupils who achieve a Level 5 in both English and maths in their national curriculum tests, commonly known as Sats.

In 40% of the schools visited by inspectors, the brightest students were not making the progress they were capable of and many had become “used” to performing at lower levels, with parents and teachers accepting this “too readily”, Ofsted said.

Tracking the progress of the most academically gifted was “not used sufficiently well in many schools”, the report added.

Ofsted was critical of mixed-ability classes, saying they often saw “a lack of differentiation, teaching to the middle, and the top pupils not being stretched”.

The report said teaching was “insufficiently focused” for able pupils in Key Stage 3 (aged 11-14) and schools should ensure class work was challenging at this stage so that able pupils could make rapid progress.

Some Key facts

62% of pupils (at non-selective secondary schools) who got Level 5 in their English Sats did not get an A* or A grade in this subject at GCSE in 2012

25% of pupils who got Level 5 in their English Sats failed to get at least a B

53% of students who got Level 5 in their maths Sats did not gain an A* or A grade in this subject at GCSE

22% of pupils who got Level 5 in maths in their Sats failed to get at least a B


Some comprehensive schools did ensure that bright children achieved high grades and applied to top universities by setting high expectations, identifying able children, giving challenging tasks and checking progress. But provision for able children was not good enough in 17 of the 41 schools, Ofsted said.

By way of comparison, 59% of selective state school – grammar school – students who attained level five in both English and maths at the end of their primary school education went on to achieve an A or A* in those subjects at GCSE level in 2012. The figure for students from non-selective schools was 35%. Comparisons with independent schools are not available.

On Thursday, Sir Michael  Wilshaw told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the statistics were “pretty poor”, adding that children at selective state schools were far more likely to win places at top universities than those who went to non-selective ones.

“We’ve got to make sure that the great majority of youngsters do well and go to the top universities,” he said.

He said school leadership was crucial in improving pupils’ performances, as was creating a culture of scholarship and ensuring that students remained focused on their studies after Key Stage 3.

The findings matched earlier research by the Sutton Trust charity that many state schools in England were failing to advance their pupils towards the most selective universities. Its chairman, Sir Peter Lampl, called the Ofsted report “a wake-up call to ministers”.

“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.,” Lampl said.

Denise Yates, Chief Executive of the  Potential Plus charity, which supports bright children, said: “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.”

On Advice and Guidance the report said :

‘The schools visited did not always provide early, or effective, careers guidance to students to show, for example, the likely pay progression in ‘top jobs’. The absence of such guidance was compounded by a lack of effective information to increase students’ understanding of grants, loans, and the cost and benefits of attending university. Early and strong support for first-time entrants to university, including financial advice to students and parents, led to more positive outcomes.Some schools showed a lack of up-to-date, in-school intelligence about universities, especially in relation to universities outside their region. Current knowledge of the entry requirements for different courses was weak in some of the schools.However, this was not the picture in all the schools. In a third of those visited, well-qualified, knowledgeable and experienced staff provided high-quality support and guidance.’


The Department for Education (DfE) should:

ensure that parents receive from schools a report each year which communicates whether their children are on track to achieve as well as they should in national tests and examinations

 develop progress measures to identify how well the most able students have progressed from Year 6 through Key Stage 4 to the end of Key Stage 5

 promote the new destination data, which will show what proportion of students in sixth form providers go to university and, particularly, the Russell Group of universities.

Maintained schools and academies should:

 develop their culture and ethos so that the needs of the most able students are championed by school leaders

 help the most able students to flourish and leave school with the best qualifications by providing first-rate opportunities to develop the skills, confidence and attitudes needed to succeed at the best universities

 improve the transfer between primary and secondary schools so that all Year 7 teachers know which students achieved highly, know what aspects of the curriculum the most able students have studied in Year 6, and use this information to plan and teach lessons that build on prior knowledge and skills

 ensure that work continues to be challenging and demanding throughout Key Stage 3 so that the most able students make rapid progress

 ensure that senior leaders evaluate mixed ability teaching so that the most able students are sufficiently challenged and make good progress evaluate the quality of homework set for the most able students to ensure that it is suitably challenging

 give the parents and carers of the most able students better and more frequent information about what their children should achieve and raise their expectations where necessary

 work with families more closely, particularly the families of first generation university applicants and those eligible for free school meals, to overcome any cultural and financial obstacles to university application

 develop more in-house expertise and up-to-date knowledge to support applications to the most prestigious universities, particularly in relation to the knowledge and skills required for undergraduate courses

 publish more widely a list of the university destinations of all their students.

Ofsted will:

 focus more closely in its inspections on the teaching and progress of the most able students, the curriculum available to them, and the information, advice and guidance provided to the most able students

 consider in more detail during inspection how well the pupil premium is used to support the most able students from disadvantaged backgrounds

 report its inspection findings about this group of students more clearly in school inspection, sixth form and college reports.


Note 1

Gifted Phoenix a blog written by an expert in the field sees a role for Free schools in supporting gifted children. Although there is nothing to prevent primary, secondary and all-through free schools from specialising in gifted education, the restriction on selection may be acting as a brake on innovation.


Note 2

Also see Gifted Phoenix analysis of High Attaining Students in the 2012 Secondary School Performance Tables. This post collects and analyses data about the performance of high attaining students at Key Stages 4 and 5 in the 2012 Secondary Performance Tables and Key Stage 5 Tables respectively. It also draws on evidence from the Statistical First Reviews (SFRs) published alongside the tables.


Gifted Phoenix is the social media pseudonym of Tim Dracup a UK-based consultant in – and commentator on – gifted and talented education. You can also follow him on Twitter (@Gifted Phoenix) and on Facebook.


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