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.




What happens when there are concerns over the financial  management  of an academy?


The recent Public Accounts Select Committee report on Academies financial management proved embarrassing to the government. The report describes a system peppered with overspends and errors, but subject to little oversight. Millions of pounds were wasted on the rapidly growing academies programme because of over-complex and inefficient funding systems, according to the report. Financial mismanagement, of course, is by no means the preserve of academy schools, as recent scandals have shown.

Where a chain or multi-academy trust has failed to address financial weaknesses in its operation, a financial notice to improve can be issued, requiring the trust to take action to address the underlying cause(s) of its financial weaknesses. The financial notice to improve is a set of conditions that the Education Funding Agency (EFA) would require the trust to meet. Ultimately, if a chain or multi academy trust fails to address the financial weaknesses the Secretary of State for Education has intervention powers which are set out in the individual funding agreements, and in the most serious circumstances, include the ability to terminate the funding agreement. The Education Funding Agency has issued two financial notices to improve since May 2010 to academy trusts.

The academies financial handbook sets out the duties and obligations on academy trusts and this  includes personal responsibility  on the academy trusts accounting officer (each trust has to appoint an accounting officer) for  ‘high standards of probity in the management of public funds’.

Source-Hansard 25 April 2013


Committee expresses concerns over poor cost controls and financial oversight


A Public Accounts Committee report on the Academies programme describes a system peppered with overspends and errors, but subject to little oversight.

Millions of pounds were wasted on England’s rapidly growing academies programme because of over-complex and inefficient funding systems, according to the Select Committee report.

It urges the Department for Education to tighten its financial grip on these privately run but state-funded schools.

Committee chairman Margaret Hodge, who has gained a reputation for her forthright attacks on government waste,  said inefficient funding systems and poor cost control had driven up the cost of the programme.

“Of the £8.3 billion spent on academies from April 2010 to March 2012, some £1 billion was an additional cost which had to be met by diverting money from other departmental budgets.

“Some of this money had previously been earmarked to support schools struggling with difficult challenges and circumstances. £350 million of the extra £1 billion represented extra expenditure that was never recovered from local authorities.”

A DfE spokesman said the report failed to acknowledge “the significant progress that we have made in improving our systems.

“The academies programme has been a huge success. There are now almost 3,000 academy schools – more than 14 times as many as in May 2010 – with more than two million children now enjoying the benefits that academy status brings. The programme is proven to drive up standards. Sponsored academies are improving far faster than maintained schools.

“We make no apology for the fact that so many schools have opted to convert, and no apology for spending money on a programme that is proven to drive up standards and make long-term school improvements.

“The Department for Education has made significant savings in the last two-and-a-half years and has also set aside significant contingencies, which have been set against the growth in academies.”

He added that the costs of converting academies have already fallen by more than half per academy and that further savings were expected in the future.

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  The value for money of the Academies Programme will ultimately depend on its impact on educational performance relative to the investment from the taxpayer. The Department has chosen to expand the Programme rapidly, incurring an additional cost of £1 billion since April 2010. While it is too early to assess the impact of the expansion on school performance, the Department will need to be able to demonstrate whether value for money has been achieved. It has yet to state how it will do so, or when. The Department should set out what outcomes it aims to achieve from the expansion of the Programme, and how and when it will demonstrate whether progress is on track and value for money has been achieved.

2.  Inefficient funding systems and poor cost control have driven up the cost of the Programme. A large part of the £1 billion additional cost since April 2010 has been caused by the excessively complex and inefficient academy funding system which has reportedly led to overpayments and errors in payments to Academies There was around £350 million extra paid to Academies which was not recovered from local authorities. This system does not operate effectively alongside the local authority system, and makes it hard for the Department to prove that academies are not receiving more money than they should. The Department has not yet brought other types of cost growth under control, for example academy insurance. It should report back to us by the end of 2013-14 on how its funding reforms have reduced systemic problems such as the under-recovery of academy costs from local authorities, and on how far it has brought down other additional costs.

3.  We are not yet satisfied that individual academies’ expenditure is sufficiently transparent to parents, local communities or Parliament. Despite some improvements, key information on what academies actually spend is still only available at trust, rather than individual academy, level. This limits the ability of parents to scrutinise how their child’s school is spending its money, and of communities to hold their local school to account. The Department must publish data showing school-level expenditure, including per-pupil costs, and with a level of detail comparable to that available for maintained schools, so that proper judgments can be made and comparisons drawn to assess value for money. The Department should state how it will make robust, line-by-line information on individual academies’ expenditure publicly available in the most cost-effective way.

4.  New governance, compliance and oversight arrangements for academies remain vulnerable to failure. Some serious cases of governance failure and financial impropriety in academies have gone undetected by the Department’s monitoring, raising concerns that central government may be too distant to oversee individual academies effectively. Irregular expenditure by academies and gaps in the oversight framework led the Comptroller and Auditor General to qualify the 2011-12 accounts of the Department and the Young People’s Learning Agency. Academies’ compliance with mandatory monitoring is not good enough, and it is not yet clear how well revised audit arrangements will address these issues in future. The Department and the Education Funding Agency should review the operation of the new audit and oversight regime put in place this year, and assess whether it is reducing risks to regularity, propriety and good governance.

5.  Forthcoming staff cuts at the Department and its agencies may threaten effective oversight as the Programme continues to expand. We are sceptical that the Department has sufficient resources to properly oversee the expanding Programme, especially as schools now joining are less high-performing and may require greater oversight and scrutiny. The Department should review the Programme’s central resource requirements, and the extent to which efficiency savings expected from new IT systems and assurance processes are being realised, and are sufficient to offset the need for further resources.

6.  The Department has still not made completely clear the roles, responsibilities and accountabilities of different organisations across the changing schools system. Roles previously carried out by local authorities around accountability, performance monitoring and intervention are unlikely to be operating consistently and effectively across different localities and academy structures. We are particularly concerned that interventions in failing academies may be delayed if the respective roles of central and local government, as well as academies and academy trusts, are not clear. The Department should clarify and properly communicate the roles and responsibilities of local authorities, academy sponsors, the Education Funding Agency, the Department, the Office of the Schools Commissioner and Ofsted regarding these aspects of the Programme.

Department for Education: Managing the expansion of the Academies Programme – Public Accounts Committee-April 2013



These are telling criticisms. They suggest the need to rethink the scrutiny and oversight of academies, while preserving the principle of school autonomy. Surveys suggest that around a third of converter schools opted for academy status for financial reasons. As part of the Budget Statement 2013, the Government announced that it would conduct ‘a review of school efficiency’. To inform that review, the government said ‘we have launched a call for evidence to learn more about how schools and academies make financial decisions and the techniques that they find particularly useful. We particularly want to hear your experience of how academies make financial decisions and your opinions/ideas of how academies can improve their efficiency.’ This suggests some concerns in government over the financial management in schools (not just academy schools by the way)  and the additional risks that autonomy might bring.  There is an on-going debate on the accountability of autonomous schools and whether or not another tier is required to ensure greater accountability, given the reduced role of local authorities.Academies are directly responsible  of course to the Secretary of State, through individual funding agreements. Critics say that the Secretary of State , along with a slimmed down education department, cannot possibly  hold these schools  properly to account , even with Ofsteds support.



Too early to say?


The new duty on schools to secure access to independent and impartial careers guidance only began in September 2012 . The government believes that  it  important that sufficient time is allowed  for the duty to bed in before any firm conclusions  are drawn about the effectiveness of the new arrangements. Lord Nash recently indicated in the Lords (22 April) that ‘We are evaluating the impact of the new duty in a range of formal and informal ways.’

The Government have also commissioned Ofsted to carry out a thematic review of careers guidance, which will report this summer.

In addition, according to Lord Nash,  the government is ‘publishing education destination measures to show the percentage of students progressing to further education or training in a school, further education or sixth form college, apprenticeship, employment or higher education institution. The measures provide us with evidence of how effective schools are in supporting pupils to move successfully into the next phase or their education or into sustainable work, including through the provision of independent careers guidance.’

Ministers and officials meet and correspond regularly with a range of stakeholders on issues relating to the delivery of careers provision in schools, says Lord Nash, which is true, but Ministers are not taking on board what stakeholders and the experts are telling them. No independent report from a reputable source on government reforms to careers advice and guidance in schools has endorsed government policy in this area and international evidence suggests that school based advice  is the least effective (see the research from  Professor Tony Watts and OECD). There are grave concerns  too that  only limited access to face to face advice  is being offered to pupils which may have a negative effect on  the social mobility, access, skills and inclusion agendas. Evidence suggests that the most appropriate form of  advice for  disadvantaged pupils is face to face advice from an independent fully qualified  professional.

The government defends its policy by saying that it trusts in school autonomy. Schools themselves must make these decisions. But schools are not as autonomous as the government would have us believe. The government through its individual funding agreements with academies, for example, prescribes what schools have to do in certain areas . And if schools believe that they are autonomous when it comes to the way they use their extra funding for disadvantaged pupils, through the pupil premium, then they ought to look  very carefully at recent speeches from the schools minister,  David Laws and  Sir Michael Wilshaw of Ofsted.

Lord Nash  is confident that the government has  detailed enough  evidence ‘relating to the effectiveness of school-based careers guidance to  inform future improvements in the quality of provision,’ while concurrently telling us that there is not yet enough evidence  to gauge  whether the new school- based  service has bedded in. You dont need to be a rocket scientist to work out that schools, under budgetary pressure, will go for, the most part, for  the cheapest option, and that is not face to face advice.

It will be particularly interesting to see what Ofsted has to say in its thematic review. However, there are no plans to make a specific graded judgement on the quality of careers guidance in respect of the school inspection framework and the common inspection framework.



Schools meet the costs of careers guidance from their overall budgets. Information on the amount spent by schools on careers guidance is not collected centrally



Ofsted currently has no explicit powers to inspect academy chains

But much will be expected from Chains


Sir Michael Wilshaw told the Select Committee recently (13 February) that he thinks Ofsted should have powers to inspect Academy chains . He also believes the DfE has accepted the need for this. Indeed he doesn’t see why Academy chains shouldn’t be subject to some sort of performance table as LAs are. Wilshaw said “We should inspect academy chains as well to make sure it’s equitable with LAs. I’ve made that clear to the Secretary of State  and it’s been accepted”

David Laws, the schools Minister of State, in a PQ on 10 April, said ‘Ofsted does not have an explicit power to inspect groups to which academies belong but has a duty (section 5 of the Education Act 2005) to inspect individual schools and a power (section 8 of the Education Act 2005) to inspect individual schools outside of normal inspection schedules. Ofsted may therefore take a view on the support and challenge provided by an overarching body during an individual school inspection.’

In short, academy chains will have to demonstrate in future that they add value in educational terms. It should also be remembered that Ofsted will, in future,  be looking carefully at how schools narrow the achievement gap. In his 5 March 2013, speech David Laws said “Ofsted is also doing much more to hold schools to account for closing the attainment gaps. Solid overall attainment is no longer enough to secure a “Good” or “Outstanding” classification, if there are large performance gaps. The Chief Inspector for Schools and I both agree that a school simply cannot be regarded as “Outstanding” if it is failing its disadvantaged pupils, and he will look at this when he next revises the inspection framework.”


Balance of evidence  finds  Academies have only small beneficial effects on pupil performance


The latest research from Stephen Machin and Olma Silva from the Centre for Economic Performance asks two basic  questions – does school autonomy work? And does it offer scope to improve the lot of disadvantaged students ie those  in the lower tail of the education distribution? Their conclusion is probably not, or at least not in England . They write ‘ Whilst there is a paucity of robust and coherent evidence to draw upon, it does not seem  unreasonable to say that, on balance, the evidence that does exist at best shows only small beneficial  effects on overall pupil performance and very little consistent evidence of improvements for tail  students.’

They find little evidence that academies up to 2009, helped pupils in the bottom 10% and 20% of the ability distribution. Furthermore, they find little  evidence that late converters (2008 and 2009) had any beneficial effects on pupils of any  ability. The authors conclude their research by comparing the experience of UK academies to that of  US charter schools and Swedish free schools, and by providing some insights into the reasons  why UK academies did not serve ‘the tail’ as is the case for some US charter schools.(the implication here is that charter schools because they have a  performance contract ( ie the charter) are held more directly accountable for performance than are  academy schools)

In conclusion the authors say ‘ it may be that in the longer run the best academies will flourish and spread their  practices across the education market in a tide that lifts all boats and so raises the achievement of  pupils of all abilities. However, in order to guarantee that these more autonomous institutions can  make a difference for the tail, new ‘rules of the game’ should be designed to make sure that schools  have incentives to focus on the most disadvantaged student and, at the same time, are held  accountable for their improvements.’

School Structure, School Autonomy  and the Tail Stephen Machin and Olmo Silva-Centre for Economic Performance- March 2013

Note. The new Pupil Premium is supposed to provide an incentive for schools  to target the  most disadvantaged pupils and to close the achievement gap ,although the challenge is to use this  extra money on interventions that work. One reliable source tells me that technology companies are seeking to persuade schools that the Pupil Premium is best invested in new computers and  education software, although I can find no evidence to  back the  claim that computers improve the performance of the most disadvantaged pupils.Tackling the long tail of underachievers  remains the biggest challenge  in education. One hopes and trusts that Ofsted will  keep a close eye on how schools  use these  extra funds.


Strong statistically significant results for KIPP students that are better than their peers


As of the 2012–2013 school year, 125 KIPP schools are in operation in 20 different states and the District of Columbia (DC). Ultimately, KIPP’s goal is to prepare students to enrol and succeed in college.

KIPPs approach is different. It is particularly keen on  structured,  ‘meaningful’  approaches to character development in its schools This is rooted in the research of Dr. Martin Seligman (Universityof Pennsylvania) and  Dr. Chris Peterson (University of Michigan) that identifies 24 character strengths as leading to engaged, meaningful, and purposeful lives. Its not just about academic attainment. Resilience  and character matter even more, if students are to succeed in education and life.

There is a research partnership between KIPP NYC and Dr. Angela Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania), KIPP which informs the focus on seven highly predictive strengths: zest, grit, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity. They have integrated their own experiences as teachers with the research of Seligman, Peterson, and Duckworth to create a road map for the development of each strength.  So KIPP schools seek to see how they  can integrate a more structured and measurable approach to character development.

Prior research has suggested that KIPP schools have positive impacts on student achievement, but most of the studies have included only a few KIPP schools or have had methodological limitations.

This is the second report of a national evaluation of KIPP middle schools being conducted by Mathematica Policy Research. The evaluation uses ‘experimental and quasi-experimental methods to  produce rigorous and comprehensive evidence on the effects of KIPP middle schools across the  country. The study’s first report, released in 2010, described strong positive achievement impacts in maths and reading for the 22 KIPP middle schools for which data were available at the time.  This most recent  study, conducted by Mathematica,  is  the most rigorous research yet on KIPP schools  and  shows that the Knowledge Is Power Program, provides a significant learning boost to middle school students in multiple subjects. It also found that while KIPP serves more low-income students than public school peers, it serves fewer special education students and English language learners. The report states ‘The average impact of KIPP on student achievement is positive, statistically significant, and educationally substantial. KIPP impact estimates are consistently positive across the four academic subjects examined, in each of the first four years after enrolment in a KIPP school, and  for all measurable student subgroups’.   Three years after students enroll in KIPP schools, they had 11 more months of maths knowledge than their peers, according to the study. The research showed KIPP students had eight more months of reading knowledge, 14 more months of science knowledge, and 11 more months of social studies knowledge.  Charter schools are publicly funded, but can be privately run. KIPP is one of the best known chains. KIPP schools often feature a longer school day, carefully selected teachers, a strict discipline code, parental contract, and teachers available to parents after school hours.  The Mathematica study accounted for the common critique that KIPP’s results are skewed because the school attracts the kids of highly-motivated parents, said Philip Gleason, who directed the research. In 13 of the 43 schools Mathematica investigated, the firm compared KIPP students with children who entered the KIPP lottery, but did not receive slots in KIPP schools. The researchers said the positive results held steady for the KIPP students. The study did find though that KIPP’s ‘behavioural’ modifications contributed to academic performance. KIPP schools that reported a “comprehensive” approach toward behaviour saw greater positive effects than schools that did not.  But ‘KIPP has no statistically significant effect on a variety of measures of student attitudes  that may be related to long-run academic success. The estimated KIPP impacts on  indices of student-reported self-control, academic self-concept, school engagement,  effort/persistence in school, and educational aspirations are not statistically significant.’  KIPP schools that had a longer than average school day had smaller positive effects on student performance. The report says this might be because the KIPP schools with longer days than others often focused their extended hours on non-academic areas.  KIPP students do from 35 minutes to 53 minutes more nightly homework than their peers, yet reported they were more satisfied with school than peers, according to the study.

KIPP Middle Schools:  Impacts on Achievement and Other Outcomes  Final Report- February 27, 2013- Christina Clark Tuttle Brian Gill Philip Gleason Virginia Knechtel Ira Nichols-Barrer Alexandra Resch



Charter schools are the fastest-growing sector of public education, taking root in most U.S. states, thanks to a big push by the education reform lobby and the federal government’s  ‘Race to the Top’ competition.  One of the defining features of  Charter schools is that they operate on the basis of a  ‘charter’, i.e. a performance contract granted for three to five years, defining the school’s mission and goals,  as well as the type of students it aims to attract. Charter schools are then held accountable to their  sponsor (for example a local school board), which assesses whether these stated aims have been  achieved and – if not – eventually revokes the charter.