How robust are Ofsted’s findings about non-selective schools “failing” high-ability pupils?

Janet Downs's picture
Non-selective schools fail high-achievers, that’s the message from Ofsted. This is based on visits to forty-one non-selective schools. Leave aside the question whether it’s possible to draw conclusions from such a small sample, were the majority of the forty-one schools failing the pupils who entered Year 7 with a Level 5 or more in English and Maths?

Ofsted’s statements lack precision. For example, the vague term “some” appears several times in the report as in:

“It was evident in some of the schools visited that school leaders had responded to recent research findings about mixed ability teaching.”

But it isn’t clear what proportion of schools is meant by “some”. Is it one-tenth, one-quarter or one-third? And the sources of the “recent research findings” aren’t given either. Presumably they don’t include OECD research which found that the best-performing school systems don’t divide children academically*.

The same is true of “many”:

“Too many non-selective schools are failing to nurture scholastic excellence. While the best of these schools provide excellent opportunities, many of our most able students receive mediocre provision.”

But when the report gives specific proportions the picture was not as dire as the headlines suggested (one exception was careers guidance where two-thirds were found wanting). The curriculum, for example, required improvement in one-quarter of the schools. That means in three-quarters of the schools the curriculum was good or better. Only two of the schools had a curriculum which “failed to meet the needs of the most able students”.

But the hype around this report suggests that ALL non-selective schools have a curriculum which fails high-achievers. Scratch the surface, however, and it’s only two out of forty-one.

Again, Ofsted writes “In over a third of the schools visited, the tracking of the most able students was not secure, routine or robust”. This means that nearly two-thirds do have effective tracking systems.

Similarly, Ofsted finds “In one in five of the schools, the targets set for the most able students lacked precision and challenge”. This shows that four in five did set precise and challenging targets.

This doesn’t excuse the minority of schools that didn’t do everything they could to educate previously high-achieving pupils to an appropriate standard. But it does suggest that Ofsted’s widely-reported conclusions, some of which had been revealed before the report was published, are not robust.


EXTRA FullFact investigated Ofsted’s claims. It found a slight discrepancy between Ofsted’s figures and those from RAISE Online:

Ofsted said 38% of pupils who entered secondary school with Level 5 in English achieved A* or A in that subject. RAISE Online gave the proportion as 41%.

Ofsted said 47% of pupils who entered secondary school with Level 5 in Maths achieved A* or A in that subject. RAISE Online gave the proportion as 51%.

However, FullFact recognised that RAISE Online included a “greater variety” of secondary schools than had been considered by Ofsted. So, FullFact asked if Ofsted's conclusions about the proportion of schools failing gifted students could be justified. It wrote:

“This depends on what we understand by 'expected progress', and it's worth noting that if we take the Goverment's understanding of it and look at those pupils who gain a B or higher at GCSE having attained Level 5, the picture looks more rosy: 77% make expected progress in English, and 80% do so in maths.”


*OECD Education at a Glance 2011

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.