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Evaluation article: Improving provision for the most able

Published: Wednesday, 01 July 2015

Ofsted reports are making it clear. The DfE wants to see secondary schools challenging their most able students. In this article, Suzanne O’Connell summarises the criticisms and recommendations from ‘The most able students’ report. 

Summary

  • There is slow progress on improving provision for the most able in secondary schools.
  • KS3 provision is particularly criticised in the Ofsted report ‘The most able students’ March 2015.
  • The DfE and Ofsted are concerned that not enough disadvantaged students access the top universities.
  • Reference to omissions in provision for the most able are common and many schools will have reference to the most able in their list of tasks to improve the school further.
  • Concerns are raised, in particular, about provision and encouragement for the most able disadvantaged pupils. It suggests that there is insufficient focus on their needs and that more enrichment opportunities, particularly in Key Stage 3, are needed.

‘Teachers still do not have high enough expectations of students, and do not sufficiently challenge them, especially the most able.’

‘Teachers do not always set tasks that take full account of different ability levels, especially to challenge the most able students.’

Both these comments were included on Ofsted reports of secondary schools that were judged to require improvement. Reference to omissions in provision for the most able are common and many schools will have reference to the most able in their list of tasks to improve the school further.

In June 2013 Ofsted published the report, ‘The most able students: are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools?’ This report was critical of the provision that many schools made and drew attention to the lack of challenge for students.

The second report, ‘The most able students: An update on progress since June 2013’ came out on the heels of its predecessor to review the speed with which improvements are being made. The conclusions are disappointing.

The 2015 report

The conclusions are drawn from 40 non-selective secondary schools,10 primary schools and following 130 routine inspections. The report concludes that schools have been slow in taking forward Ofsted’s previous recommendations, particularly at Key Stage 3. The report accuses schools of being complacent and addressing the issue with insufficient urgency.

It criticises schools for being satisfied with their most able students making ‘expected progress’ and not having high enough aspirations. Headteachers are told they are not prioritising the needs of the most able sufficiently and that pupils are ‘treading water’ when they start in Key Stage 3.

Key Stage 3 comes in for particular criticism throughout the report. Schools are accused of focussing on students’ examination results rather than ensuring the quality of the curriculum, teaching and learning right from when pupils transfer. They channel their best teachers into examination preparation years and do not maintain the momentum set in feeder primary schools.

Low-level disruptive behaviour is cited as affecting pupils’ learning; an issue that is not always being picked up on by school staff. However, it was acknowledged that good practice could be found in both classes where students were grouped by ability as well as those that were mixed ability.

Concerns are raised, in particular, about provision and encouragement for the most able disadvantaged pupils. It suggests that there is insufficient focus on their needs and that more enrichment opportunities, particularly in Key Stage 3, are needed. Schools are told they must address the social and cultural awareness of this group.

The report states that more effort is needed to ensure that more able students, particularly those from disadvantaged homes, are getting high quality information and advice to help prepare them for their future studies, employment or training. In particular, the lack of encouragement to apply to top universities was criticised.

Examples were given from schools where students complained that they must still complete low level tasks before progressing onto more challenging work and half of the schools surveyed did not adapt homework to include more challenge for the most able.

The report has very little that is positive to say, however it does provide a few brief case studies that demonstrate that there are pockets of good and excellent practice.
Some excellent practice

In spite of the general tone of the report, there are four schools that are praised. Good practice identified in the report includes:

  • The more able taking part in competitions both at a national and international level.
  • Pupils taking part in the Sutton Trust summer schools.
  • Completion of demanding literacy, numeracy and science activities on ‘taster days’.
  • Provision of ‘challenge booklets’ during the summer holidays.
  • Development of homework tasks that focus on students’ higher-order thinking and reasoning skills.
  • Pitching lessons at the most able and providing scaffolding for others.
  • Providing group support for like-minded students, for example those interested in medical, dentistry or veterinary careers.
  • Giving information to parents about finances and help with navigating the UCAS website when students are applying to university.
  • Keeping parents involved in career guidance.

Recommendations

The report is clear, Ofsted will continue to focus on progress made by students who are able and disadvantaged. They will be expected to report even ‘more robustly’ about the information and guidance being provided to the most able and the quality of the curriculum available to them.

Schools’ use of the pupil premium will be investigated during thematic surveys. It is pointed out that pupil premium can be used to enable disadvantaged students to attend university open days or take part in cultural visits.

The specific recommendations that the report makes for school leaders include:

  • Develop a culture of high expectations for students and teachers in Key Stage 3, and schools should not be constrained by national expectations.
  • Improve transition arrangements between primary schools and Key Stage 3 so that work for the most able students provides the right level of challenge.
  • Identify a designated member of staff to champion the needs of disadvantaged most able students.
  • Give Key Stage 3 equal priority with other key stages when allocating teaching staff to classes.
  • Provide training for teachers to help them challenge the most able students.
  • Ensure evaluations of curriculum delivery, teaching and learning in Key Stage 3 are robust and lead to rapid improvements.
  • Involve universities, other providers and employers in training school staff to provide expert advice and guidance to the most able students, particularly those who are disadvantaged.

All down to the school?

Reading this report, it is made quite clear that provision for the most able secondary school students is not good enough in most cases. In particular, the concerns focus on those who are disadvantaged and have the potential to achieve much more.

Schools do have a large part to play in ensuring that these students have high aspirations and can access the routes to achieve them. However, the reasons that they may not are complex and are not solely the responsibility of schools to address.

However, schools would be wise to take note of the recommendations and evaluate the extent to which they are meeting them. Ofsted are not going to let this issue go away.

More information

The most able students: An update on progress since June 2013, Ofsted, March 2015:
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-most-able-students-an-update-on-progress-since-june-2013

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