Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, has said that the failure by state schools to nurture their brightest pupils is “an issue of national concern”, after an investigation found two-thirds of the most advanced pupils entering secondary education do not achieve top GCSE results.
Ofsted proposes that maintained schools and academies devote more energy cultivating their brightest pupils, and that all pupils be given a new form of report card that tells parents how their children are performing in comparison with their peers nationally.
“Across the country we know that too many of our most able children are underperforming in state comprehensive schools. The national picture tells a discouraging story,” Wilshaw said at the launch of the report on Wednesday.
“Almost two-thirds of pupils who achieved a level five or above in both English and maths at the end of primary school did not get an A or A* grade in these subjects at GCSE in non-selective schools last year. That translates into more than 65,000 students in 2012. This is an important statistic because the top GCSE grades are a key predictor of success at A-level and progress to the most prestigious universities.”
The research came after a series of visits by Ofsted to 41 non-selective state schools throughout England, and the results of more than 2,000 lesson observations by its inspectors to see how the brightest pupils were dealt with in classrooms.
“Shockingly, some of the schools we visited had not even identified who their most able pupils were. This is completely unacceptable,” Wilshaw said. “Many students simply became used to performing at a lower level than they were capable of and this was too readily accepted by teachers.”
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, 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.
If some pupils were not sufficiently challenged and motivated after Key Stage 3, said Wilshaw, “they tread water, they mark time”.
Asked about the role parents play in supporting their children, he said: “Family is extremely important and I’m not going to say, as chief inspector, that families aren’t important.”
But he insisted that many schools were doing a good job of compensating for “poor backgrounds and unsupportive parents”.
Reflecting on his much-lauded time as headteacher of the Mossbourne Academy in east London, he said the key to success had been having high expectations of all the children – and intervening the moment any of them showed signs of falling behind.
“It wasn’t about money,” he said. “It was all about expectation and culture.”
The Ofsted findings were endorsed by the Department for Education. “Sir Michael is right. Secondary schools must ensure all their pupils – including their brightest – fulfil their potential. That’s why we are introducing a more demanding and rigorous curriculum, toughening upGCSEs and getting universities involved in A-levels,” a DfE spokesman said.
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.
Part of the problem, according to Wilshaw, is that state school pupils were not imbuded with “the confidence and sense of entitlement that their counterparts in the independent sector can so often have”.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, welcomed the report but said that “the government’s league table culture deserves a measure of the blame”.