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The most able students: Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools?

National data show that just over a quarter of the pupils who achieved Level 5 in English and mathematics at the end of Year 6 did not make the progress expected of them in their non-selective secondary schools. As a result, they failed to attain at least a B grade in these subjects at GCSE. In 2012, 20% of the 1,649 non-selective schools with sixth forms teaching A levels failed to produce a single student with an A-level grade profile of at least two A grades and one B grade in at least two of the facilitating subjects required by many of the most prestigious universities.

This survey investigated why so many of our brightest students in non-selective state secondary schools, including academies, fail to achieve their potential compared with students who attend selective and independent schools. The vast majority of young people attending secondary schools are educated in non-selective state schools, so it is vital that we assess the current position, and suggest what might be done to improve outcomes in the future. We also examined why relatively few students from non-selective state schools apply to, or gain places at, the most prestigious universities. The survey focused on two key questions.

  • Are the most able students in non-selective state secondary schools achieving as well as they should?
  • Why is there such disparity in admissions to the most prestigious universities between a small number of independent and selective schools and the great majority of state-maintained non-selective schools and academies?

We reviewed evidence from a variety of sources, including a survey of parents and 2,327 lesson observation evidence forms completed by Ofsted inspectors during recent inspections of 109 non-selective secondary schools. We visited 41 non-selective secondary schools across England in March 2013 to help us to understand the reasons why the most able students do not routinely achieve the highest grades.8 Schools were selected from all eight of Ofsted’s regions and were a mixture of size and type. Nearly all of the schools visited had a broadly average intake in terms of their students’ prior attainment at the end of Key Stage 2, although this varied from year group to year group. We gathered evidence about:

  • the leadership of the school
  • the achievement of the most able students throughout the school
  • the transfer and transition of these students from their primary schools and their induction into secondary school
  • the quality of teaching, learning and assessment of the most able students
  • the curriculum and extension activities offered to the most able students
  • the support and guidance provided for the most able students, particularly when they were choosing subjects and preparing for university.

The survey findings present a discouraging picture of what it means to be one of the most able students in non-selective secondary schools in England. The 2,327 lesson observation evidence forms scrutinised separately as part of this report showed that the most able students in only a fifth of these lessons were supported well or better in such schools. Moreover, in around 40% of the schools visited in the survey, the most able students were not making the progress of which they were capable. In a few of the schools visited, teachers did not even know who the most able students were.