OFSTED’s report on the progress made by the most able children in non-selective secondary schools has hit the headlines, finding that more than a quarter (27%) of previously high-attaining pupils had failed to achieve at least a B grade in both English and Maths. For the Daily Mail, this is evidence of the failure of the comprehensive system; the Daily Telegraph reported calls for secondary schools to set pupils from the beginning of year 7. The report is in practice – as reports always are – more complex than the press release headlines, but it still makes sobering reading: a significant number of those who do exceptionally well at the age of 11 do not perform to expectation by the age of 16.
The first observation to make is that whilst the report focuses on non-selective (comprehensive) schools, it includes some glancing references to selective (grammar) schools that suggest all is not well there either: in comprehensive schools, 35% of those who secured level 5 or above in both English and Maths went on to secure an A or A* at GCSE, whereas the figure was 59% in grammar schools. But this means that 41% of those who secured a Level 5 at age 11 and went on to selective secondary education did not secure an A or A* at GCSE.
For over 20 years in assessing English secondary schools, we have held schools to account based on the proportion of 16 year olds who move across a threshold of GCSE grade C or above. In accountability terms, there are no further incentives for schools to address the needs of their highest attaining young people. There are, however, many disincentives for schools not to address the needs of middle attainers. In these circumstances, it’s not terribly surprising that the needs of the highest – and, indeed, the lowest – attainers may have been neglected.
Much of the press debate has focused on the issue of setting or – a different concept entirely – streaming, arguing that grouping children by ability would address the problem. In fact, the evidence is much more nuanced on this. In practice, all classes turn out to be mixed attainment classes – the only point at issue is the breadth of the attainment span in any given class. Once this point is accepted, the issue is about how teachers provide for pupils of varying talents and attainment, and, though it has barely been reported, the OFSTED report stresses the importance of well-focused teaching, and the identification tracking of individual pupils.
And there’s a further point: over the same twenty year period, policy and press discussion has tended to divide schools into “successful” and “failing” schools. The OFSTED report on higher attainers demonstrates that it’s a lot more complex than this: it turns out that “successful” schools are often no more successful in meeting the needs of very high attaining pupils than less successful schools. And, for all the difference between comprehensive schools and grammar schools, if grammar schools are not securing the highest grades for two-fifths of their highest attainers, the observation holds there: they, too are just not doing well enough with higher attainers. Put slightly differently, it does not matter much which school you go to, but it may matter a great deal who teaches you when you get there. In English education, within-school variations in pupil attainment are more significant than between-school variations.