Sir Michael on the most able

HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw devoted his monthly commentary for June 2016 to the education of our most able learners.

He has consistently championed the education of the most able in non-selective secondary schools, having instigated two Ofsted survey reports on this topic, published in June 2013 and March 2015 respectively.

This new commentary is a reaction to the negligible progress achieved since the 2015 report. That contained similar statements about the very limited headway made since 2013.

This post examines the new commentary, setting it in the context of the two previous surveys, the 2016 schools white paper and wider education policy. It:

  • Asks why it is proving so hard for Ofsted to secure system-wide effective practice, despite new emphasis in the common inspection framework and inspection handbooks.
  • Poses some fundamental questions about definitions, terminology and our expectations of the most able learners in both primary and secondary schools, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Reflects on emergent policy, asking what further action might be necessary to secure sustainable system-wide improvement.


The wider policy context

The previous Coalition government asserted that they were committed to the advancement of all learners, including the most able.

But few of the reforms they introduced were designed specifically to enhance the education of high attainers.

They did manage to establish a handful of highly selective 16-19 free schools, but there are far fewer than were originally intended and they are located predominantly in London

And, conversely, their enthusiasm for mastery-driven pedagogy has resulted in aggressive promotion of a ‘no child left behind’ orthodoxy which aims to close gaps between lower and higher attainers by raising the attainment of the former while the latter tread water.

The Conservative government promises a very different approach. The white paper ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’ (March 2016) adopts the principle that every learner deserves an education that maximises their achievement, regardless of prior attainment.

We are assured that all future policy will embody universally high expectations of all learners, higher and lower attainers alike. If the principle is consistently applied it should mark the end of positive discrimination in favour of the ‘long tail’.

Moreover the white paper acknowledges high attainers as one of four groups whose needs ‘have to date been neglected’. It describes three strands of activity to rectify matters:

  • Investigating, funding and evaluating approaches that ‘help the brightest students in state schools to fulfil their potential’.
  • Including in the soon-to-be-published core framework for initial teacher training:

‘a specific focus on stretching the most academically able pupils and cutting edge evidence on how these pupils can be challenged and stimulated to achieve the very highest standards’.

  • Further unspecified action to ensure that the pupil premium is used effectively to support the most able learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We wait to see whether ministers will ensure that this principle is universally applied – and whether the scale and resourcing of these commitments will be sufficient to make a difference.


Ofsted’s perspective

HMCI’s commentary justifies support for the most able on social mobility grounds, but also because of the wider economic benefits:

‘Our nation’s economic prosperity depends on harnessing the talent of all our young people but especially those who have the potential to be the next generation of business leaders, wealth generators and job creators.

As a nation, we have a problem with low productivity. The fact that so many of our poorer bright children are being deprived of the opportunity to fulfil their early promise must surely be one of the underlying causes of this.’

This is somewhat different to the equal rights argument deployed in the white paper.

Sir Michael has consistently argued that, whereas all is well in the primary sector and in grammar schools, there is a serious problem in non-selective, state-funded secondary schools. This is not entirely borne out by the evidence (of which more below).

The two previous survey reports have focused exclusively on comprehensive secondary schools:

This commentary is no different, reviewing progress in this subset of schools in the 15 months since the latter report.

Shortly after that was published Ofsted introduced its new common inspection framework, which has two pertinent references:

‘In making judgements, inspectors will pay particular attention to the outcomes for the following groups…the highest and lowest attaining children and learners’


‘Inspectors will make a judgement on the effectiveness of teaching, learning and assessment by evaluating the extent to which…teachers, practitioners and other staff have consistently high expectations of what each child or learner can achieve, including the most able and the most disadvantaged.’

In the new commentary Sir Michael asserts that provision for the most able operates as a touchstone, or indicator of wider school performance:

‘How well the brightest children are doing will usually be among the very first questions an inspector asks the school leadership team at the start of the visit. This is because inspectors know that if provision for this group is good, it is likely that other groups of pupils are also being well served. Conversely, if the most able pupils are not being stretched, that will alert inspectors to the possibility that things may be going wrong elsewhere.’

But, despite this additional emphasis, there has been negligible improvement:

‘The most recent statistics paint a bleak picture of under-achievement and unfulfilled potential. Thousands of our most able secondary-age children are still not doing as well as they should…

‘…What is most depressing is that the brightest children from disadvantaged backgrounds are the most likely not to achieve their full potential. The most able children in receipt of pupil premium funding still lag well behind their more advantaged peers.’

This time round Sir Michael identifies four main shortcomings:

  • Poor primary/secondary transition, resulting in too many primary high attainers ‘treading water’ during KS3.
  • ‘A culture of low expectations’ combined with ‘failure to nurture high ambition and scholastic excellence’.
  • Inadequate monitoring of top-end challenge in mixed ability groups and
  • Disproportionate focus on the GCSE D/C borderline, at the expense of A*/A grade achievement

He praises the (previous) government for raising aspirations, by increasing the performance ceiling at GCSE through the new 9-1 grade structure, and for introducing ‘more rigorous testing’ at KS1 and KS2, arguing that this has helped to close attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged learners, including the most able.

He confirms that Ofsted will:

‘Continue to play its part by ensuring that the progress and attainment of the most able pupils is front and centre of all school inspections. Schools that fail to get this right will be marked down’.

And he floats two further reforms: national testing at 14, to prevent KS3 ‘drift’, and imposing sanctions on schools that ‘consistently fail their brightest children’, for example preventing them from establishing an academy trust.


Ofsted’s definitions

Strictly speaking, Ofsted’s definitions of ‘most able’ relate only to the surveys in which they appear, rather than to the inspection framework or the education system at large. There is no glossary to explain the term as it is used in the framework.

The 2015 survey claims that ‘there is currently no national definition for most able’, which is not entirely true, as we shall see below.

The definition in that survey relies exclusively on measures of prior attainment, referring to:

‘Students starting secondary school in Year 7 having attained Level 5 or above in English (reading and writing) and/or mathematics at the end of Key Stage 2’

This seems to be the version applied in this latest commentary. There was a brief flirtation with ‘potential’ in the 2013 survey, where the most able were defined as:

‘The brightest students starting secondary school in Year 7 attaining Level 5 or above, or having the potential to attain Level 5 and above, in English (reading and writing) and/or mathematics at the end of Key Stage 2. Some pupils who are new to the country and are learning English as an additional language, for example, might not have attained Level 5 or beyond at the end of Key Stage 2 but have the potential to achieve it.’

But the latter section was dropped in 2015.

One implication is that the size of the most able GCSE cohort depends entirely on the proportion that achieved KS2 level 5 some five years earlier. This in turn is affected by changes to the primary assessment regime, as well as by changes in KS2 performance.

The proportion of most able learners in the 2015 GCSE cohort depends on KS2 outcomes in 2010. SFR 36/2010 indicates that:

  • 22% of pupils achieved L5 in English and maths
  • 33% of pupils achieved L5 in English (so 11% did so in English only)
  • 34% achieved L5 in mathematics (so 12% did so in maths only)

That gives a total cohort of 45% (22% + 11% + 12%).

So, to reinforce and summarise some key points:

  • Ofsted’s definitions apply to its surveys, not to the inspection framework. It says there are no national definitions. Ofsted has not given us its interpretation of the most able cohort in primary schools, although they are of course subject to the framework.
  • It is presumably open to all schools – primary and secondary alike – to apply their own definitions (though secondary schools would be wise to have regard to Ofsted’s interpretation). There is no confirmation of this however.
  • According to Ofsted’s interpretation, most able cohorts will vary considerably between year groups and schools, depending on intake. Some year groups in some schools will have very few of these students and a few will have none. But many comprehensive schools will have year groups in which the substantial majority are most able.
  • Overall, Ofsted’s secondary definition includes very nearly half of the entire national GCSE cohort. The omission of 163 grammar schools does not reduce this proportion significantly.
  • This is therefore a remarkably generous and undifferentiated measure. Compare, for example, with the top two levels in the OECD PISA international comparisons studies. In 2012 just 1.3% of students in England achieved level 6 in reading, with 9.1% at level 5 and above; similarly 3.1% of students in England achieved level 6 in maths, with 12.4% at level 5 and above.
  • Ofsted persists in using the term ‘most able’, even though this denotes almost half the entire cohort and its definition is based exclusively on prior attainment. It should be obvious that ability and attainment are quite different concepts, that confusing them is unhelpful and that they should never be treated as synonymous.
  • It would be more accurate to describe this cohort as ‘higher attainers’. Within this larger group it should be feasible to identify a subset – the ‘highest attainers’.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is a recipe for muddle and confusion


Ofsted’s data

In this monthly commentary Sir Michael’s preferred measures of KS4 high attainment are GCSE grades A*/A and A*-B in English and maths. These are obviously much narrower than many viable alternatives, including Attainment 8. There is a brief reference to entry for and achievement of the EBacc.

Under the old levels of progress system, learners with KS2 L5 were expected to demonstrate at least three levels of progress from KS2 to KS4, by achieving GCSE grade B or above.

Many schools introduced more demanding expectations, supporting their high attainers to achieve four or even five levels of progress, especially those achieving sub-levels 5A and 5B at KS2 (and, latterly, those successful in the now defunct level 6 tests).

Neither the commentary nor the supporting methodological note is entirely clear about whether particular statistics relate to all or part of Ofsted’s most able cohort.

So it is not always evident whether GCSE performance data relates to those with L5 in English and maths, or with L5 in English or maths. When progression to high grades in GCSE English is discussed, one assumes this relates only to those with L5 in English – and ditto in respect of maths, but this is not explicit. This is rather slapdash.

The most probable interpretation of the data supplied is that:

  • 32% of pupils in non-selective state secondary schools with KS2 L5 in English and maths achieved at least GCSE grade A in both those subjects, while 73% achieved at least grade B in both.
  • In sponsored academies 65% of this cohort achieved at least grade B in both subjects, compared with 72% in LA-led schools and 76% in converter academies.
  • Nine of the 10 local authorities where the fewest of this cohort achieved at least two B grades are located in the north or the midlands.

When it comes to gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged learners:

  • 73% of non-disadvantaged pupils in non-selective state secondary schools with KS2 L5 in English and/or maths entered the EBacc, compared with 60% of their disadvantaged peers – a 13 percentage point gap.
  • 62% of this non-disadvantaged cohort successfully achieved the EBacc, compared with 44% of the disadvantaged cohort – an 18 percentage point gap.
  • 49% of non-disadvantaged pupils in non-selective state secondary schools with KS2 L5 in maths achieved grade A*/A in GCSE maths and 81% achieved grade B or above. The comparable figures for their disadvantaged peers are 31% and 64%, giving gaps of 18 and 17 percentage points respectively.
  • 39% of non-disadvantaged pupils in non-selective state secondary schools with KS2 L5 in English achieved grade A*/A in GCSE English and 79% achieved grade B or above. The comparable figures for disadvantaged learners are 26% and 66%, giving gaps of 13 percentage points on both counts.

In short, a significant minority of the most able undershot the minimum expected three levels of progress from KS2-4 in both English and maths, far too few secured A grades and there were substantial gaps between the performance of advantaged and disadvantaged high attainers.


Comparison with previous Ofsted data

HMCI refers to disappointing progress but the commentary does not compare this 2015 data directly with that included in the two earlier survey reports. This is probably because changes to the assessment regime mean that results are not fully comparable.

All the data below relates to students attending non-selective state-funded secondary schools.

The original 2013 survey reported outcomes from the 2012 GCSE cycle:

  • 35% with KS2 L5 in both English and maths achieved GCSE A*/A grades in both subjects; 73% achieved GCSE grade B or above in both subjects.
  • 38% with KS2 L5 in English achieved GCSE A*/A in English; 75% achieved grade B or above.
  • 47% with KS2 L5 in maths achieved GCSE A*/A in maths; 78% achieved grade B or above.
  • 58% of FSM-eligible learners with KS2 L5 in both English and maths achieved GCSE grade B or above in both subjects, compared with 75% of those not FSM-eligible, giving a 17 percentage point gap.

The 2015 survey reported outcomes from the 2014 GCSE cycle:

  • 32% with KS2 L5 in both English and maths achieved GCSE A*/A grades in both subjects; 73% achieved GCSE grade B or above in both subjects.
  • 39% with KS2 L5 in English achieved GCSE A*/A in English; 77% achieved grade B or above.
  • 42% with KS2 L5 in maths achieved GCSE A*/A in maths; 76% achieved grade B or above.
  • 59% of FSM-eligible learners with KS2 L5 in both English and maths achieved GCSE grade B or above in both subjects, compared with 75% of those not FSM-eligible, giving a 16 percentage point gap.
  • 66% of FSM-eligible learners with KS2 L5 in English attained GCSE grade B or above in that subject, compared with 79% of those not FSM-eligible, giving a gap of 13 percentage points.
  • 61% of FSM-eligible learners with KS2 L5 in maths attained GCSE grade B or above in maths, compared with 78% of those not FSM-eligible, giving a gap of 17 percentage points.

Although there are comparability issues – and the selected indicators do not fully overlap – there is sufficient evidence to show that on the lead measures there has been no improvement since 2012. Moreover, gaps between FSM-eligible and other high attainers are substantial, somewhat bigger in maths than English, and have hardly closed at all.  

Other data on high attainers’ underachievement

Students of the annual performance tables and supporting SFRs will not be unfamiliar with evidence of high attainers undershooting expected levels of progress under the old levels-based assessment system.

This has long been a problem. Nor has it been confined to the secondary sector as HMCI appears to believe.

Unfortunately, the tables use different definitions and terminology to those preferred by Ofsted, although both definitions rely exclusively on measures of prior attainment.

In the performance tables:

  • KS2 high attainers were those with a KS1 APS of 18 or higher. One quarter of the cohort fell into this category.
  • KS4 high attainers were those with a KS2 APS of 30 or higher. This took in approximately one third of the cohort – slightly less in comprehensive schools

So these definitions are almost as undifferentiated as Ofsted’s. It must have been even more confusing for schools to engage with two competing versions of reality.

It was also possible to see the progress achieved by learners with different levels of prior attainment via the transition matrices published on Raise Online. These overlapped with some of Ofsted’s data. The matrices were particularly valuable for highlighting sub-level distinctions, especially the limited progress achieved by learners assessed at level L5c at KS2.

Taken together, the performance tables and transition matrices showed that, in 2015:

  • One third (33%) of pupils with high prior attainment at KS1 in state-funded schools failed to secure KS2 L5 or above in reading, writing and maths combined.
  • Although 92% of pupils with high prior attainment at KS1 in state-funded schools made the expected progress in reading, that outcome is three percentage points lower than the 95% of middle attainers who made the expected progress.
  • 10% of pupils with KS1 L3 in maths achieved only KS2 L4. The same was true of 11% with KS1 L3 in reading and 7% with KS1 L3 in writing.
  • 3% of pupils with high prior attainment at KS2 in state-funded schools made the expected progress in English, as did 82.9% in maths, so more than one in six undershot these expectations on each measure.
  • 1 in 7 of those with an average KS2 L5c in English and maths failed to secure 5 A*-C GCSE grades including English and maths.
  • Only 43% of those with L5a in KS2 English secured an A* grade in GCSE English language, and only 51% of those with level 5a in KS2 maths secured an A* grade in GCSE maths.

Even allowing for issues at the lower extreme of the cohort (especially KS2 L5c) these outcomes are clearly unacceptable for an advanced educational system. They tell fundamentally the same story as Ofsted’s data.


Other evidence of excellence gaps

Until recently, data showing the extent of the achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged high attainers was comparatively thin on the ground.

I prefer to call these excellence gaps, defined as:

‘The difference between the percentage of disadvantaged learners who reach a specified age- or stage-related threshold of high achievement – or who secure the requisite progress between two such thresholds – and the percentage of all other eligible learners that do so.’

I have devoted several previous posts to excellence gaps, including two analysing recently published data:

I synthesised much other excellence gaps research evidence in two earlier posts here and here (September 2014).

Official data of this kind deserves to be more widely disseminated. It is too often neglected in favour of a passing reference to a short education datalab briefing note for the Sutton Trust ‘Missing talent’ (June 2015 ).

This post (June 2015) supplies a full analysis of ‘missing talent’ which is broadly helpful, but not without shortcomings of its own.

The headline is that 15% of learners who fall within the top decile on KS2 test performance go on to achieve outside the top quartile of GCSE performance (assessed via the Attainment 8 measure). ‘Ever 6 FSM’ students are over-represented in this ‘missing talent’ group, boys significantly so.

But ‘Missing talent’ ignores questions about the incidence of linear progress amongst learners.

Ironically enough, this is discussed in an earlier education datalab publication ‘Seven things you might not know about our schools’ (March 2015).

It defines linear progress as:

‘attaining within one-third of a level (ie +/- a sub-level) of the national average for all pupils who start with the same key stage attainment’.

It reports that some 55% of pupils make the anticipated linear progress from KS1 to KS2, falling to 45% between KS2 and KS3 and just 33% between KS3 and KS4. Only 9% of pupils maintain linear progress throughout, from KS1 to KS4.

It would be helpful to see further analysis showing the proportion of high attainers hitting these various key stage trajectories. The existing report shows that they are rather more likely to stay on course, but the data is incomplete.

How reasonable is the expectation that those in the top 10% at KS2 should be amongst the top 25% at KS4? More reasonable, certainly, than that the top 10% should remain in the top 10%, but still potentially problematic.

What degree of latitude should we permit in such trajectories? Are there particular issues at the top or bottom of the attainment distribution?

Such questions remain pertinent, despite changes to how progress is measured under the new assessment regime.

Impact of the new assessment and accountability arrangements

Ofsted’s present definition of a secondary high attainer will not survive beyond 2020, when the last KS2 cohort with levels-based results reaches Year 11.

Details of the new assessment and accountability regime are still emerging. At the time of writing we still await the statement of intent for the 2016 school performance tables, plus information about the availability of supporting data.

Primary school accountability in 2016’ (January 2016) confirmed that performance tables will include ‘the percentage of pupils who achieve at a high standard in English reading, English writing and mathematics’:

‘To be counted towards the measure, a pupil must have a high scaled score in reading and a high scaled score in mathematics; and have been teacher assessed in writing as ‘working at a greater depth’. We will confirm what constitutes achieving a high scaled score in mathematics and English reading, after the new key stage 2 tests have been sat in summer 2016.’

I had expected this score to be revealed when KS2 raw mark to scaled score conversion tables were published in early July 2016. Given that the KS2 scale has been confirmed as 80-120, it seems highly likely that 110 will be selected as the benchmark. We do not yet know what percentage of learners have exceeded this in reading and maths respectively.



This judgement may eventually provide the basis for a new definition of high attainers in the secondary cohort (though it could not come into effect until that year group takes GCSE examinations in 2021).

There is no equivalent at KS1 to support an equivalent definition for the primary cohort, nor does it seem likely that there will be a parallel measure of high attainment within Attainment 8 at KS4.

‘Missing talent’ recommended that:

‘The Government should report the (3-year average) Progress 8 figures for highly able pupils in performance tables.’

But it would also be helpful to establish at least one benchmark for high attainment within Attainment 8 – say somewhere between 60 and 70 points (adjusted during the transition to GCSE 9-1). This would help considerably in eliminating confusion over what constitutes high attainment.

This has long been a lacuna in the secondary accountability measures: under the old system a national measure such as 5+ GCSEs at A*/A (including English and maths) would have been extremely useful in pinpointing and analysing excellence gaps, as well as identifying schools with balanced intakes which nevertheless produced excellent results with their highest attainers.

In future the disadvantaged attainment gap indices will help in this respect, provided that we continue to see the accompanying barcode graphs, odds ratios and, of course, the underlying data.

In 2015 the published data enabled me to compare achievement gradients for advantaged and disadvantaged learners and so isolate the numbers of each achieving each identified level of achievement.

But the case for basing these indices exclusively on results in GCSE maths and English is weak – and almost certainly designed to give the least worst outcome. It would be far preferable in my view to adopt the broader Attainment 8 measure.

Interestingly, the government’s statistical working paper on measuring performance in academy chains adopts this position too, arguing that:

‘Such a measure [ie GCSE English and maths] risks rewarding a very narrow curriculum offer in which performance in English and mathematics could be at the expense of other subjects.’

The biggest issues arise in respect of high attainers’ progress. Individual progress measures will not be published, but perhaps we might expect to see KS2-4 transition matrices mapping KS2 fine grades on to different Attainment 8 outcomes? I have seen no confirmation one way or the other.

Projected Attainment 8 outcomes for given KS2 fine points scores have already been published for 2015 and so maybe a precedent has been established.

I confidently expect to see some version of a ‘flight path model’ of learner progress emerge from the national data in due course,  not least because of the vacuum created by its absence.

I can see advantage in turning the arguments against linear progress on their head. If very few KS2 high attainers are no longer high attainers five years later, shouldn’t that cause us to question whether our teaching is partly to blame, rather than attributing all the variance to the fact that learning trajectories are non-linear?

I fully understand and accept the reality of non-linear progression in the shorter term – all children learn at different rates, all stall or spurt at different points during a term or a year – but I am far less sure that we should accept this so readily over a full five year span.

If it is important to know whether the top decile at KS2 remain in the top quartile at KS4 – as education datalab clearly believes – we need some sort of mechanism to show whether or not that is the case.


Why are schools not improving?

HMCI should not be surprised at the negligible progress achieved by schools since 2013. There are three main reasons:

  • Ofsted’s stronger inspection focus is a stand-alone commitment, until now unsupported by any stiffening of national education policy, or any substantive reaction from the emergent school-led system-wide improvement movement. There are signs that government policy is shifting, but this needs to be backed up consistently by system leaders out in the field. Sir Michael is right that there are too few schools acting as beacons of excellence.
  • Ofsted’s adjustments to its inspection criteria are comparatively weak. We are no longer in the business of ‘limiting judgements’. Inspection is too infrequent to secure rapid system-wide improvement and, although the last time I checked was in April 2015, quality assurance problems are unlikely to have been eliminated entirely by the shift back to in-house inspection.
  • The majority of school leaders and teachers do not attach sufficient priority to this issue and many do not properly understand it. For some it is ideologically unpalatable: too many are convinced that the ‘long tail’ must inevitably take precedence. Often they seem to be in denial – their instinctive reaction is to take umbrage at HMCI’s criticism, to pick holes in his suggestions for addressing the issue, rather than accepting that they have a problem and working collaboratively to eliminate it.


Will the white paper improve matters? 

The commitments in ‘Education excellence everywhere’ will help to improve the education of  high attainers in primary and secondary schools alike.

One hopes that the principle of equal entitlement regardless of prior attainment will be rigorously applied throughout national education policy, including adjustments where necessary to bring existing initiatives fully into line.

All educational organisations receiving public funding, as well as all schools and colleges, should be expected to apply that principle across the full spectrum of their activity. It has to be a ‘non-negotiable’, otherwise it will be subverted.

In terms of the three concrete commitments:

  • The investigation, funding and evaluation of approaches to help raise high attainers’ achievement could be significant if properly resourced – and if priority is given to developing the pedagogy of stretch and challenge, as well as effective in-school teaching programmes that work in a variety of standard classroom settings. It will not be sufficient to develop a handful of optional out-of-school enrichment projects and supplementary online learning opportunities.
  • I am cautious about the material in the forthcoming ITT core content framework. Does the working group have the necessary expertise to produce high quality guidance that is fully consistent with white paper principles? Has pressure been exerted to ensure consistency with those elements of mastery-style pedagogy that run counter to those principles? Is this the right context for developing guidance on effective whole school practice, relevant to all stages of professional development, rather than just the starting points established in initial training? What consultation, if any, will there be on this material? How will it be mediated, developed and applied by schools and ITT providers? I hope these doubts are unfounded.
  • It is not clear what will be done to ensure the effective use of pupil premium to help close excellence gaps. The white paper mentions generic reforms – a model framework to support effective planning, updated guidance on pupil premium reviews and updated advice for governors – but these need to engage fully with the issue, providing meaningful guidance rather than paying lip service merely. The recently updated pupil premium review guidance from the Teaching Schools Council contains just one reference to ‘more able [sic] disadvantaged pupils’ in a section called ‘what the research tells us’ :

‘For example, whilst the pupil premium has focused many schools’ attention on raising the attainment of low performing pupils, more able disadvantaged pupils are at risk of underachievement too. Analysis by the Sutton Trust shows that many disadvantaged pupils who are high performing at key stage 2 fall badly behind their peers by key stage 4. This underachievement is also reflected in the low proportions of disadvantaged pupils progressing to higher ranked universities after key stage 5. Ofsted has highlighted a lack of support for more able disadvantaged pupils, particularly during key stage 3, as an area that many schools need to address.’

It is not sufficient to point out the problem merely.

What of Sir Michael’s suggestions? 

Sir Michael argues that high stakes tests at the end of KS3 would help restore stretch and challenge for high attainers, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Indeed, he suggests this would benefit all learners.

This might be perceived as an expensive and workload-heavy sledgehammer to crack a nut. But there might be advantage in offering schools optional tests targeted explicitly at high attainers, perhaps linked explicitly to levels 5 and 6 of the PISA assessments, typically undertaken by 15 year-olds.

The idea of imposing sanctions on schools that underperform with their most able learners is also worthy of further exploration. Sir Michael’s single example is to reject applications to form new academy trusts from schools that fall short of expectations, but that begs questions about the treatment of schools that are already trusts.

If there is a sanction of this nature it should be imposed consistently in all official judgements on educational quality, whether undertaken by Ofsted, NCTL or regional school commissioners.

It might feature in Ofsted inspections of ITT providers, LA school improvement services and MATs. It should be conspicuous in the designation of teaching schools and National Leaders of Education, and of course in the planned ‘health checks’ for MATs that wish to expand.

Equally this should be a key criterion in determining the targets for area-based intervention, including the new ‘Achieving Excellence Areas’ – and of course the improvement programmes introduced into them must target high attainers, eliminating the geographical pattern of underperformance identified by Sir Michael’s commentary.


What else is necessary? 

First and foremost, we urgently need to revisit the basics:

  • The misleading term ‘most able’ should be discarded in favour of ‘high attainers’.
  • There should be new high attainment benchmarks at the end of KS1, KS2 (already confirmed), KS4 and KS5. All should be integrated into the post-levels accountability regime with full transparency in the reporting of outcomes, including variance by socio-economic disadvantage and other pupil characteristics, singly and in combination. They should be pitched higher than the existing Ofsted and performance table measures, to include approximately the top decile of high attainers nationally (or there should be two benchmarks, one for the top decile, another for the top two deciles).
  • There should be a national consultation to establish the common core principles governing effective whole school support for high attainers in primary schools, secondary schools and post-16 settings alike. These should be embedded in Ofsted guidance appended to the handbook and inspection framework.

Second, we need determined action to spread effective practice system-wide. This might be achieved through a three-tracked approach combining:

  • National evaluation of promising practice in closing excellence gaps: The EEF should introduce an activity strand devoted to the development of promising teaching and learning strategies to close excellence gaps, not least new learning and support programmes designed to keep high-attaining disadvantaged learners on the ‘flight path’.
  • A national network of high attainer hubs replicating the maths hub model. There should be at least 30 hubs, ideally 50, giving full coverage across all regions. Each hub must be led by a centre of excellence and fully integrated into all local teaching school alliances. Specialist leaders of education (SLEs) with a high attainment specialism would be expected to work within at least one hub. Each hub should be funded to undertake common national development programmes, provide testbeds for EEF evaluations, build capacity by establishing new centres of excellence and pursue their own local development priorities. Core funding should be tied explicitly to improvements in high attainers’ performance, especially amongst those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Less successful hubs would have to meet some of the costs of their work programme from income generated; more successful hubs would use such income to expand their local programmes.
  • Peer-led high attainer reviews, developed in accordance with the pupil premium review model, drawing on the agree core principles and introduced via the hubs and the Teaching Schools Council (which has already developed SEND reviews). As with the pupil premium, Ofsted would be able to commission a review following inspection. Reviews should also be commissioned following other assessments of educational quality (such as those listed above). A cadre of school leaders should be trained and accredited to undertake them.
  • And finally…

National co-ordination would be tendered and overseen by an expert advisory group chaired by the responsible minister, who would be directly accountable for progress. The full programme would require a ring-fenced annual budget of £10m.

Perhaps this should be met from a new Wilshaw Endowment Fund (WEF), to honour the man himself.

I, for one, will miss him – and not only as a much-needed champion of high attainers.



June 2016




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