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Free article: Meeting everyone’s needs - The most able students

Published: Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Ofsted’s new report on the most able has implications for every group of students in the school. In this article we look at the recommendations and what they might mean for schools.


  • The report’s concerns about more able students.
  • Focusing on the underachievement of disadvantaged pupils.
  • Pupils’ aspirations for university.
  • The report’s recommendations summarised.
  • Implications for schools.

The most able students: Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools? is one of the latest reports from Ofsted (June 2013). It raises a number of concerns about provision for the most able, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Those pupils who leave primary school with level 5 in both English and maths are not necessarily achieving as highly as they might at non-selective secondary schools. Almost two-thirds of pupils in this group did not reach an A* or an A grade in their GCSEs and 27 per cent did not even reach a B grade.

In the report, schools are criticised for not taking sufficient note of their most able pupils. They do not routinely receive the same attention as those who are low attaining and they are insufficiently encouraged to attend university.

Differences are noted in the way in which more able pupils from different groups perform. In some cases non-white British students are achieving better than their white British counterparts. Disadvantaged more able pupils are a particular concern.

Focus on disadvantage

Although the report covers more able students generally, outcomes for disadvantaged pupils are highlighted. The able students most likely to underachieve are from poorer backgrounds. Too few schools work with families to support them in overcoming cultural and financial obstacles to going to university.

Ofsted’s focus on the underachievement of disadvantaged pupils is also evident in another recent document, Unseen children: Access and achievement 20 years on: Evidence report. Although Ofsted acknowledges that some progress in tackling underachievement has been made in the last 20 years, it is neither sufficient, rapid enough or necessarily sustained.
The message is clear: whatever proportion of pupils on free school meals, this group of students – whatever their ability – must now be enabled to catch up with their peers and pupil premium money must be used to support them.


A major point made by the report is about the level of expectation that pupils from non-selective state schools have, in particular the more able disadvantaged pupils. Ofsted wants to see more young people aspire to university, and those of the right ability applying to the Russell Group of universities.

Schools in the report are criticised for claiming to match pupils with universities rather than simply encouraging them to aspire to the most prestigious ones. Concern about not fitting in is one of the reasons pupils gave for not being more ambitious in their applications. It might be countered that the importance of finding the right match should not be underestimated if we are to see students not only reach university but stay there.


The report makes a number of recommendations to the DfE and maintained schools and academies.

It recommends that the DfE should:

  • ensure parents receive a report each year to inform them if their child is on track to achieve what they should in national tests and examinations
  • develop progress measures to identify how well the most able students have progressed from Year 6
  • promote the new destination data so that everyone can see how many go to university and particularly to the Russell Group of universities.

It recommends that schools should:

  • develop a culture and ethos so that the needs of the most able are championed by school leaders
  • improve transfer between primary and
  • secondary school
  • evaluate mixed-ability teaching
  • evaluate the quality of homework set to the more able
  • raise the expectations of children and parents and overcome cultural and financial barriers
  • develop more in-house expertise to support applications to prestigious universities.

The report announces that Ofsted will be placing more emphasis on the more able, in particular by considering:

  • the teaching and progress of the most able students
  • the curriculum that is being offered to them
  • the information, advice and guidance available to the most able.

Implications for schools

It is possible that the expectations from this report will raise debate even further about how the pupil premium is spent in your school. There might also be repercussions around how your pupils are grouped.

Ofsted seems to be recommending the use of streaming or setting in place of mixed-ability grouping. It refers to recent research findings to support this preference. The report concedes that the best schools ensure that mixed-ability teaching is not detrimental due to carefully planned teaching. However, this is not the case in all schools.

The Sutton Trust’s much quoted Teaching and Learning Toolkit came out against the use of ability grouping overall. Although there might be some small gains for the more able in some circumstances, the toolkit suggests that the benefits are outweighed by the disadvantages to other groups of learners.

The pupil premium grant, as with all school funding, should be spent where it is needed most. The deregulation of schools was intended to enable them to make these kinds of decisions. Schools should have the confidence to maintain a focus on the needs of their students and their school.

Further information


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This article was first published in the October 2013 edition of SEN Leader magazine.