By Gary Lefley:

Ofsted has published a report that castigates state secondary schools for failing to stretch their ‘brightest’ students.

My first reaction is that if Ofsted wishes to see higher achievers realising their full potential then the solution is staring them in the face. Every classroom practitioner will tell you that at the heart of the problem are class sizes and the Pupil-Teacher Ratio (PTR). I have little doubt that Eton and Harrow are stretching virtually all of their students, including the higher achievers. I also have zero doubt that this is due to class sizes that would be the envy of every state mainstream school, spectacular resources, and of course, the support of a well-heeled and generous establishment.
This, combined with constantly reinforced high self-esteem, verging on a superiority complex, enables privileged young people to not only achieve their full potential, but also to view the world as their oyster. I can only imagine how wonderful state education would be given similar resources. And if we ever managed to inculcate a similar, empowering confidence amongst our, less privileged, students, well, you fill in the blanks.
But we should not become defensive and shy away from the general validity of the Ofsted report. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that our higher achieving students often coast through KS3. The pressure of Government imposed league tables, which are based on attainment rather than progress, has inevitably resulted in Headteachers concentrating resources on attainment at KS4, at the cost of progress at KS3. Of course the irony of this is not reflected in the Ofsted report: the Government, via the DfE, is the architect of the failings described.
Secondary schools, however, are not entirely free from blame. Our teachers are often amazed at the intellectual and learning demands placed on primary school pupils – and at the remarkable outcomes achieved. This amazement can sometimes be reflected in complacency about what is possible at KS3.
The problem of under-achievement at KS3, however, is not restricted to the highest achievers. Indeed, the evidence is that these pupils progress at a faster rate than the lower achievers. The reality is that dependency on highly dubious and unreliable methods of assessment, such as the 11-plus and Cognitive Assessment Tests, which label 10-12 year olds as low ability, means that these pupils are regularly placed in bottom streams where they stay for the rest of their school life, making negligible progress based on self-fulfilling low expectations.

The solution to this problem cannot be left with Headteachers to massage their priorities and over-stretched budgets. The issues are far more expansive and deep rooted. They need to be addressed at DfE level. This requires:
1. The abandonment of school league tables, which skew priorities away from the overall quality of education, including the general rate of student progress, towards a narrow focus on A*-Cs in selected subjects;
2. That the performance of schools should be based on pupil progress within a broad curriculum, rather than attainment within a narrow one. Otherwise selective schools will continue to be unfairly judged as more successful than non-selective ones, simply because they recruit higher achievers at the outset, when, conceivably, their students may be coasting and making slower progress;
3. A change in the mindset of educators towards a more ambitious rate of learning, freed from the limiting expectations of streaming and ability categories, especially where children from deprived backgrounds are concerned;
4. We need the adoption of a radically different theory of intelligence and learning which is not based on the false grading of ‘innate’, unchangeable ability, as connoted by so-called IQ tests. We need educational practice which recognises that all children can learn; that they develop at different rates and different stages in their young lives but that, given flexibility and the right opportunities and service, they can all make rapid progress over time.
Ultimately the issue of how we maximize the achievement of all our students is dependent on resources and, none more so than class size and PTR. We could positively revolutionise the outcomes of our education system, but only if we first revolution the funding priorities of our society as a whole.