Headteachers have questioned the evidence used to support claims by Ofsted that state secondary schools are failing their most able pupils.
A report, The Most Able Students: Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools? found that more than a quarter of previously high-flying pupils have failed to achieve at least a B grade in English and mathematics.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, blamed a culture of low expectations in schools for things going “wrong very early” in children’s secondary education.
He said pupils arrived from primary schools “bright-eyed and bushy tailed” but then failed to reach their potential.
He added that schools should consider streaming or setting pupils as soon as they begin secondary school and recommended that parents should receive annual reports on whether their children are achieving to their potential and ability.
But Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said Sir Michael had reduced an important debate to “sweeping generalisations”.
“We know there are some schools that should be doing more, but to suggest that a culture of low expectations is rampant in our schools is absolutely wrong,” he said. “The majority of schools have good strategies in place to stretch all pupils.”
Ofsted based its report on observations of 2,000 lessons, visits to 41 schools and information on school performance. Inspectors found that teachers in some schools did not know who their brightest pupils were.
The schools watchdog defined high-achievers as those achieving a Level 5 in both English and maths in national curriculum tests. It found that two-thirds of pupils who achieved this level at primary school failed to get an A* or A in both subjects at GCSE.
Mr Lightman added: “Level 5 is a wide band that includes a range of ability levels, not just the brightest students.
“The government has said that for children who come into secondary school with a Level 5, expected progress means a B at GCSE. Of course we want those children to achieve even higher, but for Ofsted to say that they are underachieving if they don’t get an A or A* is unfair to those students and their teachers.”
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said benchmark measures were partly to blame.
He said education had become a “numbers game” and schools had been “forced into the middle ground, to get students over thresholds at the expense of both the most and least able”.
Sir Michael agreed that league tables had “false incentives” for teachers to push as many students as possible to a grade C and above, but teachers also needed to drive the brightest pupils to achieving their potential.