The challenges of low prior attainment

Written by: Chris Parr | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Of the many issues to be raised by Ofsted’s annual report, the on-going battle against off-rolling and the challenges of low prior attainment caught the eye of Chris Parr

When Ofsted’s annual report, covering 2018/19, was published last month (Ofsted, 2020), it was greeted with a glut of national headlines.

These covered everything from the use of off-rolling to game league tables, the fact that 86 per cent of schools are now judged good or outstanding, and claims that institutions are forcing pupils to take “easier” qualifications in order to boost exam results.

The report offers Ofsted the chance to set its priorities for the coming year and, in her speech marking its publication, chief executive Amanda Spielman was particularly keen to focus on off-rolling – an issue SecEd has reported on for some time (SecEd, 2019).

In reference to the alleged practice of removing children from schools in order to improve results, Ms Spielman said: “The number of schools with unusual levels of pupil movement has grown and we are continuing to ask about this on inspection.

“Coercing parents into home-schooling when it’s not in the child’s best interest, or finding another way to move a child off a school’s roll so they become somebody else’s problem, is wrong,” she said. “It undermines claims to integrity.”

Ms Spielman said that schools needed to guard against “putting all or most children in a school on a narrow, sometimes repetitive curriculum, to achieve exam results that are better than the school down the road”.

“We mustn’t succumb to the seductive but wrong-headed logic that we help disadvantaged children by turning a blind eye to schools that narrow education in this way as long as they deliver acceptable grades at the end,” she continued – adding that such grades were “hollow” if they do not reflect “a proper education” underneath.

Of course, there was much more crammed into the annual report – issues with which SecEd readers will already be familiar. Elsewhere in the document, for example, was a reference to an issue that has received less media attention: the high number of pupils with low prior attainment at the end of primary school, and the implications for attainment at secondary level.

In 2018/19, Ofsted investigated how secondary schools help these pupils – who are defined as having an average point score of less than 24 at key stage 2 – to make good progress.

Inspectors are instructed to look at whether schools have a curriculum that is “ambitious and designed to give all pupils the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life” and delivered “in a way that ensures that all pupils acquire the knowledge they need to be successful”.

Teachers are expected to “adapt lessons as needed to make the content relevant and accessible to all pupils”, there should be “high academic, vocational or technical ambition for all pupils” and the school should offer disadvantaged pupils “a rich, ambitious curriculum”.

In 2018, 61,000 pupils in state secondary schools were classed as having “low prior attainment” – and the numbers do not appear to be improving, particularly in science, Ms Spielman said.

“Subject-level inspection and key stage 2 science tests were removed 15 years ago and 10 years ago, respectively,” she said. “We know ... that key stage 2 science achievement has plummeted since these control levers were removed.

“And more recently, our own primary curriculum work has shown us that subjects outside the core of maths and English are often weak, and that includes science. Secondary schools are now having to teach most children science from a lower starting point.”

It is important not to conflate children with low prior attainment and “disadvantaged” pupils. The Ofsted report acknowledges that “low prior attainers are a diverse group”, and “only four out of every 10 pupils with low prior attainment have been eligible for free school meals in the past six years”.

They also “make variable levels of progress at secondary school, depending both on their other characteristics and the type of school they attend”, Ofsted says.

Some 13 per cent of all year 11 pupils nationally have low prior attainment, rising to 18 and 17 per cent among studio schools and sponsor-led academies respectively. They tend to make much stronger progress in schools judged “outstanding”, Ofsted says, but are less likely to attend these schools compared to the national average.

The inspectorate says this means that pupils with low prior attainment “are less likely to have access to the highest quality education”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told SecEd that the issue represented “a good example of how the pressures of insufficient funding, teacher shortages, and harsh accountability intersect to create an impossible situation”.

He continued: “Primary performance tables put schools under intense pressure to focus on English and maths SATs so it is hardly surprising if this has resulted in the curriculum sometimes being skewed in this direction. This may then lead to pupils needing more support in science in the early years of secondary school.”

He pointed out that there was “a desperate shortage of science teachers”, and that schools “have had to cut classroom assistants because of the funding crisis in education”.

“They are doing their level best to deliver the learning their pupils need despite these challenges ... however this situation illustrates why we must reform school accountability and improve funding and teacher supply.” 

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