The chief inspector of schools has urged the government to bring back formal national tests for 14-year-olds in England as a way of tackling persistent underperformance among the most able pupils.
As a result, he said, thousands of the most able pupils – many from disadvantaged backgrounds – had been left “drifting” through the first few years of secondary school, allowing academic standards to fall and the attainment gap between rich and poor students to widen.
School leaders responded by saying that subjecting schoolchildren to yet more testing was “not a panacea to every challenge”.
The controversial tests were scrapped in 2008 by the then Labour education secretary, Ed Balls, after the company responsible for delivering the papers failed to mark them on time, amid a debate about the value of testing.
Wilshaw, who made the comments in his monthly written commentary, pointed out that children in primary school, who are tested at seven and 11, were thriving academically, while children at secondary school who lacked the rigour of formal national testing until 16 were falling behind.
“There can be little doubt, in my view, that these tests have contributed greatly to the recent narrowing of the attainment gap in primary schools between poorer pupils – including the most able – and their peers,” he said.
He told critics of testing: “Those who indulge in moaning and whinging about national testing need to remember that when standards decline, it is the most disadvantaged pupils who suffer the most.”
Wilshaw also proposed the introduction of sanctions against schools that failed to meet their responsibilities towards their most able pupils. He said they should not be allowed to set up an academy trust.
“The most recent statistics paint a bleak picture of underachievement and unfulfilled potential,” said Wilshaw. “Thousands of our most able secondary age children are still not doing as well as they should in the non-selective state sector where the vast majority of them are educated.”
Last year, 68% of non-selective secondary school pupils who achieved a level 5 or above (which is significantly above average) in English and maths at the end of primary school failed to attain either an A* or A in these subjects at GCSE; 27% failed to achieve the minimum expected progress, a grade B.
Wilshaw said: “As chief inspector, I have consistently lamented the failure of too many secondary schools to stretch our most able children, particularly the poorest. If our nation is serious about improving social mobility then our secondary schools have got to start delivering for these children.
“I urge the government to consider bringing back external national testing at key stage 3. I firmly believe that it was a mistake to abolish these tests in the first place. If we are serious about helping all disadvantaged children, but especially the most able, to learn well and unlock their full potential, we need to know how they are doing at 14, as well as at seven, 11 and 16.”
Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the amount of formal testing children in England faced was “onerous” and the accountability system “fearsome”.
“Schools work very hard to provide the best possible education to all their pupils, including the brightest. Most are judged by Ofsted as outstanding or good. Nobody denies there are still challenges but we believe these will best be solved by everybody in the education system working together in a supportive and positive manner.”
Labour’s education spokeswoman, Lucy Powell, added: “The government is incapable of answering Sir Michael’s challenge because they’ve run out of ideas for raising aspiration and stretch in education, and instead continue to focus on unnecessary structural changes which will do nothing to address these important issues.”
A Department for Education spokesperson acknowledged more needed to be done to ensure the most able children fulfilled their potential, adding that new GCSEs, which were due to be examined for the first time next year, would stretch the brightest pupils.
“However we are not complacent, and that is why our recent white paper goes even further by committing to investigating and funding approaches to help even more bright children fulfil their vast potential.”
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