England ranks 26th out of 34 OECD countries for highly able

Professor Smithers report for the Sutton Trust finds highly able pupils are neglected

But does it cut the mustard?


Why is it that politicians who  put such a high premium on social mobility and place it  top of their agendas spend so much time focusing on higher education, and improving access there , when   young people’s  chances of  being socially mobile  are determined much earlier in their lives? Clearly the most able and gifted children in the maintained sector have the most potential to become socially mobile, yet precious little effort is made to identify these pupils and once identified, to give them the necessary personalised support   to fulfil their potential  while ensuring  that they are  educated in a challenging environment  that stretches them.

The Sutton Trust has just released a report  that has found that  the few high performing pupils we have in maths ,according to international tests, are nearly all in the independent sector or grammar schools. Are we to believe that among the 93% of  our pupils  in the state system there are virtually no talented mathematicians’?

England’s teenagers are just over half as likely to reach the highest levels in maths in international tests as students from other developed nations finds a major review of the support for highly able children. England ranks 26th out of the 34 OECD countries when compared in terms of the proportion of highest achieving children in maths tests at age 15 according to the Sutton Trust research. The few high performing pupils in the England come mostly from independent and some from grammar schools, with “almost no pupils” achieving top levels from non-selective state schools warns the report.

In England only 1.7% of children reached the highest level in maths compared with 7.8% in Switzerland and 5.8% in Belgium (8.7% in Flanders), and an average of 3.1 % across all OECD countries. But the report, by the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, says that on a world scale, the picture is even more concerning – 26.6% achieved the highest level in Shanghai and 15.6% in Singapore (full listing in table below).   Maths in almost all countries is compulsory to the age of 18 except in England where almost 90% of students drop Maths after GCSE.  So comparisons at the age of 18 would look far worse than the already worryingly poor performance at 15.The report argues that England’s poor international performance is the result of successive failures of policies and programmes to do enough to stretch the most able children.It advocates that highly able children should be identified in tests at the end of primary school, and their progress and performance tracked in published secondary school tables. National tests meanwhile should include more difficult questions, so that there is ample opportunity for the highly able to show what they can do.

The last government created the ‘gifted and talented’ programme to get schools to stretch their most able students, but the report argues that a more honest and straightforward term would be ‘highly able’.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “These are shocking findings that raise profound concerns about how well we support our most academically able pupils, from non-privileged backgrounds. Excellence in maths is crucial in so many areas such as science, engineering, IT, economics and finance. These figures show that few bright non-privileged students reach their academic potential – which is unfair and a tragedy for them and the country as a whole.”

In response, the Sutton Trust is announcing a call for proposals to pilot projects supporting and stretching the highly able in non-selective state schools. These projects will be rigorously evaluated, with those that are successful scaled up to many more schools.

Co-author of the report, Professor Alan Smithers said: “Policy and provision for the highly able in England is in a mess. The root of the problem is that ‘gifted and talented’ is too broad a construct to be the basis of sensible policy. In our view the focus should be on those with the potential for excellence in the major school subjects. The key issue is that secondary schools should be held to account for the progress of the highly able.”

The review found that when schools were required to report the percentage of ‘gifted and talented’ pupils, the percentages ranged from zero to 100%. Interviews with headteachers and ‘gifted and talented’ co-ordinators in schools provided the explanation for the unrealistic figures: they were unclear exactly what was meant by ‘gifted and talented’.“It was not unusual to hear the complaint that the highly able are a neglected group,” says the report. It warns that low income pupils in particular could be isolated in poor schools.

Some schools have attempted to provide for the high attainers within school through setting, streaming, accelerated learning and extension studies. Others have concentrated on out-of-school activities such as master classes, competitions and visits. “In some cases, ‘gifted and talented’ appears to have been more of a rationing device for popular trips than a means of high-level education.”The report recommends that the “confusing and catch-all” construct ‘gifted and talented’ be abandoned. Instead the focus, as far as schools are concerned, should be on children capable of excellence in school subjects, with pupils termed simply as the ‘highly able’.

Highly able children should be identified in Key Stage 2 tests at the end of primary school, possibly those making up the top ten per cent of performers nationally in state schools, and their progress and performance tracked in published secondary school tables. Evidence of under-performance of the highly able should be a trigger for the inspection of schools.

The report recommends that provision for the highly able should be integral to schools and not a bolt-on. At the same time national tests and exams should include more difficult questions, so that there is ample opportunity for the highly able to show what they can do.


But not everyone applauded the report. Tim Dracup ,  a former civil servant, regarded as a leading international  expert on  support for  Gifted and Talented pupils, and who  Tweets  under  the pseudonym Gifted Phoenix, was  highly critical.  He said that ‘ The Report accentuates the negative for its own purposes, failing entirely to recognise and celebrate the positive – and largely because of its blinkered adherence to such a narrow and impoverished conceptualisation of gifted education. Faced with a stark choice between:

an imposed requirement based on the recommendations in this Report, or

a flexible framework permitting a degree of autonomy in accordance with the principles laid down in the national identification guidance and Quality Standards

I would choose the latter every time – and I believe that most schools would do so too. By all means let us develop and implement a strategy to support our high attaining learners, but let us not pretend – as does this Report – that support for high attainers is synonymous with a properly designed gifted and talented education strategy.


There is considerable irony in the fact that the Sutton Trust – an organisation established to champion social mobility – has published a Report which, if its proposals were implemented, would almost certainly strengthen the advantage enjoyed by high-attaining students from more privileged backgrounds, while denying support to exactly those learners who need it most. (my italics)

In gifted education, as in all education policy, we must maintain a judicious balance between excellence and equity. To espouse one at the expense of the other does not cut the mustard.’

Educating the Highly Able; Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson Centre for Education and Employment Research University of Buckingham July 2012

Note-Sutton Trust Looking for Pilot Projects to support the most able pupils

Types of projects

We are particularly interested in project ideas which draw on academic evidence in this area, but this should not discourage innovative and creative approaches.

Applicants should also bear in mind a number of other points:

•        We would like to receive project proposals that focus on those pupils capable of excellence in core academic school subjects – pupils we have termed simply the ‘highly able’.

•        We are open to considering various methods of defining this group – for example those attaining at the 90th percentile and above, the 95th percentile, or the new Level 6, as recommended by the University of Buckingham research.

•        As many of these pupils will be in grammar and independent schools, we are also open to projects which define the highly able on the basis of school performance and local context, providing the selection method can be justified.

•        Projects may also focus on the “exceptionally able” pupils.  Since, on average, there may only be one or two per year per school, we are interested in imaginative ways of bringing them together.


•        The Trust is also keen to explore provision for highly able pupils that is integral to schools and not simply a “bolt-on” to mainstream provision


•        The Trust already supports a wide range of initiatives focussed on university access at age 16-plus.  We are therefore particularly interested in programmes that start earlier on, in key stage three or four, but which may continue to support the students through their transition to FE and HE.


•        Applications can come from any not-for-profit organisation, including schools, charities, universities, colleges and social enterprises.


•        All funded projects will be independently evaluated for impact by leading researchers in the field.

How to apply

At the initial stage we would like a simple, brief outline of the project idea, containing some key pieces of information:  a summary of the project’s aims and how they would be delivered; how the students would be selected; the evidence behind this approach and its likely impact; as well as indicative costs and envisaged scale.

Please limit the proposal to two sides of A4 maximum and email to by 30 September.

We will be in touch with applicants in the autumn with a view to developing the supporting the first project by the end of the year.




  1. Identification of potential does not effectively occur through assessment tests such as SATS. I don’t understand why there is such an issue in this country with G&T and identification of students – there is a wealth of research out there about identification and what happens when students slip through the net.

    Giftedness is not always synonymous with high attainment, it is not always possible to identify it through the grinding regimen of exams in this country. Robust assessment including IQ type testing, plus anecdotal evidence from parents and teachers often points to true ability, or potential.

    Why does it matter what sector the truly gifted child is in, as long as they are being stretched and catered for?? More smart kids fulfilling their potential will benefit us all!

    For more detail and further research you might like to visit my blog on this matter – also published in the Guardian Teachers’ Blog –

  2. I agree with the above in relation to identification of potential. The grinding regimen of exams in this country simply selects those who are capable of performing ‘on the day’ as well as having absorbed the study skills carefully honed and crafted by teachers experienced in the art (I should know, as a teacher, I did it myself!!)

    Given that the Sutton Trust proposals are thus innately flawed, could I further ask why it is that the Sutton objectives simply focus on the ‘most gifted’ in non-selective state education…? This simply promotes further divisiveness in a situation where it is widely accepted that pretty bog-standard pupils in the selective system will succeed via parental connections and privilege and/or the connections they establish within the selective system. The net, if there is to be one, needs to be widened dramatically and take on board more flexible, valid and reliable means of assessment.

  3. One of the difficulties here, is that those who do know about identifying clever children keep their heads down in this discussion because they know if they speak out, they will be pilloried by the playing-field-levellers. Having taught for a long time in the elite, academic school environment, I know exactly how such schools define and understand the concept of academic cleverness. It comes as much through teacher/pupil conversation and day to day contact, as it does through the exam room. It comes from one clever human being, communicating regularly about the things that interest them, with another. It comes from many subsequent conversations between skilled and knowledgable teachers about individual children they strive to know and understand.

    Here’s an anecdote to illustrate what happens when the two don’t match. When I joined Teach First as a tutor, I quickly realised I was the only tutor who had any experience teaching in a fiercely selective academic environment. All but one of my colleagues were existing teacher trainers used to very different individuals to those Teach First was recruiting. Although they delighted in the intellect and responsiveness they found in their new tutees, they were also clearly intimidated. For me, it was just business as usual…just a bit older.

    One day, part of the then National Strategies team were invited to run a session for the entire group. Within minutes of them starting their presentation I was wincing in my seat. It was clear that this team had not the slightest idea of how clever, how “well educated” their audience was. They introduced them to innovative new little hand held boards for pupils to write on. (Slates in Victorian schools.) They denounced the practice of children putting up their hands as divisive and unfair. In an effort to involve their audience, they gave them all boards and pens and then asked them a question to answer. (What they would probably have described as “modelling good practice.”) I was sitting on the front row of the large lecture theatre and when I turned round it was to see a forest of white boards with everything from blatant obscenities to “Kiss me Quick” written on them.

    The team never got to finish their presentation. Within minutes they were embroiled in a ferocious Q&A session that left them reeling.

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