Educating the Highly Able

The Sutton Trust  (see their Press Release) published today a report by Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson, Educating the Highly Able. From the Executive Summary of the report:

Policy and provision for the highly able in England is in a mess. […]

When compared to other countries the consequences are stark. In the 2009 PISA tests only just over half as many achieved the highest level in maths as the average of 3.1% for OECD countries. England’s 1.7 per cent has to be seen against the 8.7 per cent in Flemish Belgium and 7.8 per cent in Switzerland. On a world scale, the picture is even more concerning – 26.6 per cent achieved the highest level in Shanghai, 15.6 per cent in Singapore and 10.8 per cent in Hong Kong. In reading, where the test seems to favour English-speaking countries, England is at the OECD average, but only a third get to the highest level compared with New Zealand and only half compared with Australia. The few top performers in England are in independent and grammar schools and almost no pupils in the general run of maintained reach the highest levels.

The root of the problem is that “gifted and talented‟ is too broad a construct to be the basis of sensible policy. As it has morphed from “intelligence‟ to “gifted‟ to “gifted and talented‟, it has become ever more diffuse. It is not just the conflating of “gifted‟ and “talented‟; it is that “gifts‟ and “talents‟ are often specific. A gift for mathematics and a gift for creative writing are rarely found in the same person. Few top footballers are also top artists.

When schools were required to report the percentage of “gifted and talented‟ pupils, they found it very difficult to be accurate. The percentages ranged from zero to 100%. There was only a weak relationship with admission to a selective university – which might be thought a confirmation of potential for excellence. Relatively few pupils eligible for free school meals – strongly associated with school outcomes – were identified as “gifted and talented‟.

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‟ and were uncertain how to identify the pupils. There was also little opportunity to give a big push to the education of the highly able since funding and staff time were very limited. It was not unusual to hear the complaint that the highly able are a neglected group.

Schools adopted a variety of means of identification. Even when they used the same test, they tended to use different threshold scores. The process was compromised by the government guideline that each school should identify its top 5-10% of pupils as “gifted and talented‟, glossing over the fact that school intakes differ considerably. Some schools refused to play ball and reported their percentage either as zero or 100%.

Given the lack of clarity and the difficulties of identification, it is not surprising that provision by schools has been very uneven. Some schools have attempted to provide for the high attainers within school through arrangements such as setting, streaming, accelerated learning and extension studies. Other schools 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 present government has decided to include the money previously earmarked for “gifted and talented‟ in mainstream funding. Some schools welcomed this, but others were afraid that without dedicated funding any progress that had been made would be lost. Some staff had responsibility for both “special needs‟ and “gifted and talented‟, and they contrasted the substantial resources for the former with the meagre support for the latter.
How can the country move on from this sorry state of affairs? We can see at least three ways forward: clarification, accountability and reforms.

Clarification: The “gifted and talented‟ construct has not been easy to implement with any accuracy. It is necessary to be more precise in terms of: (a) what constitutes top performance and (b) in which fields. In our view policy and provision for those with the potential for excellence should focus on the major school subjects. There is already well-developed provision elsewhere for those with exceptional talent in, for example, football and other sports, music and drama. Accountability: Something that can be done immediately is to direct schools‟ attention to the highly able through the ways in which they are held to account. Currently, school accountability is delivered through test and examination results, and Ofsted inspections. In particular, schools have to meet floor targets and averages. This leads to concentration on borderline or middling pupils, leaving the highly able as a peripheral issue. More sophisticated accountability is required. The 2011 performance tables contain for the first time information on the progression of pupils with different levels of prior attainment. But this is broadly based with the highly able bundled up with those just above average. On the definition the DfE used a third of the pupils emerge as “above average‟. Even so, the data reveal great unevenness across schools with the percentage of “above average‟ ranging from 1% to 98% with the grammars omitted. Very few were in schools serving low income families.

Inspectors also have an important part to play in accountability. The government has decided that schools rated by Ofsted as outstanding need not be re-inspected unless there are triggers for doing so. Under-performance of those who are potentially the highest attainers should be one of those triggers.

Reforms: The five years between the ages of 11 and 16 is a big gap for a progression measure. Since young people are soon to be required to stay in education and training to age 18, national examinations at 14 could, with advantage, replace the GCSE, paving the way for four year programmes of upper secondary education.

The jurisdictions with the strongest performance in maths tend to have education systems in which the high attainers are grouped together in some way. We believe that the government should learn from these countries, perhaps with a view to adapting its academies and free schools policy to allow a new breed of specialist schools to emerge. Funding has already been set aside by the Chancellor of the Exchequer for new maths specialist schools for 16-18 year-olds. But it would be more appropriate if these were to start at a younger age, say from 14 years-old, on the model of the new university technical colleges.


  1. We recommend that the confusing and catch-all construct „gifted and talented‟ be abandoned.
  2. We recommend that the focus, as far as schools are concerned, should be on those capable of excellence in school subjects, pupils we have termed simply as the „highly able‟.
  3. We recommend that Key Stage 2 tests should be used to identify the highly able, using a criterion to be determined in pilot studies (possible criteria would be attaining at least at the 90th percentile, or at least at the 95th percentile, or achieving the new Level 6).
  4. We recommend the Key Stage 2 tests should be used to create a numerical map showing which primary schools the highly able children are in, and to which secondary schools they go.
  5.  Currently some schools, mainly those serving low income homes, have very few high ability pupils, even on the current broad definition adopted by the DfE. We urge the government to consider the plight of these pupils and make provision for them.
  6. We recommend that the School and College Performance Tables which now differentiate pupils into three broad bands of prior attainment be further modified to show the progress and performance of the highly able (defined as achieving at least at the 90th percentile, or achieving at least at the 95th percentile, or the percentage achieving the new Level 6).
  7. The accountability system should also be designed to recognise and reward secondary schools for bringing to the highest levels pupils who did not show up well in the Key Stage 2 tests.
  8. We recommend that evidence of the under-performance of the highly able be a trigger for the inspection of schools rated as outstanding by Ofsted and which otherwise would not be re-inspected.
  9. Beyond accountability, England should seek to improve its education system by taking a close look at those jurisdictions, especially those in Europe, such as Flemish Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, where many more reach the highest levels of achievement.
  10. High achievers in PISA in England seem to be mainly confined to independent and grammar schools. The data should be analysed further to reveal exactly how many pupils in the general run of maintained schools achieve at the highest PISA levels.
  11. We recommend that provision for the highly able should be integral to schools and not a bolt-on.
  12. We recommend that provision and accountability for the highly able should be introduced first in the core subjects of the national curriculum followed by the foundation subjects.
  13. We recommend that 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.
  14. We propose that the government should consider abandoning GCSEs and instituting a national examination at age 14 to mark the end of lower secondary education and pave the way for four years of upper secondary education.
  15. Enhanced opportunities could be provided for the highly able in specialist schools from the age of 13/14 on the university technical college model.
  16. We recommend that consideration be given also to the exceptionally able. Since, on average, there would only be about two per year per school, there should be ways of bringing them together, for example, through master classes or in specialist schools.

1 thought on “Educating the Highly Able

  1. Pingback: Educating the Highly Able | The De Morgan Journal | Methods and Materials for Gifted Education |

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