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


How schools support our most able students is of vital interest to us all. Ensuring that the brightest pupils fulfil their potential goes straight to the heart of social mobility, of basic fairness and economic efficiency. Yet, as this report outlines, the policy and provision for the highly able is littered by a hotch-potch of abandoned initiatives and unclear priorities. Teachers complain that the highly able have become a neglected group.

The authors argue convincingly that the term gifted and talented that has underpinned many schemes is a flawed description. As someone who sat on the Government advisory body for the gifted and talented programme, I have to say I agree. Better to talk about the highly able in our schools and what support they need.

The figures on international comparisons provide a brutal insight into Englands current standing. The results of the international PISA tests in 2009 have been widely reported but, nearly always focus on the average performance of the various countries.

When we look at the highest levels of attainment (levels 5 and 6), the performance of the England is extremely worrying. In maths just 1.7% of 15-year-olds attained the very highest PISA level (level 6), compared with an OECD average of 3.1%. Maths in almost all countries is compulsory to the age of 18 except 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. In Singapore 15.6% reached that level, while in Switzerland 7.8% did so. The few high performing pupils in England come mostly from independent and some from grammar schools, with almost no pupils' achieving top levels from non-selective state schools. This is a deeply troubling picture for any us who care about our brightest pupils from non-privileged backgrounds.

Why does this matter so much to us at the Sutton Trust? In todays society it is critical that when we select the most able for positions of leadership and influence, both for reasons of fairness and economic efficiency. The sad truth is that England is both unfair and inefficient in this key respect - because academic performance is so closely related to family background rather than ability. Proper provision for the most able across the whole education system is critical......

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