On Ability Grouping and Gifted Education – Part 2

In Part 1, I sought to:

  • clear away the terminological difficulties that complicate international discussion of this complex and sensitive issue;
  • set ability grouping within the wider education policy-making context, specifically the relationship between excellence and equity and the choice between prescription and school autonomy; and
  • summarise the key points from an objective review of international research on the benefits of setting and tracking relative to mixed ability grouping.

In a nutshell, the research tells us that, while mixed ability settings tends to favour the lowest achievers and setting/tracking is typically better for the highest achievers, when we look at the impact on the attainment of all pupils there is little difference in overall outcomes, because the benefits and disbenefits broadly balance out.

But, compared with mixed ability scenarios, setting/tracking is more likely to increase attainment differences between low achievers and high achievers and, because disadvantaged learners are more prevalent in lower sets/tracks, setting/tracking is relatively more likely to increase the achievement gap between rich and poor.

I argued that, when we develop gifted education policy – and even when we advocate for gifted learners – it behoves us to understand and accept this reality, rather than taking a partial view that concentrates solely on the benefits for the group whose interests we exist to serve.

The fundamental point is this: it cannot be right to insist on improvements in G&T education which can only be achieved at the expense of other learners. Instead of a simplistic either/or debate, we need to look at more sophisticated hybrid solutions that retain the benefits of the two different models and mould them into a better ‘third way’.

The more promising elements of such a ‘third way’ will begin to emerge from deeper reflection on the research findings.

Setting versus tracking/streaming

If we look at the issue from a UK perspective, there is seemingly broad professional consensus that streaming is less effective than setting. Streaming typically depends on crude distinctions that fail to recognise the full profile of a learner’s strengths and weaknesses. So it is quite likely that learners – even many gifted learners – will find themselves relatively under-challenged in some subjects and relatively over-challenged in others.

Conversely, setting enables schools to tailor their initial selection criteria and pedagogical approach to the subject in question. It is quite conceivable that some subjects will use sets while others remain mixed ability – that is standard practice in many English schools. It may also be possible to run sets and mixed ability groups in parallel in the same subject – eg a set for high achievers and/or a set for low achievers with other learners taught in mixed ability groups.

Setting also provides greater flexibility for schools to move pupils when necessary, in recognition that children develop at different rates in different subject areas, with lags and spurts at different times. By offering a more flexible, dynamic model, they are better able to respond quickly when a learner needs extra challenge or greater support in one particular part of the curriculum.

This is not to say that setting inevitably delivers these advantages – rather that effective setting practice does so. As with the identification of gifted learners, it can be all too easy for poorer schools to undertake setting as a once-and-for-all judgement rather than an arrangement kept under regular review and informed by careful analysis of individual pupils’ progress.

I am not sure to what extent setting (maybe we should call it ‘subject-specific tracking’) has been adopted in the US, though it clearly exists in some areas as an alternative to the cruder standard tracking approach. Setting does appear to offer more inherent advantages than the cruder alternative, but there is no reason in principle why elements of both could not be combined into a workable hybrid.

And we should not discard entirely the possibility of a workable model based exclusively on tracking. Advocates of both tracking and of setting are right to assert that, given the right kind of implementation, it ought to be possible to utilise either technique to raise standards for all learners while simultaneously narrowing achievement gaps. The big – and seemingly unanswered – question is how to realise that in practice.

How Big are the Attainment Differences Between High- and Low-Achievers?

Within the research canon, the scale of the performance gap between different tracks/sets is disputed territory. This is probably because of the statistical difficulties involved in isolating the effect of the pedagogy from the effect of prior achievement attributable to gender, ethnic and socio-economic background (amongst other variables).

More recent research suggest that the gap is probably less significant than was earlier believed. Some argue that it is negligible, but there does not seem to be a reliable body of evidence to support that contention. And, even if there were, this does not impact on the ‘sorting hat’ effect that is potentially so detrimental to those from disadvantaged backgrounds (an effect that we know well because it also undermines the effective identification of G&T populations the world over).

Teacher Quality and Deployment in Tracks and Sets

One might reasonably hypothesise that performance gaps between upper and lower tracks, streams and sets are much less likely to appear in schools which ensure that their more experienced subject-specialists are more regularly deployed at the lower end of the spectrum.

Conversely, given the impact of teacher quality on pupil performance, it would be no surprise to find that schools which deployed their best teachers at the upper end were more likely to see performance gaps widen.

This is not to suggest that it would be appropriate to load all the worst teachers into the upper sets, but merely that the distribution might be weighted more towards the lower end than it is now in a typical school. For it is an inconvenient truth often ignored by gifted educators that, by and large, high-achieving gifted learners tend to benefit from the typical distribution of teaching talent across sets or tracks.

It may or may not be attributable to teacher quality, but there does seem to be some research evidence that students in upper sets and tracks typically encounter a more enlightened pedagogy, with more opportunities for student engagement and interaction, whereas lower sets more often experience a more didactic ‘remedial’ teaching style.

Teacher Quality and Deployment in Mixed Ability Settings

In schools that follow a mixed ability approach, there is a different kind of issue about the distribution of pedagogical skill. In this context, the most important consideration becomes the effectiveness with which teachers can cater for widely differing needs within a single classroom.

While the best teachers may be able to differentiate their challenge and support across a mixed-ability class of 30 or more students, the critical issue is whether this can be achieved consistently by all teachers. This is straying into yet another contentious research area – and not one that I have yet explored in any detail.

So I am not equipped to challenge the orthodox anecdotal view – often heard from the parents of gifted learners in particular – that this is a bridge too far for many teachers, particularly if the school cannot afford to reduce the class to a more manageable size. So, they argue, these teachers need the pedagogical ‘crutch’ of a narrower achievement range within which to operate.

In passing, we should not forget that effective differentiation remains an issue even within a smaller top set or upper track. There may be a tendency, particularly amongst inexperienced staff, to assume that it is more acceptable to teach to the middle in a top set, so underserving those who are struggling to stay with the set and those who need extra challenge.

We must also acknowledge potential subject differences. It seems to be a widespread view amongst professionals that setting is potentially more valuable in the linear subjects such as maths and modern languages where the acquisition of subject knowledge is critical to progress, whereas in English and arts subjects it is not quite so essential to divide pupils on the basis of past achievement. Whether this view is reliably supported by the research literature is more open to question.


The case for and against detracking seems to hinge on this issue of teachers’ capacity to differentiate effectively in mixed ability settings. If they are not up to mark, it is of course the pupils at either extreme who are most likely to suffer, including the high-achieving gifted learners.

And it is high-achieving learners from disadvantaged backgrounds that are most vulnerable. They are more likely to be found in schools in disadvantaged urban areas: precisely the schools that cannot attract a critical mass of high quality teachers able to differentiate effectively in a mixed ability setting. It is another inconvenient truth that the better teachers are found disproportionately in more advantaged areas and schools, despite the redistributive impact of initiatives like Teach for America/Teach First.

This means that – contrary to the conclusions above about the overall negative impact of sets on performance gaps – detracking may unintentionally widen the excellence gap we have discussed in previous posts on this blog.

In my view, detracking is unlikely to succeed as a crude stand-alone adjustment. It would be much more likely to work as part of a sophisticated suite of reforms that supplement the support available for all learners, but especially those at either end of the achievement spectrum, whether that be by means of in-class ability grouping, pull-out for catch-up and extension, targeted 1:1 tuition, additional enrichment, independent learning opportunities…and so on.

The critical risk that proponents of gifted education must guard against is that, when such a suite is designed and implemented, all the funding and support is targeted at the lower achievers, while comparable support for the high achievers is neglected on the mistaken assumption that they will succeed regardless. That is against the spirit of personalised education and is manifestly unfair and inefficient.

A more sophisticated approach

Too often, the debate about tracking/setting and mixed ability settings is over-simplified into a straightforward either/or choice between two mutually exclusive options. But in reality the real issue is how effectively a school deploys its professional and para-professional resources and a rich pedagogical armoury to personalise learning for all its pupils.

Schools need to think carefully about the needs of all their learners and to devise solutions that will enable them to deliver improved standards for all (excellence) and a narrowing of achievement gaps (equity). The latter must not be secured by holding high-level achievement steady while the poorer performers catch up.

In the English context, as we move towards greater institutional autonomy, this requires each and every school to secure the necessary expertise to make such decisions with confidence, to evaluate their reforms properly and to adjust them in the light of the evidence.

The trick, as always, is to provide a broad, flexible and non-bureaucratic review framework that supports the weaker schools without limiting the options of the stronger ones. In an ideal world this would be mediated by a School Improvement Partner or similar, but it should also be capable of direct use by the school’s staff and governors, possibly in partnership with another school, so providing some degree of objective external scrutiny.

On the surface, the politicians seem confident in schools’ ability to deliver and are freeing them from several constraints upon their autonomy; but it would appear that they also continue to hanker after prescription in certain areas – perhaps those where they hold strong personal beliefs, or those (like setting) where they know that opinion in schools is divided. For I would be wrong to give the impression that setting in English schools is a ‘done deal’.

Once again there seems to be a dearth of reliable national data. But a crude estimate can be derived from OFSTED 2007/08 observation data quoted in a 2009 PQ answer. This suggests that only around 15% of primary lessons are organised on the basis of ability, whereas the comparable figure for the secondary sector is 45%. So, even in the secondary sector, the small majority of lessons is still likely to be mixed-ability.

There is a case for including within a review framework an expectation that setting will be considered, but only as part of a much wider-ranging assessment of school organisation, teacher deployment and classroom pedagogy. It doesn’t make sense to consider setting in splendid isolation.

As part of this process, schools would need to satisfy themselves that a decision to introduce setting would not inhibit them from narrowing achievement gaps. They might be invited to consider setting as a default element of their strategy if they have no evidence to suggest that an alternative arrangement would result in better achievement outcomes for their high achievers and their low achievers, especially (but not exclusively) those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Some Innovation Pointers

Such a framework should overtly encourage schools to experiment and innovate, to evaluate carefully and to learn from each other’s experience.

Ironically, while mainstream US opinion seems relatively wedded to tracking, US educators (and Australian educators too) have experimented much more thoroughly than England with hybrid solutions, innovative classroom grouping techniques and other promising approaches to organisation and differentiation.

Let us hope that the greater autonomy promised to schools here allows them to be equally innovative. They might begin by giving more serious attention to the potential of vertical grouping – where pupils are organised on the basis of achievement, but across year groups rather than within them. With one or two honourable exceptions vertical grouping is not deployed here as a means of improving differentiation, but rather as a pragmatic solution to small classes in rural schools.

And we could do with significantly more English school experience of cluster grouping, where the G&T pupils (or low achievers for that matter) are concentrated in a single mixed ability class with a specially trained teacher rather than being dispersed across a range of classes, so relatively isolated from opportunities to learn with their peers.

For the research demonstrates two things above all else:

  • There is no single right answer to the question how best to organise and differentiate within a school; and
  • We have very much more still to learn about what constitutes effective practice per se.


September 2010

On Ability Grouping and Gifted Education: Part 1

After a recent #gtchat on this subject and follow-up posts from fellow participants, I felt an urge to set out my own perspective on this vexed question.

I cannot pretend to have reviewed the voluminous research undertaken on both sides of the Atlantic, let alone worldwide, but what I have digested leads me to the comments below.

Before we summarise the research evidence, let us begin with three important pieces of context.



First – On Excellence and Equity

Regular readers will know my view that the balance between these two principles has a powerful impact on the nature of gifted education policy at all levels of our various education systems.

Like non-identical twins, excellence and equity are often found together. Dressed in various guises, they regularly find their way into politicians’ statements of their wider educational objectives. For example, England’s Secretary of State for Education maintains that his Government’s top educational priorities are ‘raising standards’ (aka excellence) and ‘narrowing gaps’ (aka equity). It wouldn’t take much effort to unearth similar statements from most of his opposite numbers around the developed world.

Politicians are often rather coy when asked to say whether one of these twins is more important to them than the other. They tend to be given equal billing regardless of party political viewpoint.

But, given a longer term perspective, they can be imagined more accurately as sitting at either end of a policy seesaw. At any particular time, one of the pair is usually in the ascendant, but it always seems as though that elevated status inevitably results in the other gaining ascendancy in its turn, though perhaps not until the next administration, or even the next but one.

Please excuse the dreadful mixing of metaphors but, as with G&T education – and other critical issues like school admission – ability grouping is sensitive territory. It forms part of the troubled borderlands of education policy where the twin principles of excellence and equity often clash and have to be reconciled (or, failing that, to coexist in a state of some tension).

Second – On Prescription and Autonomy

The squaring of excellence and equity within these educational badlands can be attempted within the declared education policy of the authority, state or country concerned, or it can be devolved to schools. This applies to ability grouping, gifted education or any similarly contentious issue where the twin issues are wrestling for ascendancy.

The second option – devolution – seemingly enables politicians to sidestep the issue, which is often attractive because the alternative centralised prescriptive approach risks leading them into hot water and/or requires a commitment of additional resources that they do not have to spare.

But it is not feasible to admit such reasons openly, so devolution tends to be justified on the grounds that the administration should not be fettering the discretion of the professionals. In the case of ability grouping, they will argue that it cannot be right for them to trespass in the secret garden of pedagogy (to use a phrase that will resonate with English educationalists). That is rightly the province of the school, which must be free to reach decisions without meddling governmental interference, taking full account of its unique circumstances and the particular needs of its pupils.

Both prescription and autonomy have their weaknesses. In the case of autonomy, the problem is that a government is typically accountable to an electorate for its education policies and will need at some point to demonstrate success in achieving its stated priorities. If too many schools act in a way that runs counter to those priorities, the government must either admit failure or – much more likely – use evidence selectively to put the best possible spin on affairs.

A sensible administration will not trust solely to their powers of communication however. If there is a chance that the collective decisions taken in schools will not deliver the outcome they stand for, they will also want to deploy the various ‘policy levers’ available to surreptitiously encourage schools towards the ‘right’ decision. Examples of such levers are the distribution of funding, or the inclusion of relevant issues within inspection and quality assurance processes, or a set of identified priorities for teachers’ professional development.

Sometimes there are inherent contradictions in a government’s policy that need to be reconciled. This is a problem regardless of whether prescription or autonomy is in the ascendant. In the case of autonomy, there is a strong risk of mixed messages, schools are divided over the best approach and policy levers are introduced that pull in different directions.

On occasions there can be policy contradictions and a conflict between prescription and autonomy. Before the recent General Election, the senior Conservative partners in what has become the Coalition Government committed to freeing teachers and schools from government interference (autonomy) and narrow gaps in performance between advantaged and disadvantaged learners (prescription, equity) and ensure that setting became much more prevalent in schools (prescription, excellence).

It will take some sleight of hand to pull off that particular trick, as we shall see. But maybe the commitment to setting has fallen by the wayside – it did not feature in the Coalition Government’s priorities for education reform and we wait to see whether it will reappear in the forthcoming Schools White Paper.

Third – On Terminology

A further similarity between ability grouping and G&T education is that different terminology is used in different parts of the world. This makes it much more likely that discussants will become disputants, because they do not share a common pedagogical language.

In the US context, one most often encounters the term ‘tracking’ and its rather inelegant antithesis ‘detracking’.

As I understand it, ‘tracking’ is typically used to mean dividing pupils into different educational programmes – either on the basis of ability or past achievement – which apply across all or most of the school experience. The equivalent term in the UK is ‘streaming’.

I cannot find recent and reliable data to illustrate how prevalent tracking is in the US. Some of the research studies imply that it has been almost universal in US high schools, at least until ‘detracking’ began in earnest around a decade ago. Conversely, while streaming was once popular in England, it now seems comparatively rare. It seems to survive in a few comprehensive schools that are competing with selective schools and so opt to establish a ‘grammar stream’ but is otherwise discarded as poor practice.

It is also unclear to what extent US tracking practice has morphed into what we in the UK call ‘setting’ – the grouping of pupils according to ability or achievement in specific subjects. As far as I can see, the stereotypical generic and tripartite tracking model in the US still seems common, but I stand to be corrected. Setting is much more prevalent in UK secondary schools, especially in the so-called ‘linear subjects’, and has also increased in primary schools, predominantly in the core subjects of English and maths.

‘Detracking’ is the process of dispensing ‘tracking’ in favour of exclusively mixed ability classes. The online literature implies that this is happening in many schools and states across the US but, yes you’ve guessed it, reliable data seems rather thin on the ground.

Tracking, setting and streaming all take place across the school, or at least across an entire year group within a school. They are therefore clearly distinct from ‘selection’ – which is the shorthand term we in the UK apply to approaches that sort pupils into different schools – and to ability grouping at the classroom level.

So, with our terminological differences out of the way, we can move on to consider what the vast body of research actually tells us about the effectiveness of tracking, detracking, streaming and setting.

Top Line Conclusions from the Research

The first and most obvious point is that the research conclusions are contested and – to be brutally honest – not always entirely objective. Put very crudely, those with an equity focus tend to marshal the arguments in such a way that helps them conclude that tracking/setting/streaming is detrimental to learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Conversely, those with an excellence perspective (including most gifted education researchers) tend to work towards the conclusion that it is markedly beneficial to high achievers, if not to G&T learners per se.

Both groups tend to downplay the evidence that does not fully support their position.

For a more balanced view I turned to an extensive and objective 2005 literature review for England’s education ministry. This concludes that the research worldwide can be interpreted as follows:

  • no single form of grouping benefits all pupils and there is little attainment advantage associated with setting – ie no significant difference between setting and mixed ability classes in overall attainment outcomes across all pupils
  • ‘at the extremes of attainment’ low-achieving pupils show more progress in mixed ability classes and high-achieving pupils show more progress in sets
  • lower sets tend to contain a disproportionate number of boys, pupils from those ethnic groups that tend to underachieve and pupils with SEN
  • there are aspirational and behavioural disadvantages to setting, predominantly amongst lower attainers and there is a correlation between disaffection and setting, particular for pupils in the lowest sets
  • higher sets are more likely to have experienced and highly-qualified teachers whereas lower sets experience more changes of teacher and are less likely to be taught by a specialist in the subject.

The terminology is tailored for a UK audience but these conclusions apply in equal measure to tracking versus mixed ability settings. Since the gains of high achievers are offset by the losses to low achievers – and middle achievers tend to do broadly the same in either scenario – neither setting nor tracking has little overall impact on the raising of standards (excellence).

However, compared with mixed ability teaching, setting and tracking tend to increase performance gaps between high achievers and low achievers per se. Moreover, because pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are found disproportionately in the lower sets or tracks, this serves to widen socio-economic achievement gaps (equity), as well as some ethnic minority achievement gaps and the gender gap between girls and boys.

Next Time

In Part 2 we will look more closely at some of the issues beneath these headlines – playing back into the mix the wider contextual issues above. But, for now, my point is this: we, as an international community of gifted educators, ought to be prepared to accept this as the broad baseline consensual position, rather than holding on to an alternative and partial version of reality that is focused too narrowly and exclusively on the needs of gifted learners.


September 2010

Celebrating the PENTA UC Programme in Chile

The Centre for the Study of Talent Development (Centro de Estudios y Desarrollo de Talentos) is based at the Santiago campus of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile).

It is also known as PENTA UC, after its principal service: an intensive enrichment programme which began in 2001 and currently supports about 950 11-18 year-olds, some 70% of them drawn from ordinary state schools in and around Santiago. The vast majority (93% at the last count) graduate from the programme, many to take up undergraduate places at the University.

PENTA UC is designed to complement students’ normal schooling. Participants enrol on five courses and three workshops annually, spread across Friday afternoon/Saturday sessions and a two-week summer school. This is equivalent to some 300 hours a year.

I first encountered PENTA UC in World Conference seminars given by its staff. But I did not appreciate the level it had reached until I came across its website while researching an article on G&T education in the Americas.


Potential participants go through a structured identification and selection process with two slightly different routes depending on whether they are nominated by their school or by their parents.

The Centre invites all teachers responsible for co-ordinating the school-based nominations process to a training day designed to help them identify the students most likely to benefit from PENTA UC. The co-ordinators cascade their training to other teachers, so ensuring that nomination is undertaken by each school as a whole.

Alternatively, parents can nominate their children direct to the University. Both routes converge when nominated students attend the a selection day. They take a range of tests to assess their general cognitive skills and motivation. Final selection takes into account the students’ family income. Most students are admitted to the first year of the programme, but older students can be admitted to subsequent years if there are vacancies.


PENTA UC seeks to strengthen students’ learning skills, support their personal and social development and improve their self-confidence and self-esteem. It is designed specifically to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to overcome their difficulties and so fulfil their academic potential.

Students are offered a broad curriculum, including subject-specific and cross-curricular courses, skills development (including IT skills and English language training) and personal development workshops. There are also opportunities to develop wider interests through activities such as drama, chess, sports, art and music.

Students choose their own courses, guided by their nominated co-ordinator, who also acts as the link with their families. The co-ordinator monitors students’ progress, providing support where it is needed and ensuring the right level of challenge is maintained throughout the programme. The co-ordinator will sometimes work directly with individual students to address significant concerns.

The academic programme is largely determined by the topics offered by teachers. PENTA UC currently employs 109 teachers, 40% of them drawn from the University Faculty. The remainder are subject experts drawn from the wider community.

All courses are planned and developed with the involvement of Centre staff, to ensure a consistent pedagogical approach. Most take place on the University campus – students have access to its laboratories, computer rooms, library and sporting facilities.

A typical semester programme will include courses in maths, physics, chemistry, astronomy, architecture, biology, language, history, psychology, philosophy, economics and sociology. Many courses include field trips to locations where the students can experience the practical application of ideas they have studied in the classroom. Outstanding students even have the opportunity of early access to undergraduate courses.


The programme is divided into two main cycles, one for older and one for younger students. The academic year comprises two semesters and a summer school.

Each semester, students attend courses weekly from 15:00 to 18:00 on Fridays and from 9:00 to 12:00 on Saturdays. There is also a Saturday workshop from 12:00 to 14:00, giving a weekly commitment of eight hours in total, for a duration of 15 weeks. This is equivalent to 240 hours of study.

The Summer School takes place in the first half of January (this is the Southern Hemisphere). Students attend an intensive course from 9:00 to 13:00 from Monday to Friday supplemented by cultural and recreational activities on some afternoons. This amounts to 60 hours in total.

Each year of study includes:

  • An induction day for all newly-admitted students and their families with a formal welcome ceremony, a tour of the university campus and a ‘course fair’ where students get details of the courses and workshops available in the upcoming semester prior to choosing those they wish to attend. There is also a separate parental briefing, intended to secure their commitment to students’ continuing involvement in the programme.
  • A ‘learning fair’ at the end of the second semester when students present the work they have undertaken to fellow students, their parents, teachers and headteachers and the wider community.
  • A graduation ceremony for students leaving the final year of the programme. Each student receives a diploma: 2007 was the first year in which students graduated who had attended throughout their time in school.

Support for teaching staff and other services

All newly-appointed lecturers and experts receive initial advice about course design, development and evaluation, as well as more generic guidance on meeting the needs of gifted students. Detailed handbooks are available for all staff (and also for students).

Classroom observations are undertaken each semester and all course leaders receive feedback from a supervisor about what they do well and how they might improve. There are also more general training courses each semester, as well as opportunities for course leaders to provide more general feedback.

In 2008, the Centre introduced a ‘PENTA UC Honours Scholarship’ which meets the entire cost of completing an undergraduate degree at the University. To be eligible for this award, students must have attended the programme for at least five years, come from a low-income family and achieve a score of at least 750 on the university selection test.

Since 2003, the Centre has offered advice and support to other universities wishing to set up their own programmes on the PENTA UC model. Similar undertakings are now in place at five other institutions.

The Centre opens up its summer school to a wider student intake which uses the same screening process as the year-round programme. The summer-only students attend courses alongside the regular students.

It has also recently developed a school-based programme for younger gifted pupils, designed to strengthen their mathematical, language, creative and analytical skills.

The Centre offers a variety of courses for serving teachers, including a distance learning option and an innovative internship model which involves teachers attending PENTA UC as a student for a semester, then using the experience to develop gifted programmes for introduction in their own schools.

There is also a a regular programme of lectures and workshops for professionals and a counselling and guidance service for students and their families.

A small-scale research programme is maintained with support from post-doctoral students recruited from outside Chile. Studies typically inform the evaluation and development of the PENTA UC model in the light of wider thinking about effective gifted education worldwide.

Final thoughts

Much of this post has been sourced from materials translated by computer from Spanish. I apologise for any mistakes in the detail which arise from this process. Readers wishing to access further details in the original language can find the main website here.

Those of us who have been involved in researching, designing and managing similar centres and programmes worldwide will recognise as familiar most of the elements of PENTA UC. But it is comparatively rare for all of them to be secured and sustained in a single organisation – especially one with the longevity of PENTA UC. We can potentially learn much from its experience.

It would be wrong to regard Chile as a developing country – it is relatively wealthy compared with many of its South American neighbours – but disadvantaged students in Santiago typically face significantly higher levels of deprivation than we experience in the bigger cities of Europe, the United States and Australasia, where the majority of similar entities have been established. Moreover, PENTA UC is making a real difference to the life chances of poor Chileans, while many similar operations in richer countries benefit disproportionately the wealthy middle classes.

PENTA UC will not be perfect by any means: I am sure that its leaders have already identified several shortcomings that they wish to eliminate as the Centre prepares to enter its second decade. Such commitment to honest self-evaluation and improvement is laudatory.

I don’t want this review to sound patronising, but to have introduced and sustained so sophisticated an operation in a country of just 17 million inhabitants seems to me a really tremendous achievement that deserves to be widely known and even more widely celebrated.


September 2010

On the Composition of Gifted and Talented Populations

The English School Census

I have been reviewing the most recently published data on England’s national gifted and talented population.

This provisional analysis (in Tables 6A-C of SFR 09/2010) is drawn from the January 2010 School Census.

Maintained schools currently complete a termly census which includes a question requiring a snapshot of their gifted and talented populations.

It would be good to have a second question giving a breakdown between gifted and talented respectively. Crudely speaking, we use those terms to distinguish academic ability on one hand and practical talent – whether in sports, arts, vocational skills, leadership – on the other.

But there is constant pressure to minimise the bureaucratic burden that the Census imposes on schools and we have been fortunate to retain the one question we have since 2006.

This single question is more helpful than it may seem. The statisticians can cross-reference G&T status against many other variables by using the unique pupil identifiers that are built into our system.

The G&T question – and indeed the Census as a whole – is sure to be under review by the new Coalition Government, committed as it is to radical pruning of what it perceives to be ‘needless bureaucracy’. So this may be the last set of national gifted and talented data.

Some general data about English schools and their pupils

Overseas readers may welcome a short treatment of the generic data in this publication. It gives a sense of the scale of the English school sector relative to national or state systems with which they are familiar – and sets the context for the G&T-specific data to follow.

  • We have around 8.1million pupils, including 4.1million in state-funded primary schools, 3.3million in state-funded secondary schools and 0.6 million in the independent sector;
  • There are about 17,000 state-funded primary schools, 3,100 state-funded secondary schools and 2,400 independent schools;
  • Some 18.5% of pupils in state-funded nursery and primary schools and 15.4% of those in state-funded secondary schools are eligible for free school meals. (This is our standard indicator of socio-economic disadvantage);
  • Just over 25% of pupils in our state-funded primary schools are of minority ethnic origin, as are over 21% of those in our state-funded secondary schools; and about one in six primary school pupils and one in nine secondary school pupils has a first language other than English.

Data about the gifted and talented population

In the January 2010 snapshot, there were 366,000 identified gifted and talented pupils in primary schools and 477,000 in secondary schools, giving a total of 843,000. (The data does not include nursery, special and independent schools or the further education sector but – were it to do so – the overall English gifted and talented population would probably be around one million learners.)

This is 8.9% of all state-funded primary school pupils and 14.7% of all state-funded secondary school pupils. So roughly one in eleven primary pupils and one in seven secondary pupils is identified as gifted and talented.

While secondary schools are expected to identify all those who meet our published criteria for the national top 5% of gifted learners (which focus predominantly on high achievers and urgently need updating), all schools are otherwise free to determine their G&T populations in line with a broad framework for identification set out in the guidance.

Thus primary schools have full flexibility within this framework, while secondary schools have flexibility with regard to:

  • talented learners
  • high achievers who do not quite meet the 5% criteria
  • learners with high ability which is not yet translated into high achievement.

This level of school autonomy is often criticised as a weakness – because identification can be variable depending on which school a learner is attending (and by no means all schools follow best identification practice) – but it is very much consistent with the bottom-up approach to education reform preferred by the Coalition Government.

The tables show that the total G&T population has increased from 780,000 in 2008 and 820,000 in 2009 continuing a year-on-year improvement since the data was first collected.

This will be partly attributable to a clearer understanding of the flexibilities outlined above (many schools mistakenly believed that they could identify no more than 10% of their pupils) and a fall in the number of schools – especially primary schools – which refuse to identify on ideological grounds.

The composition of the gifted and talented population

In terms of gender, very slightly more boys than girls are identified in primary schools, but the reverse is true in secondary schools where the imbalance is slightly more pronounced. These proportions have changed little over the last three years.

Turning to ethnic background, the most outstanding feature is that pupils of Chinese origin are very heavily over-represented in schools’ gifted and talented populations, with over 20% of all primary-age pupils and over a quarter of all secondary-age pupils identified.

White pupils are slightly over-represented in G&T populations in both sectors, but this masks serious under-representation of gypsy, Roma and traveller populations – the worst-performing group in English schools.

There is some degree of under- and over-representation for other minority ethnic groups, but overall we find that 24% of the G&T population in the primary sector and 19% of the secondary sector G&T population come from a minority ethnic background – not wildly out of kilter with the figures for minority ethnic incidence in the sectors as a whole.

When it comes to socio-economic background, we see that 12.1% of the gifted and talented population are eligible for free school meals (compared with 18.5% of all pupils in nursery and primary schools). This represents 6.2% of all pupils eligible for free school meals.

There was, however, a significant increase in the proportion of FSM-eligible G&T pupils in 2010 compared with previous years.

In the secondary sector, only 7.2% of the gifted and talented population are eligible for free school meals (compared with 15.4% of all pupils in secondary schools). This is some 7.5% of all pupils eligible for free school meals. This is a slight improvement on previous years.

So, to summarise:

  • gender balance is good
  • ethnic balance is good overall, but masks significant under- and over-representation in certain minority ethnic groups and
  • the socio-economically disadvantaged are significantly under-represented, especially so in the secondary sector, but there has been some improvement, particularly in the primary sector.

Is this a problem?

Our English identification guidance starts from the broad but vitally important premiss that ability (not achievement) is evenly distributed across the school population, regardless of gender, ethnic and socio-economic background.

It suggests that schools’ G&T populations should broadly reflect their intakes as a whole arguing that, if there is significant under-representation, this is probably evidence that the school is over-emphasising attainment in their identification procedures rather than underlying ability.

In other words, they are not managing to pick out their underachievers, including those underachieving as a consequence of social disadvantage.

It also advises that they look carefully at the breakdown of their populations – to ensure that they do not compensate for under-representation on the gifted side by over-representation amongst their talented students.

To put it crudely, they must ensure that their gifted population is not exclusively white/Chinese/advantaged and that poor and black students are not only found amongst those with sporting talent.

An expert in the field once told me that under-representation of disadvantaged groups, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, is a problem the world over and that no-one has cracked the problem. Where there is an attainment gap between rich and poor, it is almost inescapable that this will be reflected in any identified G&T population, so identification of such a population is of limited value.

We will return to the second half of that statement in a future post. As for the first part, I have no firm evidence but I like to think that the English policy has resulted in a more balanced population than exists in many other countries.

I often wonder why it has not been adopted elsewhere since, although by no means perfect, it is very much preferable to the alternative: implicit acceptance that gifts and talents are unevenly bestowed between different genders, races and classes.

Clearly our approach has not been a complete success. This is probably because:

  • some schools see it as an ideological imposition which fetters their discretion to identify G&T learners on the basis of their intimate knowledge of those learners;
  • there is a continuing tendency in weaker schools to over-emphasise attainment data in the identification process and/or place over-reliance on identification instruments which are culturally biased;
  • there is less understanding than there might be of the way in which different class, ethnic and cultural norms impact on the demonstration – and sometimes deliberate masking – of learners’ gifts and talents.

I firmly believe we must all renew our efforts to address anomalies in the composition of G&T groups, whether at school, state or national level.

Gifted and talented programmes can potentially be valuable policy tools for governments that seek to narrow the excellence gap and improve social mobility (and G&T programmes will only be taken seriously by many governments in that guise).

But, conversely, G&T programmes could just as easily serve to widen such gaps rather than narrow them. In which case, they are part of the problem, not part of the solution – and become particularly vulnerable to closure when spending cuts are most severe.


September 2010

The Transatlantic Excellence Gap: Part 3 – Social Mobility Through Fair Access to Higher Education

How the Excellence Gap and Fair Access are Related

In Part 1 we looked at the excellence gap in the US; in Part 2 we considered evidence of a similar gap in the UK and asked whether the Coalition Government’s education policy would help to narrow it.

Michael Gove refers repeatedly to the fact that very few disadvantaged young people enter our top universities, giving even greater prominence to this persistent, concrete and much-debated manifestation of the excellence gap.

While the relatively lower attainment of bright but poor applicants isn’t the sole cause of social bias in application for and entry to selective universities, it is the main cause. Hence any policy intervention must help to improve the pre-university attainment of such students so they can compete with their more advantaged peers.

In the UK the issue of admission to our selective universities – including Oxford, Cambridge, the rest of the so-called ‘Russell Group’ and some others – is commonly labelled ‘fair access’, ie about securing the fair access of under-represented groups.

It is one facet of the broader issue of widening participation in higher education as a whole.

As a higher education matter, fair access falls within the remit of Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. Gove has a clear interest, but not the lead responsibility.

Many had expected ministerial responsibility for universities to be restored to the education portfolio when the new Cabinet was appointed, but this did not happen.

Since securing fair access depends critically on co-ordinating the admissions-driven ‘pull’ from universities and the achievement-driven ‘push’ from schools and colleges (to which many students transfer between the ages 16-19), this significant obstacle will need to be overcome if we are to see any real improvement.

If we add to this the autonomy of competitive universities over admissions, which is jealously guarded, plus the Coalition Government’s enthusiasm for greater institutional autonomy in the school and college sectors, the path towards co-ordinated system-wide improvement seems fraught with difficulty.

Like many higher education matters, fair access is currently ‘parked’ while the Government awaits the outcomes of the Browne Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, due in Autumn 2010.

As we saw in Part 2, the Government is publicly committed to consider Browne’s recommendations ‘against the need to… increase social mobility…and attract a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds’.

The review was instigated in November 2009 by Peter Mandelson, Vince Cable’s predecessor, on behalf of the former Labour Government. The terms of reference make clear that, in considering finance and funding options, it should take into account ‘promoting fair access to all institutions’.

Browne issued a call for proposals which notes that, while there is evidence of good progress over the last five years in widening participation in the HE sector as a whole, ‘there appears to have been less progress in widening access to the most selective institutions despite considerable efforts by these institutions to improve the position’.

This is a cautious understatement of the damning evidence reported in a parallel review of fair access, conducted by Sir Martin Harris, Director of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) which Browne’s terms of reference require it to take into account. We shall look briefly at Harris’ recommendations later in this post.

Meanwhile, Vince Cable has offered Browne a few gentle steers of his own. In July 2010, he made a speech on Universities which floats the notion of quotas (‘For example, what would be the pros and cons of colleges reserving places for a certain number of pupils from each of a wide range of schools?’).

This is noteworthy, given that quota systems received short shrift under Labour. For example, the Milburn review (see later) expressly rejected them, having drawn attention to US models developed at Harvard Medical School and the University of Texas. Browne may feel obliged to address the issue given that Cable has raised it, paying due regard to the views of Harris.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. To understand the detail it is necessary to sketch in the bigger picture. Any relationship between fair access, the excellence gap and gifted and talented education will be determined within a much bigger political agenda: social mobility.

Social Mobility – a Priority for the Coalition Government

In August 2010, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister gave a wide-ranging speech on social mobility, marking the first 100 days of the new Coalition Government.

His speech outlines a direction of travel rather than a finished policy. Key points include:

  • The Government’s short-term agenda is dominated by the need to control public expenditure, but it also has a necessarily longer term agenda to improve inter-generational social mobility.
  • Labour failed to achieve this because their objectives were confused and unclear. They relied over much on ‘standardised, centralised, universal solutions rather than putting power and resources in the hands of those who need them most’.
  • The role of further and higher education is identified as one of five key sources of social segregation – alongside the impact of background on educational attainment and three other dimensions: early years education, parental engagement in their children’s education and access to the professions.
  • The Government is drawing up its own ‘comprehensive social mobility strategy’ through a ministerial group chaired by Clegg himself. Alan Milburn is appointed an ‘independent expert reviewer’ who will report annually to Parliament on the Government’s progress, starting in September 2011.

The adoption of independent annual progress reviews rather gives the lie to Clegg’s insistence that improving social mobility is predominantly a long-term strategy. This Government will be under pressure to demonstrate tangible evidence of progress, including any ‘quick wins’ that are achievable in the next 4-5 years.

Since fair access is potentially one such relatively ‘quick win’, we might expect it to have some prominence within the Coalition Government’s Social Mobility strategy. It is a high profile indicator of progress in which the media takes a keen interest (that is why Gove references it so regularly).

In order to secure such a win however, the Government must give priority to a coherent support package for relatively small numbers of academically gifted but socially disadvantaged 14-19 year-olds.

Positioning Fair Access and Gifted Education Within Social Mobility Policy

The Coalition Government’s interest in social mobility was shared by the previous Labour Government. Clegg’s Ministerial Group will face the difficult task of moulding a coherent and workable strategy that is discernibly different from Labour’s: this cannot simply be a matter of ‘putting power and resources in the hands of those who need them most’.

One concrete action they could take would be to bring fair access and gifted education together into a coherent cross-Departmental policy for the support of academically gifted young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This would make a virtue of the significant overlap between the two policy agendas while continuing to recognise the much wider focus of gifted and talented education on one hand and of widening participation in higher education on the other.

There was an opportunity missed to secure this under Labour, through Alan Milburn’s wide-ranging report on fair access to the professions.

But Milburn recommended instead translating the entire national gifted and talented programme into a much broader-based aspiration-raising concept, so providing an umbrella for several of the report’s more specific recommendations for additional mentor support, work tasters and activities to develop ‘soft skills’.

No substantive justification was offered for this attempt to hijack the G&T programme. The few arguments advanced are confused. For example, the claim that funding for the existing programme is too thinly spread is used to justify spreading it more thinly still!

In the event, it mattered little. Although the Labour Government accepted most of Milburn’s recommendations in its generic January 2010 response (arguing that the reforms it was already introducing for the G&T programme would bring it into line with Milburn’s vision) – the General Election was called shortly afterwards.

The Harris Report on Fair Access

Unfortunately, the April 2010 Harris Report – ‘What More Can be done to Widen Access to Selective Universities’ , also fails to make the case for bringing fair access and gifted education into closer relationship.

Harris suggests at one point that the education department’s responsibilities are outside his remit, but this does not stop him from making at least one recommendation directed towards it. In fact his terms of reference include: ‘how best to promote the partnership of schools and universities to identify and mentor the most talented young people from an early age’.

He is certainly seized of the importance of strategic co-ordination and sustained intervention:

‘And indeed, the essential core of my recommendations is that selective universities, almost certainly working in groups to maximise regional coverage and of course in close partnership with schools-based colleagues, should take substantial further steps to identify, at the earliest possible time, those young people of talent from poorer families with least experience of higher education – those ‘most able but least likely’ to apply to such universities. I have suggested that the process must start not later than the end of year 9, when curricular decisions are made which, as we have seen, may have far-reaching consequences for students…..Clearly very close collaboration between universities and schools is needed to identify those young people most likely to benefit from such intensive support and then to provide the intensive, independent advice and guidance – pastoral, curricular and financial – that all commentators agree is essential if real progress is to be made.’

But he fails entirely to recognise the potentially valuable contributionoffered by gifted education, even though this is prominent in some of the earlier documents he will have reviewed when compiling his own.

For example, the October 2008 report by the Sutton Trust for the National Council of Educational Excellence ‘Increasing higher education participation amongst disadvantaged young people and schools in poor communities’ offers a wide-ranging review of the evidence and a coherent set of recommendations, including that ‘all schools should have an effective gifted and talented programme which makes links to higher education institutions’

This was further developed in the Government’s own publication – the rather clumsily titled NCEE Implementation Plan for the Higher Education Mobilisation Strand:

‘…officials will work closely together to ensure that the Government response to NCEE’s recommendations draws them together into a coherent policy, so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and the relationship between HE, colleges and schools is strengthened significantly. This will ensure better progression for all learners, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds who have the potential to progress to our most competitive universities. They will benefit in particular from work across DIUS and DCSF [the two Government Departments responsible] to build a stronger relationship between support for gifted and talented learners in schools and colleges and the promotion of fair access to HE’.

So what are the prospects for gifted education in the new social mobility strategy?

While there may not be full consensus about the best course of action to improve fair access, most parties are broadly agreed that action should be co-ordinated:

  • across the school, college and HE sectors
  • across the government departments responsible for schools and HE respectively
  • geographically and across different initiatives, to ensure economies of scale, efficiency and elimination of duplication

It should also be drawn together into a single, sustainable support framework for the ‘most able least likely’ (ie least likely to apply and achieve entry to a competitive university) that addresses the full range of their needs, beginning in Year 9 and continuing right through the HE entry, spanning any transition into a post-16 institution.

Strengthening attainment is of paramount importance, but other dimensions include aspiration-raising, the development of soft skills, and the provision of high-quality, relevant and timely information, advice and guidance.

This is very close to the design of the targeted support dimension in the current gifted and talented programme. A flexible framework of this kind – funded by matched sums from the pupil premium (additional school funding that will follow the disadvantaged pupil) and universities’ funding for disadvantaged students’ bursaries – could lead to a significant improvement in Gove’s favourite statistic within the lifetime of this Government.

It remains to be seen whether something of this kind will emerge from either the Browne Review or Clegg’s wider Social Mobility Strategy. Given the obstacles noted above, advocates may have their work cut out to persuade Government of the case.

But this should not stop the apologists for gifted education and fair access from making common cause.


August 2010