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


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