An International Online Network for Gifted Education Researchers?

This Post is a thinkpiece on the potential development of an international online network to support research – and ideally teaching – in gifted and talented education.


Some weeks ago, I had a very interesting conversation with an old colleague, Tony Crocker, in an Oxford hostelry.

Tony is Honorary Professor at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff and editor of an annual journal ‘Gifted and Talented’ which he undertook initially under the auspices of the UK’s National Association for Gifted Children and subsequently as an independent endeavour.

He also publishes ‘Gifted and Talented Abstracts’, originally part of the journal but later a separate entity. The abstracts were for some years funded by England’s education ministry as part of its grant to the NAGC, but the work is now undertaken by UWIC where Tony is based. The annaul cost is a small four-figure sum. The most recent edition – Volume 14 – was published in August 2010.

The ‘Abstracts’ is an annual compilation from a large number of international journals in gifted education – all those known to Tony that agree to take part – as well as hundreds of articles from other education journals. They have always been published only on paper or DVD and are currently available by order from UWIC at a cost of between £10 and £18 depending on format and postage, thus generating some limited income which is offset against the costs.

Readers who are interested can order the latest edition from Dr G Davies, UWIC, Cyncoed Campus, Cyncoed, Cardiff CF2 36XD, UK. Enquiries should be directed to Tony at

Tony and I met to discuss some ideas for making the Abstracts available online. As we explored how best to do this, it became apparent that there is considerable potential in positioning the Abstracts within an online network supporting research in G&T education – and particularly the work of an emerging generation of younger researchers currently engaged on postgraduate degrees.

I undertook to develop some initial thinking about how this might be accomplished, and to share this with Tony and with a wider readership through an initial mindmap and post on this Blog.

The mindmap is reproduced below and is also accessible here in case the reproduced image is insufficiently clear. It is published as a ‘work in progress’ with the deliberate intention of generating comment and contribution from others with an interest in gifted education research. The remainder of this post sets out the initial thinking captured in the mindmap.

Why bother?

During our discussion, we identified several good reasons to propose such a network:

  • The Abstracts are a very useful resource and should be more widely available. They might be particularly helpful to young and/or inexperienced researchers who are relatively less familiar with the canon, but all researchers in the field would benefit from having them at their fingertips – and preferably in an easily manageable online format.
  • There is currently limited online support for networking and collaboration between G&T education researchers. The main international organisation supporting research – the IRATDE – currently relies significantly on relatively traditional methods. It organises face-to-face conferences and symposia, an online journal and newsletter, although its published aims also refer to maintaining a database. Other organisations such as ECHA, the World Council and ICIE, which support researchers as part a wider stakeholder group, are also typically traditional in their approach
  • There is evidence online to support the argument that a social networking approach can help to meet the needs of researchers and research students, by providing them with a platform to share and discuss findings, establish partnerships and undertake collaborative activity while geographically distant. Use of an online platform also has significant cost advantages over more traditional forms of collaboration.
  • A recent EPPI study of international research in G&T education undertaken in the UK showed that the overall quality of the gifted education research canon leaves something to be desired. (The EPPI approach requires research reviews to reject studies that do not have a robust methodology including properly evaluated outcomes.) By making research studies more widely available – and by providing tools to assess and share perspectives on their relative quality – it should be possible to help lever up research standards overall
  • As the internet develops as an educational tool, there is increasing interest in making research findings freely available rather than publishing only in hard copy and/or charging a fee to readers. A social networking approach could help to ensure wider awareness of those resources that are freely available and bring pressure to bear on those who continue to charge. It might even be possible to negotiate free access to priced resources for members of such a network, many of whom will not be able to afford the sums routinely charged by publishers.

What kind of online platform is needed?

Before setting up a network of this kind, one must consider where and how it should be hosted. There are five broad options:

  • use an existing educational social network platform such as edWeb or brainify
  • develop a new customised platform, on the grounds that none of the above is ideal.

There are pros and cons for each of these and the choice will depend on factors such as: the specific objectives of the project and the relative priority attached to them; whether the research network is to stand alone or be embedded within something bigger; and a thorough assessment of the balance of costs and benefits.

We are not yet at that stage but, having conducted a fleeting review of the options, my preliminary assessment is that researchgate provides a baseline service which other options must exceed to be viable alternatives.

Researchgate incorporates the following elements:

  • a detailed profile page enabling researchers to share their personal details, including their research skills and experience
  • the means to upload journal articles, book chapters and conference proceedings – to rank and review such articles – and to import and export this library to and from the platform
  • the means to find and and import references from a publications database
  • the means to log events and to monitor the events logged by others
  • a personal blog with the option to post a microarticle – halfway between an abstract and a full article – or a general blogpost
  • a contacts list and the capacity to send messages to anyone on the list
  • a board on which to share details of available jobs
  • the option to form groups of members and join groups established by others, using discussion boards and shared files and documents to communicate and collaborate and
  • a network graph that provides a visual representation of one’s personal network

Researchgate currently has just five members who register an involvement with gifted education and no gifted education groups. It provides abstracts of 275 articles relevant to gifted education but just four journals.This suggests that there is considerable scope to expand the membership, if only by ensuring that all members of IRATDE are actively engaged.

What other services and tools would it helpful for a platform to offer?

There are four overlapping areas in which the researchgate service could be improved, by including the capacity to:

  • connect to a wide range of external services rather than being confined only to those supplied through the host platform
  • build links between researchgate and other educational services, so that a fruitful two-way relationship can be established with professional development activity and wider online learning (since research is of relatively little value as an end in itself)
  • draw in more visual and multimedia resources (since researchgate is predominantly a word-based service) which would make it possible to organise and run online conferences and workshops, webinars and podcasts
  • deploy a much wider range of tools that would help researchers to undertake their role, including, for example, collaborative mindmapping and concept mapping resources, project management tools, the capacity to design and administer online polls and questionnaires, tools to support evaluation design, even a facility to bring crowdsourcing to bear on difficult problems.

How can this be financially sustainable?

Researchgate is currently a free service, but naturally it does not offer the additional ‘bells and whistles’ listed above – and free services often have a need to acquire income-generating capacity once they have built up a critical mass of dependent users.

But if researchgate could be combined with an e-learning and professional development arm, there is much greater scope to sell research outputs in the form of learning opportunities of various kinds. As indicated above, the option of charging for research itself seems to militate against the overall aims of improving the amount of research activity, the quality of researchers and of the research that they generate.

If a customised platform was designed specifically for gifted education researchers, the costs of that undertaking would need to be recouped through a charging mechanism, possibly combined with income generated through advertising revenue. It is questionable whether the gifted education research community has the critical mass to justify such an investment.

Assuming it does, one other option could be to develop a consultancy and bidding arm of the service which might subsidise some or all of the costs, on the basis that they are utilised to support the delivery of the outputs paid for by customers.

What next?

This is a thinkpiece and not a well-wrought proposal. If it has potential for development and is attractive to others, the next step must involve asking young researchers how we can best support them, for any network must be designed primarily to meet their needs.

It would be great if, by this means, we could find a way of making Tony’s Gifted Abstracts more widely available, while continuing to cover the costs of producing them

In the short term, there may be another solution to that narrower problem. One option that emerges naturally from a social networking approach is to devolve, distribute and democratise the task, by inviting the gifted education research community to undertake the process voluntarily through researchgate.


December 2010

PISA 2009: International Comparisons of Gifted High Achievers’ Performance

This post is an initial review of what PISA 2009 tells us about the performance of gifted high achievers in England and other English-speaking countries compared with the countries at the top of the PISA 2009 rankings.

It concentrates on what we can deduce from the figures rather than causation: that will be addressed in subsequent posts. It examines:

  • average performance by country, including changes between PISA 2006 and PISA 2009
  • the performance of high achievers, comparing the relative results of different countries in 2009 and how those have changed since PISA 2006
  • relative differences between the performance of high achievers and average performance by country – expressed in terms of rankings – and how those have altered between 2006 and 2009.

The twelve countries and regions included in the analysis are the highest performers – Hong Hong (China), Korea, Taiwan, Finland and, for 2009 only, Shanghai (China) and Singapore – plus Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand the UK and the USA.

I should state at the outset that I am not a statistician: this is a lay analysis and I apologise in advance for any transcription errors. Nevertheless, I hope it reveals some significant findings, including points which have received scant attention in the wider media coverage of the PISA results.

Background to PISA

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial OECD survey of the performance of 15 year-old students in science, mathematics and reading. Science was the main focus in 2006; reading is the main focus in 2009.

Fifty-seven countries took part in PISA 2006; a total of sixty-seven countries have taken part in PISA 2009. The effect of this increase in numbers on rankings should be borne in mind, especially the inclusion of very high-performing areas, notably Shanghai and Singapore.

It is also worth noting at the outset that PISA rankings do not reflect the overall numbers of students achieving specific levels: a small country that has a high percentage of its students achieving a high achievement level outscores a bigger country with a lower percentage of high achievers, even though the overall number of high achievers in the bigger country is greater.

PISA assesses reading, scientific, mathematical literacy. It is important to have a clear understanding of exactly what is being assessed, not least so we can understand to what extent this differs from the nature of our own national assessments.

If a country’s national assessments are congruent with PISA then it will be likely to perform much better in PISA than a similar country which is domestically focused on quite different priorities.

According to the PISA 2009 Assessment Framework:

Reading literacy…is defined in terms of students’ ability to understand, use and reflect on written text to achieve their purposes…the capacity not just to understand a text but to reflect on it, drawing on one’s own thoughts and experiences. In PISA, reading literacy is assessed in relation to the:

Text format…continuous texts or prose organised in sentences and paragraphs…non-continuous texts that present information in other ways, such as in lists, forms, graphs, or diagrams… a range of prose forms, such as narration, exposition and argumentation…both print and electronic texts…these distinctions are based on the principle that individuals will encounter a range of written material in their civic and work-related adult life (e.g. application, forms, advertisements) and that it is not sufficient to be able to read a limited number of types of text typically encountered in school.

Reading processes (aspects): Students are not assessed on the most basic reading skills, as it is assumed that most 15-year-old students will have acquired these. Rather, they are expected to demonstrate their proficiency in accessing and retrieving information, forming a broad general understanding of the text, interpreting it, reflecting on its contents and reflecting on its form and features.

Situations: These are defined by the use for which the text was constructed. For example, a novel, personal letter or biography is written for people’s personal use; official documents or announcements for public use; a manual or report for occupational use; and a textbook or worksheet for educational use. Since some groups may perform better in one reading situation than in another, it is desirable to include a range of types of reading in the assessment items.

Mathematical literacy… is concerned with the ability of students to analyse, reason, and communicate ideas effectively as they pose, formulate, solve, and interpret solutions to mathematical problems in a variety of situations. The PISA mathematics assessment has, so far, been designed in relation to the:

Mathematical content: This is defined mainly in terms of four overarching ideas (quantity, space and shape, change and relationships, and uncertainty) and only secondarily in relation to curricular strands (such as numbers, algebra and geometry).

Mathematical processes: These are defined by individual mathematical competencies. These include the use of mathematical language, modelling and problem-solving skills…

Situations: These are defined in terms of the ones in which mathematics is used, based on their distance from the students. The framework identifies five situations: personal, educational, occupational, public and scientific.

However, a major revision of the PISA mathematics framework is currently underway in preparation for the PISA 2012 assessment.

Scientific literacy… is defined as the ability to use scientific knowledge and processes not only to understand the natural world but to participate in decisions that affect it. The PISA science assessment is designed in relation to:

Scientific knowledge or concepts: These constitute the links that aid understanding of related phenomena. In PISA, while the concepts are the familiar ones relating to physics, chemistry, biological sciences and earth and space sciences, they are applied to the content of the items and not just recalled.

Scientific processes: These are centred on the ability to acquire, interpret and act upon evidence. Three such processes present in PISA relate to: 1) describing, explaining and predicting scientific phenomena, 2) understanding scientific investigation, and 3) interpreting scientific evidence and conclusions.

Situations or contexts: These concern the application of scientific knowledge and the use of scientific processes applied. The framework identifies three main areas: science in life and health, science in Earth and environment, and science in technology.’

Defining high achievers in PISA

PISA performance scales are designed so that the average student score in OECD countries is 500 or thereabouts. Student performance is divided into 6 proficiency levels (only 5 for reading in PISA 2006), defined in terms of the competences demonstrated by students achieving that level.


In PISA 2006 in reading, the highest proficiency level 5 was achieved by 8.6% of OECD students with a lower score limit of 625.6. In PISA 2009 a level 6 was introduced (lower score limit of 698.3) which was achieved by 0.8% of OECD students. Levels 5 and 6 combined (lower score limit of 625.6) was achieved by 7.6% of OECD students. This analysis assumes therefore that levels 5 and 6 together in 2009 can be compared with level 5 in 2006.

We can conclude that overall higher level performance in OECD countries fell by 1.0% between 2006 and 2009. This may well be attributable to changes in the level of demand in the assessment framework rather than an overall dip in performance.

According to the PISA 2009 Assessment Framework (or the PISA Results book Volume I in the case of reading) tasks at level 6:

‘typically require the reader to make multiple inferences, comparisons and contrasts that are both detailed and precise. They require demonstration of a full and detailed understanding of one or more texts and may involve integrating information from more than one text. Tasks may require the reader to deal with unfamiliar ideas, in the presence of prominent competing information, and to generate abstract categories for interpretations. Reflect and evaluate tasks may require the reader to hypothesise about or critically evaluate a complex text on an unfamiliar topic, taking into account multiple criteria or perspectives, and applying sophisticated understandings from beyond the text. A salient condition for access and retrieve tasks at this level is precision of analysis and fine attention to detail that is inconspicuous in the texts.’

And tasks at level 5:

‘that involve retrieving information require the reader to locate and organise several pieces of deeply embedded information, inferring which information in the text is relevant. Reflective tasks require critical evaluation or hypothesis, drawing on specialised knowledge. Both interpretative and reflective tasks require a full and detailed understanding of a text whose content or form is unfamiliar. For all aspects of reading, tasks at this level typically involve dealing with concepts that are contrary to expectations.


In PISA 2006, science level 6 was achieved by 1.3% of OECD students and required a lower score limit of 707.9. Level 5 and above was achieved by 9.0% requiring a lower score of 633.3.

In 2009, these figures were: level 6 achieved by 1.1% of OECD students with a lower score limit of 707.9; level 5 and above achieved by 8.5% of OECD students with a lower score limit of 633.3.

The science framework does not seem to have changed significantly between the two assessments, so we can provisionally identify a small overall dip in higher level performance between 2006 and 2009.

Level 6 students can:

‘consistently identify, explain and apply scientific knowledge and knowledge about science in a variety of complex life situations. They can link different information sources and explanations and use evidence from those sources to justify decisions. They clearly and consistently demonstrate advanced scientific thinking and reasoning, and they use their scientific understanding in support of solutions to unfamiliar scientific and technological situations. Students at this level can use scientific knowledge and develop arguments in support of recommendations and decisions that centre on personal, social or global situations.

At Level 5, students can:

‘identify the scientific components of many complex life situations, apply both scientific concepts and knowledge about science to these situations, and can compare, select and evaluate appropriate scientific evidence for responding to life situations. Students at this level can use well-developed inquiry abilities, link knowledge appropriately and bring critical insights to situations. They can construct explanations based on evidence and arguments based on their critical analysis.


In PISA 2006 mathematics, level 6 was achieved by 3.3 % of OECD students with a lower score limit of 669.3 and level 5 and above by 13.3% of OECD students with a lower score of 607.

In PISA 2009, level 6 was achieved by 3.1% of OECD students with a lower score limit of 669.3 and level 5 and above by 12.7% of OECD students with a lower score of 607.

As with science, the framework does not appear significantly changed and so we can provisionally identify a small drop overall in the proportion of OECD students achieving these higher levels.

The PISA 2009 rubric says:

‘At ‘Level 6 students can conceptualise, generalise, and utilise information based on their investigations and modelling of complex problem situations. They can link different information sources and representations and flexibly translate among them. Students at this level are capable of advanced mathematical thinking and reasoning. These students can apply this insight and understandings along with a mastery of symbolic and formal mathematical operations and relationships to develop new approaches and strategies for attacking novel situations. Students at this level can formulate and precisely communicate their actions and reflections regarding their findings, interpretations, arguments, and the appropriateness of these to the original situations.

‘At Level 5 students can develop and work with models for complex situations, identifying constraints and specifying assumptions. They can select, compare, and evaluate appropriate problem solving strategies for dealing with complex problems related to these models. Students at this level can work strategically using broad, well-developed thinking and reasoning skills, appropriate linked representations, symbolic and formal characterisations, and insight pertaining to these situations. They can reflect on their actions and formulate and communicate their interpretations and reasoning.’

Comparing PISA 2006 and 2009 results by country for all participants

Table 1 below compares average scores by country in PISA 2006 and PISA 2009. These are essentially the headline figures which attract most media attention and they are included here primarily for the purposes of comparison.

Country Reading Maths Science
2009 2006 2009 2006 2009 2006
score rank score rank score rank score rank score rank score rank
Aus 515 9 513 7 514 15 520 13 527 10 527 8
Can 524 6 527 4 527 10 527 7 529 8 534 3
Fin 536 3 547 2 541 6 548 2 554 2 563 1
HK 533 4 536 3 555 3 547 3 549 3 542 2
Ire 496 21 517 6 487 32 501 22 508 20 508 20
Korea 539 2 556 1 546 4 547 4 538 6 522 11
NZ 521 7 521 5 519 13 522 11 532 7 530 7
Shang 556 1 N/A N/A 600 1 N/A N/A 575 1 N/A N/A
Sing 526 5 N/A N/A 562 2 N/A N?A 542 4 N/A N/A
Taiwan 495 23 496 16 543 5 549 1 520 12 532 4
UK 494 25 495 17 492 27 495 24 514 16 515 14
US 500 17 N/A N/A 487 31 474 35 502 23 489 29
Average 493 495 496 497 501 498

However, it is worth drawing attention to some key points arising from the table:

  • As indicated above, there have been small falls in overall OECD performance in reading and maths between 2006 and 2009 and a corresponding small increase in science performance. The change in reading in particular may be more attributable to a tightening of the assessment framework
  • In reading, the average score has increased slightly in Australia, remained unchanged in New Zealand, and fallen slightly in Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the UK. Given the relatively tougher assessment framework and the associated overall dip in cross-OECD performance, these countries have arguably done well to maintain their scores
  • However, there have been more significant falls in reading performance in Finland, Ireland and Korea – all three strong performers in PISA 2006. Only Ireland has experienced a significant drop in ranking as a consequence, but these results should be a matter of concern in all three countries, perhaps suggesting they may need to focus more on aspects of reading newly introduced into the 2009 assessment framework
  • In maths, the average score has increased significantly in Hong Kong and the US, remained largely unchanged in Canada, New Zealand and the UK and fallen significantly in Australia, Finland, Ireland and Taiwan. Only Ireland has experienced a significant drop in its ranking
  • Nevertheless, Australia, Finland and Canada should be concerned about the dip in their performance of 6-7 points in each case. This cannot be attributable to other countries leapfrogging them in the table
  • In science, Hong Kong, Korea and the US have all made significant improvements since 2006, while performance is largely unchanged in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and the UK and has declined significantly in Canada, Finland and Taiwan. The latter should be concerned.
  • In all three areas, loss of rank combined with fairly static performance is attributable to other countries improving at a faster rate and is a matter of relative competition. It is not possible to depress the performance of a competitor so these countries must concentrate on improving their own performance. That said, they should take some comfort from their capacity to sustain their 2006 performance when their competitors are clearly not doing so
  • On the basis of this evidence, the countries with the biggest overall headaches are Canada, Finland and especially Taiwan, all three lauded to some degree as PISA world leaders.

Comparing Percentages of High Achievers in PISA2009 and PISA2006

Table 2 compares the percentages of high achievers in each of our 12 countries who achieved the higher levels in reading, maths and science in 2006 and 2009 respectively.

Country Reading Maths Science
2009 2006 2009 2006 2009 2006
Level 6 Levels 5+6 Level 5 Level 6 Levels 5+6 Level 6 Levels 5+6 Level 6 Levels 5+6 Level 6 Levels 5+6
Aus 2.1 12.8 10.6 4.5 16.4 4.3 16.4 3.1 14.6 2.8 14.6
Can 1.8 12.8 14.5 4.4 18.3 4.4 18 1.6 12.1 2.4 14.4
Fin 1.6 14.5 16.7 4.9 21.6 6.3 24.4 3.3 18.7 3.9 20.9
HK 1.2 12.4 12.8 10.8 30.7 9 27.7 2 16.2 2.1 15.9
Ire 0.7 7 11.7 0.9 6.7 1.6 10.2 1.2 8.7 1.1 9.4
Korea 1 12.9 21.7 7.8 25.5 9.1 27.1 1.1 11.6 1.1 10.3
NZ 2.9 15.8 15.9 5.3 18.9 5.7 18.9 3.6 17.6 4 17.6
Shang 2.4 19.4 N/A 26.6 50.7 N/A N/A 3.9 24.3 N/A N/A
Sing 2.6 15.7 N/A 15.6 35.6 N/A N/A 4.6 19.9 N/A N/A
Taiwan 0.4 5.2 4.7 11.3 28.5 11.8 31.9 0.8 8.8 1.7 14.6
UK 1 8 9 1.8 9.9 2.5 11.2 1.9 11.4 2.9 13.7
US 1.5 9.9 N/A 1.9 9.9 1.3 7.7 1.3 9.2 1.5 9.1
Average 1 7 8.6 3.1 12.7 3.3 13.4 1.1 8.5 1.3 8.8


  • The 2006 leaders amongst our subset of countries were Korea, Finland and New Zealand respectively whereas, in 2009, the leaders were Shanghai, New Zealand and Singapore (Shanghai and Singapore did not take part in the 2006 assessment).
  • All except Taiwan and Ireland exceeded the OECD average, although the percentage of the highest level 6 achievers in 2009 was lower than the OECD average in Taiwan and Ireland and equivalent to it in the UK and Korea. These four countries arguably need to concentrate more on the very top of their achievement range.
  • The percentage achieving levels 5/6 has increased over the 3-year period in Australia and Taiwan, remained largely unchanged in Hong Kong and New Zealand, fallen slightly in the UK and fallen substantially in Canada, Finland, Ireland and Korea. The decline in Korea is particularly startling.


  • The 2006 leaders in our subset were Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong respectively at level 6 and Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea respectively at levels 5/6. In 2009, the leaders are Shanghai, Singapore and Taiwan respectively at level 6 and Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong respectively at levels 5/6.
  • In 2006, the UK, US and Ireland were below the OECD average for level 6 performance and the other nine countries were above it. This continued to be the case in 2009 though, whereas the US was moving in the right direction, level 6 performance declined in the UK and Ireland, identifying this as an aspect potentially requiring attention in both countries;
  • In 2006, the same three countries were below the OECD average for level 5/6 performance and this continued to be the case in 2009. As with level 6, the US has improved its performance, drawing level with the UK, but the UK’s performance has declined somewhat and Ireland’s has declined significantly. This suggests that higher achievers also need more attention in both countries
  • Between 2006 and 2009, other countries improving their performance included Australia and Hong Kong (level 6) and Canada and Hong Kong (levels 5 and 6) though only Hong Kong managed significant improvement. Performance was relatively unchanged in Canada (level 6) and New Zealand (levels 5 and 6). There was a decline in Finland, Korea, New Zealand and Taiwan at level 6, most noticeably in Finland and Korea, and in Finland, Korea and Taiwan at levels 5 and 6 together.
  • If we compare rates of change for level 6 and levels 5/6 respectively, we see that countries doing relatively better with their highest achievers (level 6) include Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, the UK and the US, while countries doing relatively better with their higher achievers (levels 5 and 6) include Canada, Finland and Korea.


  • The 2006 leaders in terms of level 6 performance were New Zealand, Finland and the UK. Finland, New Zealand and Hong Kong led the field for level 5 and 6 performance. In 2009 Singapore, Shanghai and New Zealand respectively were leaders in level 6 performance and Shanghai, Singapore and Finland respectively for levels 5 and 6 together
  • In 2006, Ireland and Korea were below the OECD average for level 6 performance but all countries were above the average for levels 5 and 6 combined. In 2009, Taiwan had fallen below the OECD average for level 6, Korea matched it and Ireland had exceeded it; all countries were still above the OECD average for levels 5 and 6 together. This suggests that Ireland as well as Korea deserve credit for the progress made with their highest achievers in science.
  • Australia was the only other country to improve its level 6 performance in science during this period while Hong Kong, Korea and the US (very slightly) improved their performance for levels 5 and 6 together.
  • There were declines in performance at level 6 for Canada, Finland, Hong Kong Kong, New Zealand, Taiwan, the UK and the US, while Korea flatlined. The worst declines were in Canada, Taiwan and the UK.
  • In terms of levels 5 and 6 combined, improvement was made in the period by Hong Kong, Korea and the US (very slightly in the case of the US). There were declines in performance in Canada, Finland, Ireland, Korea, Taiwan and the UK, the fall in Taiwan being particularly marked.
  • Examining the rate of change for level 6 compared with levels 5 and 6, it is hard to detect a clear pattern but Australia and Ireland seem to be doing relatively better with level 6 while, conversely, Canada, Korea the UK and the US seem to be doing relatively worse

As we have noted above, performance across all OECD countries fell slightly across the board between 2006 and 2009. Insofar as this is not attributable to changes to the assessment frameworks, we might reasonably note that the OECD’s effort in producing PISA has not of itself resulted in improved performance across OECD countries for high achievers over this 3-year period.

Comparing ranks for high achievers versus all achievers, 2006 and 2009

The third and final table compares rank positions for high achievers and all achievers in 2006 and 2009 respectively.

This comparison could also be undertaken on the basis of percentages achieving the different levels and/or the average scores achieved, but the rankings are more readily available and are a reasonable guide to changes in the relative performance of countries, if not absolute changes.

Reading Maths Science
2009 2006 2009 2006 2009 2006
Level 6 Levels 5+6 All Level 5 All Level 6 Levels 5+6 All Level 6 Levels 5+6 All Level 6 Levels 5+6 All Level 6 Levels 5+6 All
Aust 4 7 9 9 7 13 16 15 14 14 13 5 7 10 4 5 8
Can 6 7 6 4 4 14 12 10 13 12 7 10 9 8 6 7 3
Fin 7 4 3 2 2 11 7 6 6 4 2 4 3 2 2 1 1
HK 10 9 4 5 3 4 3 3 3 2 3 7 6 3 9 4 2
Ire 17 22 21 6 6 40 36 32 32 28 22 15 19 20 18 19 20
Korea 12 6 2 1 1 5 5 4 2 3 4 18 18 10 18 16 11
NZ 1 2 7 3 5 9 11 13 9 8 11 3 4 7 1 2 7
Shang 3 1 1 N/A N/A 1 1 1 N/A N/A N/A 2 1 1 N/A N/A N/A
Sing 2 3 5 N/A N/A 2 2 2 N/A N/A N/A 1 2 4 N/A N/A N/A
Taiw 27 29 23 29 16 3 4 5 1 1 1 23 18 12 12 5 4
UK 12 18 25 9 27 30 30 27 24 23 22 8 11 16 3 8 14
US 8 11 17 N/A N/A 29 30 31 33 29 35 14 17 23 14 9 29

  • For reading, Taiwan and the UK were relatively unusual in 2006 because of the dissonance between their rankings – the UK because it did so much better for its higher achievers; Taiwan because it did so much worse. By 2009, Hong Kong and Korea are beginning to follow the same trend as Taiwan, while Australia, New Zealand and the US have joined the UK. These latter four countries might therefore be expected to concentrate disproportionately on their lower achievers in future
  • For maths, there are some clear disparities between relative national ranks in 2006. In the case of Canada and Ireland, the rank is significantly lower for level 5 and above than it is for all students. By 2009, however, these gaps have almost invariably narrowed, perhaps suggesting a degree of responsiveness to PISA 2006, although in some cases it appears that slippage down the overall rankings has influenced matters. Certainly there is no real evidence here that high achievers in maths are particularly neglected compared with their peers, or vice versa.
  • For science, it is clear that in 2006, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US were stronger performers, relatively speaking, with their higher achievers – and this is particularly pronounced in the last three of these countries. By 2009, these distinctions continue but are becoming relatively less clear-cut, following a similar pattern to maths.


The analysis above provides some detailed pointers for future support for high achievers, but what overall assessment can we offer for each of our English-speaking countries?


In PISA 2006, Australia achieved high overall rankings in reading (7) and science (8) and a relatively good ranking in maths (13). It fell two places in the rankings in all three areas in PISA 2009, although its average score increased slightly in maths, was unchanged in science and fell significantly in maths.

In 2006, its ranking for high achievers (levels 5 and 6) was slightly higher than its overall ranking in science, but not in reading or maths. By 2009, this remained true of science and had became true of reading as well.

The percentage of higher achievers (levels 5 and 6) in reading has increased significantly between 2006 and 2009, but the equivalent percentages in maths and science remain largely unchanged, except for small improvements for the highest achievers (level 6).

Moving forward, the priorities for Australia are likely to be improvement in maths across the board and probably for relatively low achievers in reading and science.


PISA 2006 showed Canada achieving very highly overall in reading (4) and science (3) and highly in maths (7). In 2009 it fell two places in reading (6), three places in maths (10) and five places in science (8), although average scores remained unchanged in maths and fell somewhat in science and reading.

Its 2006 rankings for high achievers were significantly lower than its overall ranking in maths and science but identical in reading. In 2009, there was still little difference in the relative rankings for science and reading and now little difference in maths either, although the change in maths is attributable to a fall in overall ranking rather than an improvement for high achievers.

The percentage of higher achievers has declined in reading and in science between 2006 and 2009 but has increased slightly in maths.

Canada has a relatively ‘balanced scorecard’ and will likely continue to focus on improving its results in all three areas and all achievement levels, though maths may be a relatively higher priority.


Ireland’s overall rankings from PISA 2006 were high for reading (6) and mid-table for maths (22) and science (20). In PISA 2009 its ranking for science remained unchanged (20) but fell very significantly in maths (32) and especially reading (21). Average scores also fell significantly in maths and reading and were unchanged in science.

The 2006 rankings for higher achievers showed very little difference to overall rankings in science and reading, but somewhat lower relative rankings for high achievers in maths. The position is similar in 2009, and there is marked slippage down the rankings in reading – and to a lesser extent maths – for higher achievers as well as for all achievers.

The percentage of higher achievers has fallen significantly in maths and reading and slightly in science.

For the future, Ireland will need to reverse its downward trend in maths and reading while not neglecting improvements in science. It needs to focus on all levels of achievement, including its higher achievers.

New Zealand

In PISA 2006, New Zealand achieved a very high overall ranking in reading (5), a high ranking in science (7) and a relatively high ranking in maths (11). In PISA 2009, it slipped 2 places in reading and maths but retained its position in science. Average scores were unchanged in reading, fell slightly in maths and increased slightly in science.

Rankings for higher achievers in 2006 were significantly higher than overall rankings in science and slightly higher in reading and maths. By 2009 the difference between science rankings had closed somewhat, but this is attributable to slippage in the higher achieving rankings. In maths the position is broadly unchanged, but in reading the relatively higher ranking of the higher achievers is now more pronounced.

In terms of the percentages achieving higher levels, there has been little relatively change in reading, maths or science.

New Zealand is another country with a relatively ‘balanced scorecard’ but its higher achievers seem to be doing relatively well and it may wish to concentrate more on lower end of the achievement spectrum.


The UK achieved good to mid-table rankings in PISA 2006 for science (14), reading (17) and maths (24). In PISA 2009 it fell slightly in science (16) and maths (27) and significantly in reading (25). Average scores fell slightly in all three areas.

In 2006, rankings for higher achievers were significantly higher than overall rankings in science and reading, but very similar in maths. This continues to be the case in 2009 with the decline shared across achievement levels.

The percentage achieving higher levels has fallen significantly between 2006 and 2009 in science and maths, and fallen slightly in reading.

The UK has to improve in all three areas, but particularly maths and reading. High achievers must be a priority in maths especially, but effort is required across all levels of achievement to ensure that lower achievers do not improve at the expense of their higher-achieving peers.


The PISA 2006 overall rankings for the US were low to mid-table in science (29) and maths (35). No result was declared for reading because of problems with the administration of the assessment. The PISA 2009 outcomes show that the US has improved its ranking by six places in science (23) and four places in maths (31) while it achieved a ranking of 17 in reading. Average scores increased significantly in both maths and science.

2006 rankings for higher achievers were much higher than the overall ranking in science and slightly higher in maths. By 2009, the gap had narrowed in science and maths. In reading higher achievers are ranked significantly higher than the overall ranking.

The percentage achieving higher levels is little changed in science between 2006 and 2009 but there is a significant improvement in maths.

The US is moving in broadly the right direction but has to continue to improve in all three areas, especially maths. This evidence suggests that the focus should be predominantly on lower achievers – except in maths where there is a problem across the board – but, as with the UK, care is needed to ensure that higher achievers are not neglected as a result.

The UK and the US are therefore in very similar positions, but whereas the UK needs to arrest a downward trajectory, the US is already moving in the right direction.

There is an agenda for improvement in all these countries, should they choose – as the UK has done – to align their priorities firmly with those assessed by PISA and other international comparisons studies.

And this analysis has also shown that there is clear room for improvement in the performance of other world leaders, such as Finland, Hong Kong and Korea: we should take with a big pinch of salt the news headlines that say we need only emulate them to be successful.


December 2010

What does the Schools White Paper mean for English Gifted and Talented Education?


The UK Government last week published a Schools White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’ setting out its plans for school reform in England. But what are the implications for gifted and talented learners, including high achievers and those from disadvantaged backgrounds?


The Significance of International Comparisons

The White Paper is heavily influenced by international comparisons. The Prime Ministerial foreword stresses the importance of strengthening national educational performance relative to international competitors and ‘learning the lessons of other countries’ success’.

Ministers and their officials have clearly studied recent studies of what makes national education systems successful and the typical shape of their improvement trajectories. A companion document to the White Paper, ‘The Case for Change’ draws on analysis of PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS studies, albeit selectively: analysis of the comparative performance of high achievers is amongst the features ignored.

They will doubtless have seen the latest McKinsey publication published days after the White Paper. Secretary of State Michael Gove’s admiration for the education policies of the Blair Labour Government must embrace Michael Barber, Blair’s education ‘fixer’ and now the prime mover behind McKinsey’s education studies.

‘How School Systems Get Better’ builds on a 2007 publication ‘How the World’s Best Performing School Systems Come Out on Top’ It broadly supports the White Paper’s argument that England needs to take on board three key lessons from international comparisons studies:

  • the significance of teacher quality and the high status of teachers
  • the case for devolving as much autonomy as possible to schools, while retaining a streamlined and effective accountability system
  • the need to narrow performance gaps attributable to socio-economic background

although the third seems rather underplayed in the McKinsey study for countries seeking to shift their performance from ‘good’ to ‘great’ (which is where it places England). The implication is that it needs to be tackled somewhat earlier in the improvement trajectory.

The White Paper argues that:

  • schools and teachers feel constrained by an over-prescriptive curriculum offering ‘too little which stretches them to achieve standards matching the best in the world’ , as well as by serial Government directives and improvement initiatives
  • teachers’ authority to deal decisively with bad behaviour has been undermined
  • many of the qualifications young people achieve are not those best recognised by employers and universities and
  • funding is unfairly distributed with too much consumed by bureaucracy.

Action is needed to address these issues as part of wider efforts to replicate the success of the highest-achieving education systems. The Government’s role is to secure a fair funding system and support teachers to learn from each other and from ‘proven best practice’.


The Significance of Narrowing Achievement Gaps

Despite McKinsey’s implication, the Coalition Government rightly continues to emphasise gap-narrowing because:

  • the achievement gap between students from poor backgrounds and their peers remains unacceptably wide
  • reduction of this gap makes sense in terms of improving overall educational performance and, ultimately, our international competitiveness and
  • there is potentially a strong positive impact on social mobility, a top priority for the Government.

Michael Gove’s Foreword, which follows the Prime Minister’s, argues that schools should be engines of social mobility. He notes how achievement gaps widen as children grow older and repeats his favourite statistic about how few students eligible for free school meals enter Oxbridge.

In 2007, a total of 45 FSM students achieved this outcome; in 2008 – the latest year for which data is available – this had declined to 40 students. (Education Ministers did not cover themselves in mathematical glory when calling this a 12.5% reduction, but we should perhaps pass over that.)

Gove identifies Harlem, Alberta, Singapore, Finland, Hong Kong and South Korea as regions and countries that successfully narrow gaps (equity) and improve performance for all (excellence) simultaneously. He argues that system-wide reform that impacts both on standards and structures is necessary before England can compete with these world leaders.

While recognising that the Oxbridge statistic has mostly totemic significance – many disadvantaged high achievers will quite rightly wish to attend another university, especially if it offers a better course in their chosen area of study – it is reasonable to ask whether or not this Government’s reforms are likely to reverse this downward trend within its lifetime.

In doing so, we need to take account of three different but overlapping policy agendas:

  • this schools White Paper
  • the Government’s proposals for higher education – encapsulated in its response to the Browne review of tuition fees and in a forthcoming Higher Education White Paper and
  • a cross-government social mobility strategy yet to be published.

I have looked at the second and third of these in previous posts – and will revisit them when the expected documents are published.


The Impact of Proposed Tuition Fee Reforms

Although the Government has argued that its proposed reforms are fundamentally progressive, this view is not uncontested.. A report just published by the Million+ think tank argues that the true measure of social mobility should be:

‘the extent to which participation in higher education enables graduates to enter employment and professions associated with higher socio-economic occupations and earnings compared with their socio-economic backgrounds when they entered university as students.’

Since the proposed reforms will increase the price of higher education – the earlier part of the report concludes that almost two-thirds of graduates will be relatively worse off, with those on middle incomes hit hardest – it argues that this will almost certainly reduce participation by lower socio-economic groups.

The Report dismisses the parallels with the introduction of tuition fees, which did not have this effect. It notes that the £150 million to be made available through an HE scholarship scheme by 2014/15 is just £7 million more than the original budget for the Aimhigher programme which is now being terminated, not to mention the impact of other cuts, including the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance and the substitution of a much smaller discretionary learner support fund.

But too much of the detail about the operation of these schemes is not yet in the public domain and we await the HE White Paper and the social mobility strategy with interest.

The rest of this post considers the wider implications of the Government’s planned school reforms for gifted and talented education and G&T learners and, finally, reviews briefly whether these will help to improve the number of high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds that progress to our leading universities.


General Implications of the White Paper for Gifted and Talented Education

There is no overt reference in the White Paper to gifted and talented education, to the excellence gap (between high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more advantaged peers), to meeting the needs of high achievers generally, or to the pedagogy of differentiation and personalised education.

However, many of the proposals it contains have potentially significant implications for the G&T population. The extended commentary below identifies those likely to be most significant.

Teaching and Leadership

From a social mobility perspective, teaching has historical significance as a route out of social disadvantage and there is evidence to suggest that it continues to attract relatively more entrants from poor socio-economic backgrounds than many other subjects.

The proposal to offer financial incentives to attract graduates in shortage subjects – eg by providing undergraduate scholarships or by paying off student loans – may help to mitigate the negative impact of higher tuition fees and so help maintain teaching as a pipeline for social mobility.

But new tests of intending teachers’ aptitude, personality and resilience will need to be carefully trialled to ensure that they are not biased in favour of middle class students.

The White Paper announces a national network of up to 500 Teaching Schools, on the model of teaching hospitals, unifying the existing teaching school and training school models, so outstanding schools can lead initial teacher education (ITE) and continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers and headteachers.

Additionally, some of the best higher education providers of ITE will be invited to open University Training Schools, akin to laboratory schools abroad.

It will be highly desirable for this network to include schools with outstanding practice in G&T education, since the Government clearly intends that schools will lead in future on matters of pedagogy.

This is a potential route for schools in the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust’s existing G&T secondary schools network and for those engaged in the National Strategies’ G&T programme for National Challenge schools.

A partnership between national G&T organisations and an interested university could also underpin a University Training School – it must be non-selective – which has as part of its mission research and development into G&T education and top-end differentiation. Such an innovative institution might even permit experimentation with dual enrolment on the US model, now much more attractive as a consequence of the increase in the cost of a university education.

Plans to review the designations of ASTs and leading teachers are a potential threat to the continued existence of G&T leading teachers and G&T specialist ASTs. It would not be surprising if the expectation that all schools should have access to a G&T leading teacher was removed as a consequence.

The promised review of professional standards – including the standard for Qualified Teacher Status – could potentially provide an opportunity to strengthen their focus on personalised education and differentiation, but the determination to devolve responsibility for pedagogy makes this uncertain.

The introduction of a competitive national scholarship scheme for professional development to extend subject knowledge and expertise provides an opportunity for serving teachers to pay for substantive CPD with a G&T focus.

Rather strangely, the remit for training chairs of governors is given to the National College, itself to be transformed into an executive agency of DFE, rather than being devolved to the Teaching Schools Network. There is an opportunity to influence the content of this training, as well as that of the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers (NPQH) which will also be revised by the College, itself to be transformed into an executive agency of the DFE, along with the TDA.


The commitment to build schools’ capacity to tackle prejudice-based bullying will hopefully extend to the bullying of G&T learners. Wider changes to strengthen provision in PRUs and alternative education settings may also be helpful to gifted learners located there.


The Government confirms that it will review the national curriculum to reduce prescription, focus on core subject knowledge and allow schools to decide how to teach. It says that the new National Curriculum will embody rigour and high standards and outline a core of subject knowledge in the traditional subject disciplines.

There is as yet insufficient detail to establish whether there will be scope for excellence-driven curriculum reform, starting with what the most able can achieve and levelling downwards rather than the reverse.

But the fact that free schools and academies are largely exempt from National Curriculum requirements – while the Government is overtly working towards a future in which almost all schools have this status – means that the National Curriculum will not be a significant policy lever in future.

The devolution of responsibility for pedagogy is fine provided that the Teaching Schools Network can ensure that effective top-end personalisation is secured cost-effectively in every school. But it is open to question whether the understanding and application of effective personalised education is sufficiently widespread. If not, the Network approach could very easily recycle less than optimal practice or several competing and poorly-evaluated models around the system while leaving less confident schools relatively untouched.

A commitment to securing ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ in all schools with Key Stage 1 pupils is justified on the basis that reading is crucially significant in giving access to other curricular opportunities, especially for the disadvantaged,, but at first sight it seems to sit rather awkwardly alongside the insistence elsewhere on schools’ autonomy in pedagogical matters.

An English Baccalaureate is introduced to encourage schools to offer a broad range of academic subjects to age 16. This will be achieved by any pupil who secures five GCSE or iGCSE passes across English, maths, the sciences, a modern or ancient foreign language and a humanity such as history or geography at grades A*-C.

Currently only about 15% of students achieve this outcome – and only 4% of those eligible for free school meals. ‘Special recognition’ will be given for this achievement in performance tables, though they will also continue to record the percentage achieving 5 GCSEs at A*-C including English and maths.

The White Paper argues that this will be a powerful incentive to schools to increase take-up of separate sciences, modern foreign languages and history. It would be more relevant to gifted high achievers if a Higher Baccalaureate was awarded to those achieving 5 A*/A grades in the prescribed subjects. The introduction of such an award might be contemplated by national G&T organisations.

Central Government support is promised for ‘strategic subjects’ – increasing the number of specialist teachers in maths, physics and chemistry and improve existing teachers’ skills, including those of specialist maths teachers in primary schools.

A level further maths teaching will be supported and the Government will also look at using performance tables to encourage entry to the separate sciences at GCSE and at supporting the in-depth study of physics. There will be ‘two new competitions with prizes’ for the best engineering projects from male and female students in state schools.

It is not clear whether this is the sum total of a continuing STEM strategy in schools post-2011. If so, this marks a significant reduction in the scope of the programme instigated under the previous Government.

The White Paper confirms that the requirement to provide PE in all maintained schools will be retained and that there will be new support for competitive team sports. There is currently strong opposition to the recent decision to remove ring-fenced funding for School Sports Partnerships which support school-based G&T activity in PE and sports.

We are told that the Henley review of music education currently under way will ‘inform [the Government’s] broader approach to cultural education’ but there is no further detail.

Assessment and Qualifications

The Government has already commissioned one Lord Bew to undertake an independent review of Key Stage 2 testing. This will consider how to deliver assessments that promote attainment and progression and ensure schools are held accountable to pupils, parents and the public. We do not yet know what this means for high achievers.

There will also be a new a suite of KS3 tests and assessments that schools can use on a voluntary basis.

Meanwhile, the Government is working with Ofqual to ensure that universities and learned bodies are involved in the development of A levels. Ofqual will be asked to change the rules on resits and ‘will consider whether this and other recent changes are sufficient to address concerns with A levels’.

Ofqual will also reduce modularisation in GCSEs so that exams are typically taken only at the end of a course and advise on how GCSE mark schemes for all subjects can be adjusted to take greater account of spelling, punctuation and grammar. The Government will legislate so that Ofqual objectives include securing international comparability of qualification standards for tests and exams at ages 11, 16 and 18.

It will ensure that pupils take part in international tests of literacy, maths and science – PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS – and will join the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) for the first time, so opening up CPD to international comparisons.

The new school system

The establishment of free schools will be prioritised in areas of deprivation but the White Paper makes no secret of the fact that the Government wants academy status to be the norm for all state schools, with schools enjoying direct funding and full freedom from central and local bureaucracy.

It will not force academies to become schools if they do not want to, unless as a last resort if a poor school is failing to improve. Schools are expected to use this autonomy to explore different forms of collaboration, but they will drive this activity rather than the Government.

But the Government is supporting the establishment of University Technical Schools and Studio Schools, though without setting targets for the number of each to be opened.

Each UTC will be sponsored by at least one local business and one university and will offer technical qualifications in shortage subjects such as engineering. Studio schools are for 14-19 year-olds and have a vocational and entrepreneurial focus catering for students disengaged by an entirely academic curriculum. Each will have several business partners linked to one sector of industry and students will spend part of the week working in these businesses.

All four school types have the potential to play a significant role in the development of G&T education and are potentially markets in which existing G&T providers should be advertising their support services.

Meanwhile, local authorities are said to have a strategic role:

  • as champion for parents, families and vulnerable pupils (which could potentially include G&T learners although the White Paper does not say so)
  • securing a good supply of quality school places
  • co-ordinating fair admissions – the admissions code will be simplified and revised by July 2011. Looked after and statemented children will continue to be guaranteed a place at their first choice school and there will be consultation on whether academies and free schools can prioritise admission of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • developing their own school improvement strategies which they will be encouraged to market beyond their own boundaries. This could include providing challenge and support to schools that want it, running conferences, bringing people together to tackle local problems and brokering support between schools. A relationship between LAs and G&T organisations to improve provision would fit within this context.

The Government will consult on authorities’ strategic role in areas where all schools have become academies and, as academy status becomes the norm, they will move away from a funding role towards ‘strategic commissioning and oversight’.

Overall, it is hard to see the role described for local authorities as truly strategic and equivalent to the ‘mediating agents’ between central government and schools described as necessary in the latest McKinsey report.

It is as if the Government is uncertain whether it wishes to entrust this role to local authorities or to schools working together collaboratively in networks or clusters. The ideal solution might be to draw both together into a mediating partnership…


The Government will ‘dismantle the apparatus of central control and bureaucratic compliance’ making direct accountability to parents more meaningful. They will publish all the information underpinning government statistical publications, including school level data about attainment in specific subjects, trends over time, class sizes, attendance levels, the composition of the pupil body and financial information.

It is assumed – but not overtly stated – that the pupil characteristics data will include their G&T status and this will be a very useful lever for the G&T lobby.

The data will be published in a standardised format and parents will be able to rank schools against the different variables. One such variable could be the progress made by learners identified as G&T, since the White Paper confirms that this will be effected for parents of SEN pupils.

Requirements about the information schools must publish will be simplified to include (as appropriate) admissions and oversubscription criteria, the curriculum, phonics and reading schemes, setting arrangements, the behaviour policy, home school agreement, special needs policy and information about how the school uses its Pupil Premium. It is to be hoped that schools’ gifted and talented policies can form part of this list.

Performance tables will be reformed. The Government will no longer use a contextualised value added (CVA) measure on the grounds that it is not right to expect lower performance from disadvantaged pupils.

There will be greater emphasis on the progress of every child but the White Paper does not say what form this will take. It is, however, explicit that schools should make as much effort with a low achieving or high achieving pupil as with one whose achievement is close to a threshold.

This is the closest it gets to an endorsement of personalised education and should mean that parents have a lever if their gifted children are insufficiently challenged at school, provided that the progress measures are sufficiently robust at the higher levels.

Tables will include a new measure of the performance of deprived pupils but this will be associated with how well those eligible for the Pupil Premium do in the basics at primary and secondary schools. It is not clear whether there will also be a measure for how well they do against the English Baccalaureate, meaning there is a risk that higher level performance of gifted disadvantaged pupils may go unreported, so reinforcing a ‘deficit model’ approach to disadvantage.

This section of the White Paper says there is particular concern about the performance of the lowest attaining 20% of pupils – there is no similar statement of concern about the performance of the highest attaining 20%.

OFSTED inspection will also be reformed so it focuses on key measures of educational effectiveness, including teaching and learning, and devotes more time and attention to weaker schools.

OFSTED will consult on a revised inspection framework focused on pupil achievement, the quality of teaching, leadership and management and the behaviour and safety of pupils. The White Paper says this will help to ensure there is a better focus on the needs of all pupils. It will come into force in Autumn 2011.

There will be a new floor standard for primary and secondary schools. The secondary floor will be 35% achieving 5 A*-C GCSE grades including English and maths and fewer pupils making good progress between KS2 and KS4 than the national average. The primary floor will be 60% achieving level 4 in both English and maths and fewer than average making the expected level of progress between KS1 and KS2. The new emphasis on progression should help ensure that the thresholds do not become all-consuming at the expense of the needs of other pupils including G&T learners.

The Government will work with the National Governors’ Association and others to clarify governors’ accountabilities and responsibilities to focus more on strategic direction, encouraging them to appoint trained clerks who can offer expert advice and guidance. They will legislate to allow all schools to have smaller governing bodies from early 2012, while ensuring that all have at least two parent governors.

The limited importance of the National Curriculum in future, the decision to end centralised target-setting, remove the requirement to complete an OFSTED self-evaluation and to work with a School Improvement Partner mean that several significant Government policy levers will no longer exist.

It remains open to question whether scaled-back inspection, performance tables and a new emphasis on publication of school-by-school data will be sufficient to change schools’ collective behaviour if it does not lead to the improved standards and narrowed gaps that the Government requires. If not, it may prove necessary for the Government to rein back autonomy and reintroduce more central control. Some commentators have suggested that a more balanced approach might have been more appropriate.

School improvement

Schools will be responsible for their own improvement, evaluating their progress in their own way, setting their own improvement priorities and targets and choosing sources of external support. Those will include local authorities, academy chains, professional associations, subject associations and others – no doubt including G&T education support services.

The Government will fund an increase in the number of national and local leaders of education from 1,154 to around 3,000 over the next 4 years. Over time teaching schools will help deploy national and local leaders of education and also leading teachers. The Government will look to these schools to ‘brigade together and broker as necessary’ the different support schools need, implying that it will not actively manage this process.

It will also ensure that schools have access to evidence of best practice, high quality materials and improvement services but does not say how this will be generated or disseminated – there is no overt reference to the National Strategies’ legacy. There will be Government support to help schools find out about improvement services on offer, but there is no detail as to how this will operate.

Local authorities and schools will be able to apply to a new Education Endowment Fund with a Government contribution of £110m, the interest from which will be deployed over a 10-year period to support innovative projects to raise the performance of deprived children in underperforming schools. There will also be a new collaboration incentive worth £35m to reward schools that support weaker schools and improve their performance but it is not known how this will be deployed.

School Funding

More resources will be targeted on the most deprived pupils through the Pupil Premium, to a value of £2.5bn per annum by 2014-15. This is expected to incentivise schools – including selective schools – to admit less affluent children. Evidence of effective interventions will be made available but schools will decide how best to support their pupils.

This probably means that the funding will not be tied to specific pupils in any meaningful way. We already know from DBIS that there may be a link between the Pupil Premium and the HE Scholarship Fund, but there is no explanation how this will operate and no reference to any link with the discretionary learner support offered to the neediest 16-19 students in place of the EMA. We also await information about the value of the Premium per pupil and the criteria that will determine eligibility.

Funding ringfences have already been removed to create a single funding stream – the Dedicated Schools Grant. As more schools become academies, funding will go to them directly rather than via local authorities. The Government wants all schools ‘to be funded transparently, logically and equitably’, so every parent can see what is spent on their child and what proportion of funding is not devolved to schools.

It will consult in Spring 2011 on a national funding formula based on the needs of pupils but implementation is described as ‘a long-term aspiration’. The disparity in post-16 funding will be removed by reducing the funding in sixth forms to the same level as colleges receive and this may threaten the viability of some. The transition will begin in 2011-12 and will be complete by 2015. Schools should be able to save at least £1bn by 2014-15 on procurement and back office spend

Subject to legislation the Young People’s Learning Agency will be replaced by a new Education Funding Agency responsible for the direct funding of schools and 16-19 settings. It will also distribute funding to LAs to pass on to schools.


Other commentators have already pointed out the policy tensions, contradictions and lacunae in this recipe for the future of school education. And there are many unanswered questions.

But there are also several opportunities for the G&T education community to support the interests of the learners they represent and, potentially, a significant new lever in the publication of school data about G&T learners and their performance. It will be crucial to secure confirmation of this quickly.

Some of the wider causes for concern relate to whether:

  • sufficient teachers and schools have a strong enough grasp of effective pedagogy and the capacity to disseminate it efficiently and effectively to all parts of the education system
  • the National Curriculum review will include an ‘excellence-driven’ focus and what value the National Curriculum will have when it does not apply to the bulk of schools
  • there are enough accountability levers left in the system to influence schools’ behaviour and – if there are not – what the Government will do to change collective behaviour if schools fail by themselves to raise standards and narrow gaps and
  • the Pupil Premium will be a sharp enough instrument to change schools’ behaviour, not least in relation to support for high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The last point brings us back to the narrower question I posed.

On this evidence, the answer must be that the collective weight of these proposals will not of themselves increase within the lifetime of this Government the number of FSM-eligible students entering Oxbridge, or indeed a wider range of our leading universities.

To counteract the potentially damaging effect of the increase in tuition fees on this population, the fragmented nature of support across sectors and the tendency for schools to divert their Pupil Premium funding towards other priorities, there would need to be a co-ordinated and systematic approach that links together:

  • the three policy strands relating to schools, HE and social mobility
  • the three sectors – schools, post-16 and HE
  • the three funding streams – pupil premium, the discretionary learner support fund for post-16 support and the HE scholarship – and ties them explicitly to meeting individual pupils’ needs

utilising them within a flexible support framework that enables schools and colleges to deliver a personalised support package, starting in Year 9 and ending with HE entry, that draws on the wide range of existing resources and activities available.

I have already described such a framework here. Unfortunately there is a real tension between such integration of strategies for greater collective benefit and the autonomy-first direction of travel espoused in the Schools White Paper.



November 2010