An Analysis of ‘Educating the Highly Able’

This post is a critical commentary on: ‘Educating the Highly Able’ (2012), a report on gifted and talented education in England commissioned and published by the Sutton Trust.


In July 2012 the Sutton Trust finally published a long-delayed report on gifted and talented education commissioned from the Centre for Education Employment Research (CEER) at the University of Buckingham.

CEER is a small three-person operation which produces reports on a wide range of educational issues. It has no particular expertise in gifted education.

The Sutton Trust contract was awarded directly, without competition, so the commission was presumably secured on the basis of an existing relationship between CEER and the Trust, though neither party admits to any formal connection on its website.

The Report was originally due for publication in November 2011 but was unaccountably delayed for eight months. Consequently much of the material it contains is now rather old.

Initial commitments were made to share drafts for comment but these were not honoured, despite several reminders.

The Trust originally said that it did not expect to undertake any follow-up to the Report, once published, so it was a surprise that the Press Release included a related call for proposals:

‘to pilot projects supporting and stretching the highly able in non-selective state schools. These projects will be rigorously evaluated, with those that are successful scaled up to many more schools’

The successful pilots will be selected by the Sutton Trust and the cost of the pilots and subsequent roll-out will presumably be met by them too. Since there is currently no central Government funding explicitly for gifted education in England, this is a potentially valuable commitment, though the maximum sum available is not specified.

It is conceivable that a critical commentary on the Report that spawned such largesse will not be regarded as consistent with an application to secure some of it.

But here’s hoping that what follows is taken in the right spirit, as a robust explanation of the faults in ‘Educating the Highly Able’, undertaken in the hope that the Sutton Trust’s forthcoming pilot projects will develop exemplary practice that properly fits the context provided by current national education policy and reform.


Structure of the Report and Survey Methodology

The Report opens with a Foreword by Peter Lampl, Chairman and Founder of the Sutton Trust. He suggests that part of the solution to the problems identified in the Report is adoption of the Trust’s Open Access Scheme (an argument that I contest in this earlier post).

But, Lampl adds:

‘at the same time we need to improve the support for the broader group of highly able children across the state system’

suggesting a two-tier approach of some kind, though he fails to explain the criteria for determining which pupils would fall within each tier.

Following an Executive Summary, there are seven brief chapters:

  • Chapter 1 summarises recent national policy initiatives in gifted and talented education with a predominant focus on the last decade or so, since the election of the 1997 Labour Government.
  • Chapter 2 offers a treatment of the ‘emergence of the gifted and talented construct’, traced back to Galton, Spearman and Binet and culminating in the definition adopted by the Labour Government in the late 1990s.
  • Chapter 3 examines School Census data from 2006-2011 on the distribution of gifted and talented learners in English maintained primary and secondary schools. It also comments on schools’ approaches to identification drawing on survey evidence. The survey methodology is summarised in an Appendix (see below).
  • Chapter 4 considers the ‘validity’ of ‘the exercise of identifying the gifted and talented’. The text (paragraph 4.9 suggests that the term is used in the sense of construct validity – whether a given scale measures or correlates with the ‘gifted and talented’ construct. This section consists of a statistical analysis of the correlation between identification and educational outcomes.
  • Chapter 5 uses evidence from the survey to supply an outline of current provision distinguishing school-based and out-of-school activity, as well as reviewing resources (staffing, funding and sources of external support, including support from central government). It includes a section summarising the perspectives of those interviewed on future provision and support.
  • Chapter 6 is called ‘Highly Able in Other Countries’ but is actually a comparative statistical analysis of the results of high achievers in PISA 2009. Appendix 2 contains further tables associated with this chapter. The analysis looks at performance at levels 5 and 6 on the PISA tests, emulating (but unfortunately not referencing) my 2010 post on the same topic.
  • Chapter 7 sets out the Report’s conclusions and recommendations, already outlined in the Executive Summary.

Appendix 1 addresses methodology. The survey underpinning the Report comprised in-depth interviews with individual representatives from just 20 schools (12 secondary and eight primary schools). No formal interviews were conducted with anyone with a more strategic perspective on gifted and talented education.

The authors suggest that their sample might be unrepresentative, so inclined to give too positive a perspective:

‘Originally, it was intended to have a larger sample, but schools seemed reluctant to participate, especially if they had identified only a few as “gifted and talented‟.  Our respondents are, therefore, those who were sufficiently proud of what they were doing to want to talk about it.  Thus, the interviews, although illuminating, are likely to have presented us with a rosier picture than actually existed.’

But the text reveals that five of the 12 secondary schools and two of the eight primary schools (so 35% of the sample) returned low percentages of gifted and talented learners. In the case of the primary schools, these were below 1%. This makes them highly atypical, as the Report’s own analysis in Chapter 3 shows.

The interviews were conducted a full year prior to the publication of the Report, in June and July 2011.


Conclusions and Recommendations

The final chapter offers a series of recommendations framed within a commentary that draws on material in the preceding chapters. I have summarised this below, highlighting the recommendations in bold italic text.

Clarifying the Construct

The fundamental problem preventing the success of policies ‘intended to enable highly able children fulfil their potential’ lies in the construct ‘gifted and talented’ which ‘has taken policymakers down a number of blind alleys’. It should therefore be abandoned and

‘the focus, as far as schools are concerned, should be on those capable of excellence in school subjects, pupils we have termed simply as ‘the highly able’.

This will enable schools ‘to pinpoint exactly which children and how best to provide for them’.

Since ‘the best indicator of high attainment is high attainment’, it is recommended that:

Key Stage 2 tests should be used to identify the highly able, using a criterion to be determined in pilot studies (possible criteria would be attaining at least at the 90th percentile, or at least at the 95th percentile, or achieving the new Level 6).’

There is no further reference to these proposed pilot studies.

This will provide a single universal standard rather than allowing schools a degree of flexibility in defining their gifted and talented populations. Because the pupils meeting the standard will be unevenly distributed:

Key Stage 2 tests should be used to create a numerical map showing which primary schools the highly able children are in, and to which secondary schools they go’.

So, if the definition is fixed at the 90th percentile in end of Key Stage 2 tests, the primary school location of all these children – somewhere over 60,000 – would be plotted, as would the secondary school locations to which they transfer. The purpose of this map is not explained.

Evidence from the current School Performance Tables shows the uneven distribution of pupils performing above the expected level. Some highly able learners ‘often from low income homes’ are likely to be relatively isolated in schools with few others of comparable ability. It is recommended that the Government:

consider the plight of these pupils and make provision for them’.

There are no proposals for the form that such provision might take.


Current accountability arrangements judge schools’ performance on the basis of their weaker and average pupils. This is said to apply to the floor targets and also to ‘standards’ (it cannot be said to apply any longer to performance tables). This should change:

Starting from where England’s school system is now, the education of the highly able should be given greater prominence through modifying the performance measures and accountability arrangements.’

The Performance Tables should be revised to include a sharper distinction of high attainment than the current measure (performing above the expected level):

the School and College Performance Tables which now differentiate pupils into three broad bands of prior attainment be further modified to show the progress and performance of the highly able (defined as achieving at least at the 90th  percentile, or achieving at least at the 95th percentile, or the percentage achieving the new Level 6)’.

This seems to suggest that the current tripartite division should be retained, but that the ‘high attainer’ band should be further subdivided so that the top attainers are separately identified, even though there may be one or two only in each school (and possibly none at all).

It is not suggested that this distinction should be applied within the ‘narrowing the gap’ section of the Tables, to the performance of those eligible for the Pupil Premium.

There is a separate recommendation that the accountability system:

should also be designed to recognise and reward secondary schools for bringing to the highest levels pupils who did not show up well in the Key Stage 2 tests.’

This appears to contradict the exclusive emphasis elsewhere on high performance in Key Stage 2 tests. It offers the possibility that support for ‘late developers’ might be incentivised in some way, but we are not told how this might be achieved.

Although it is suggested in the previous recommendations that Key Stage 2 tests are used exclusively to identify the highly able, there is recognition that the main tests may not be capable of differentiating the highly able so:

We welcome the piloting of Level 6 tests at Key Stage 2 and it may be that in future these could be used in the identification of the highly able’.

There is therefore some hedging of bets as to most suitable test instrument and the most suitable benchmark for defining ‘the highly able’.

Turning to Ofsted inspection, the performance of highly able pupils should be one of the criteria determining whether a school continues to maintain ‘outstanding’ status. :

We recommend that evidence of the under-performance of the highly able be a trigger for the inspection of schools rated as outstanding by Ofsted and which otherwise would not be re-inspected.’

This would suggest that the performance of the highly able should also be a criterion for achieving outstanding status in the first place, though that is not mentioned.

International Comparisons

The heavy emphasis on accountability arrangements is justified as:

‘the best immediate hope of incentivising schools to pay greater attention to the highly able’.

But, to achieve more fundamental improvement:

England should seek to improve its education system by taking a close look at those jurisdictions, especially those in Europe, such as Flemish Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, where many more reach the highest levels of achievement’.

These are amongst the countries that managed a higher percentage of students achieving the highest Level 6 in PISA 2009 maths tests, but there is no explanation why we should focus particularly on maths or on the performance of these European jurisdictions rather than other high performers. Of course, gifted education in these countries tends to be organised at the regional level (via cantons or lande).

It is suggested in the earlier analysis of PISA outcomes that very few of the English students who achieve PISA levels 5 and 6 in maths and reading are attending non-selective state schools, but no firm evidence is provided to show that this is the case.

So it is recommended that:

The data should be analysed further to reveal exactly how many pupils in the general run of maintained schools achieve at the highest PISA levels.’

Nothing is said about what should be done about this circumstance once proven.


There is a generic recommendation that:

 ‘provision for the highly able should be integral to schools and not a bolt-on’.

It is not clear what this means, other than that ‘highly able’ should be defined in terms of ‘the major school subjects’ as defined by the National Curriculum (the status of RE and other basic curriculum subjects is not mentioned).

Attention should be focused solely on the core subjects in the first instance:

provision and accountability for the highly able should be introduced first in the core subjects of the national curriculum followed by the foundation subjects’

There is passing recognition that a subject-specific definition of this kind will result in domain-specific provision – that ability in different subjects may not necessarily be shown by the same pupils, but this is not further pursued. The relationship between identification based on maths and English tests and attainment in all National Curriculum core and foundation subjects is not developed or explained.

There are no further provision-related recommendations.


Wider Reforms

There is implicit criticism of the suggestion in the Report of the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review that it can shift the bell curve to the right, because it is argued that this would only be achievable by denying the highest achievers an opportunity to excel.

The opposite is the case:

We recommend that national tests and exams should include more difficult questions, so that there is ample opportunity for the highly able to show what they can do’.

Because the gap between 11 and 16 is so long and the school participation age is increasing to 18, it is also recommended that examinations at age 16 should be dispensed with in favour of a national exam at age 14 providing a basis for selection into different post-14 pathways.

The idea of adopting a four-year 14-18 integrated curriculum – another model developed in Singapore – is not mentioned, even though this was floated as a possibility in 2011 and addressed in this post.

Opportunities for post-16 selection are currently being extended through the free schools route, but this should be pushed down to 14:

Enhanced opportunities could be provided for the highly able in specialist schools from the age of 13/14 on the university technical college model.’

It is not explained how selection at 14 would be consistent with the previous recommendations that ‘highly able’ pupils should be identified solely on the basis of tests undertaken at the end of Key Stage 2.

Finally, there should be separate provision for the ‘exceptionally able’, provisionally defined as the top 1% (presumably once more identified on the basis of Key Stage 2 tests, but this is not made explicit).

As for provision ‘it would be for individual schools to recognise them and challenge them in different ways’ but:

Since, on average, there would only be about two per year per school, there should be ways of bringing them together,  for example, through through master classes or in specialist schools

The final phrase offers the possibility of ‘super-selective’ free schools.

No thought is given to the support schools might need to undertake the in-school dimension of this provision, even though a single personal example cited in the text portrays a pupil being insufficiently challenged by his grammar school.

There is a brief final reference to out-of-school provision, though no accompanying recommendation:

 ‘We have addressed ourselves mainly to provision in schools since that is a matter for national policy. This is not to underestimate what can be achieved outside schools.  It is to be hoped there would continue to be a rich menu of master-classes, competitions and visits, from among which schools could choose.  Universities, professional bodies, sports clubs, orchestras and bands, art classes and many others can contribute to enabling young people to flower in a multitude of ways.  If organisations for the ‘gifted and talented’ want to be involved, their support is to be welcomed on its merits.’

It is not explained why out-of-school provision would fall outside national policy (many of the former initiatives cited in earlier chapters would fit this description).

A final footnote excuses the absence of costings:

‘because we have been mainly concerned with the principles of what should be done and have not wanted to get bogged down in discussing what is reasonable at a time of austerity.  We do not believe that costs would be the barrier to what we are proposing.’

The Call for Proposals

The separate call for proposals document says (my emphases):

‘The Trust wants to add to its portfolio of programmes a range of initiatives aimed at supporting highly able students in non-selective state schools, from the beginning of secondary school upwards

  • We would like to receive project proposals that focus on those pupils capable of excellence in core academic school subjects – pupils we have termed simply the ‘highly able’.
  • We are open to considering various methods of defining this group – for example those attaining at the 90th percentile and above, the 95th percentile, or the new Level 6, as recommended by the University of Buckingham research.
  • As many of these pupils will be in grammar and independent schools, we are also open to projects which define the highly able on the basis of school performance and local context, providing the selection method can be justified.
  • Projects may also focus on the “exceptionally able” pupils.  Since, on average, there may only be one or two per year per school, we are interested in imaginative ways of bringing them together.
  • The Trust is also keen to explore provision for highly able pupils that is integral to schools and not simply a “bolt-on” to mainstream provision
  •  The Trust already supports a wide range of initiatives focussed on university access at age 16-plus.  We are therefore particularly interested in programmes that start earlier on, in key stage three or four, but which may continue to support the students through their transition to FE and HE.
  • Applications can come from any not-for-profit organisation, including schools, charities, universities, colleges and social enterprises.
  • All funded projects will be independently evaluated for impact by leading researchers in the field.

Brief proposals must be submitted by 30 September 2012 setting out:

a summary of the project’s aims and how they would be delivered; how the students would be selected; the evidence behind this approach and its likely impact; as well as indicative costs and envisaged scale.’

What Are We To Make Of The Report?

The last section but one highlights several unanswered questions and gaps in the logic of this Report which serve to undermine its authority. There is also a litany of factual errors and lacunae in the main body of the Report which it is beyond the scope of this commentary to address.


A Coherent National Policy?

The description of the nature and development of national gifted education policy under Labour, from 1997 to 2010, is characterised in Chapter 1 as a series of unrelated developments, unaccountable U-turns and short-lived initiatives.  This enables the authors to allege, from the opening of Chapter 2, that:

‘The difficulties that the Blair and Brown governments had in framing consistent and coherent policies for the “gifted and talent‟ [sic] stem in part from a lack of clarity in the construct itself….

National schemes have barely begun before being abandoned. Schools have had only a very broad definition of “gifted and talented‟ with which to work…’

This is a misrepresentation of reality, in that several of us worked extremely hard throughout this period to articulate and develop these different strands of activity into a coherent national policy programme, designed to impact on every single school and college and bring about significant improvements in the overall quality of our education system.

We faced similar difficulties to all other policy-makers in achieving that, including:

  • rapid turnover of Ministers and senior officials, some much more committed than others to addressing this particular issue;
  • difficulty in securing consistent and ring-fenced funding, leading to dependency on elements of larger funding pots, some of them secured in opportunistic fashion;  and necessary compliance with the three-year funding horizons dictated by the spending review cycle;
  • limitations on the length of Government contracts with third parties, requirements for competitive reprocurement, and contract management problems, the latter mostly attributable to a mismatch between the contractor’s requirements and the service delivered;
  • limited leverage and capacity to force compliance on a minority of schools that resisted engagement, often on the basis of misunderstanding and ideological commitment to an inflexible ‘all children are gifted’ mindset. (And also a marked unwillingness to pursue forced compliance through rigid top-down prescription.)

The notion of a national policy programme was dispensed with in the last days of the Labour Government, in favour of provision devolved entirely to schools, though that scenario could not come entirely into effect until outstanding contracts were ended in March 2011, on the other side of the imminent Election.

The incoming Coalition allowed these contracts to run their natural course and did not renew them.

However, several elements of Coalition education policy have subsequently emerged which could – with some commitment, ingenuity and effort – be properly linked and construed into a coherent policy agenda.

Some are mentioned on the DfE’s web page ‘Academically More Able Pupils’ others are not (sometimes because they embrace a wider notion of ability).

They include:

  •  The Pupil Premium;
  • 16-19 selective free schools, including an anticipated cadre specialising in STEM (and possibly other subjects too);
  • Level 6 tests and performance table reforms;
  • The Recent Ofsted report recommending additional challenge and support for able pupils in maths;
  • References in the new Teacher Standards and School Inspection Framework;
  • Specialist Leaders of Education with an able pupils’ specialism providing support through the Teaching Schools network;
  • The Social Mobility Strategy, including the Dux Scheme, impending Destination Measures and references to improved admission of disadvantaged students to Oxbridge and Russell Group universities within DfE’s overall Impact Indicators;
  • HE policy to support fair access and create a market for students with ABB+ at A level;
  • The National Curriculum Review (assuming the remit to advise on support for able pupils’ progression is fulfilled);
  • A DfE-commissioned research project examining school and college-level strategies to raise the aspirations of high-achieving disadvantaged pupils to pursue higher education; and
  • The Music and Dance Scheme (MDS).

Few of these are mentioned in the Report which concludes that:

‘Under the present government there seems to be no overall policy for enabling those capable of excellence to achieve it’.

It is true that the Coalition Government has not articulated an overall policy, but I would not recommend it to look to this Report for a comprehensive treatment of the issue.

Clarifying the Construct

The Report’s treatment of the historical development of concepts such as intelligence and giftedness is partial and not particularly relevant.

The broad definition adopted in England was deliberately different from any of the hundreds of alternatives (Gagne’s is mysteriously the only one cited here). Ministers wanted a clear distinction between what one might crudely term ‘academic ability’ and talent in other fields.

By failing to reference any of the Government’s guidance on identification of and provision for gifted and talented learners, the Report manages to convey the misleading impression that schools were left entirely to their own devices over such matters.

In fact, there was a deliberate decision to eschew:

  • Either narrow top-down prescription and the imposition of a one-size-fits-all solution on well over 20,000 hugely different educational settings
  • Or complete flexibility over definition and identification, in favour of

Should include all pupils meeting published criteria for the national top 5% by ability aged 11 upwards (originally those eligible for NAGTY). (Towards the end of the period we were planning to define this group entirely in terms of high attainment but that was not the case in 2008.)

Should include other learners who are judged gifted and talented relative to their year group in their own school.

Should not assume a nationally prescribed percentage of learners that they must identify, but should assume that there are gifted and talented learners in every year group in every school and college. (The Report mistakenly assumes that the EiC injunction to identify 5-10% of pupils continued to apply.)

Should expect learners to move in and out of the gifted and talented population, though such movement might be expected to reduce with age (given that relative ability changes over time).

Should expect its gifted and talented population to be broadly representative of its wider intake (since ability – not attainment – is assumed to be evenly distributed in the population).

Should use a variety of quantitative and qualitative evidence to reach ‘best fit’ judgements (since there is no single, perfect identification instrument).

The Report gives no credence to the advantages of a flexible approach, choosing to use evidence from its small survey and analysis of School Census returns to argue for a universal, one-dimensional focus applied across all secondary settings.

It highlights the advantages of that approach, but fails entirely to explore the significant disadvantages, not least the capacity of schools to flex their policies to suit their very different needs and circumstances. It seems that autonomy must be confined to provision – where it is almost absolute – while being denied in relation to identification.

The first and foremost disadvantage of this approach to identification is that, by relying entirely on end of Key Stage 2 tests to select the highly able, one is not identifying the highly able at all, but only those who display high attainment in English and maths at age 11. 

This is a narrower focus even than many 11+ selection tests for grammar school entry, which often include a cognitive ability test of some kind.

High attainment is not the same thing as high ability because it dismisses any effort to identify hidden potential – and hidden potential is sometimes obscured by underachievement which may be attributable, at least in part, to socio-economic disadvantage.

Were we to follow the Report’s recommendations, challenge and support would not be provided to:

  • Any pupil of primary age (this arbitrary cut-off at the age of 11 is not explained. One wonders whether the primary schools questioned in the Report’s Survey would support it);
  • Any secondary student who failed to achieve the prescribed benchmark in  KS2 English and maths tests (I am not quite sure whether the preferred benchmark is defined by English or maths or English and maths – the Report seems rather coy about this);
  • Any secondary student who demonstrated high attainment in a subject outside the National Curriculum (and, in the first instance, while support is phased in, outside the core subjects). Incidentally, the relationship between identification through English and/or maths and attainment in, say, geography or modern foreign languages is another unexplained feature.

Such an approach is tantamount to applying an 11+ examination to all pupils in English schools, by determining that those who pass it shall be deemed highly able until they leave school at 18 while the remainder are neglected entirely. (One of the Report’s recommendations refers in passing to support for those who don’t achieve highly in end of KS2 tests, but fails to develop the suggestion.)

Because high attainment (rather than high ability) is unevenly distributed within the population, it is inevitable that the national cohort of pupils identified by this means will be drawn predominantly from the higher socio-economic groups. Many will attend selective schools (or independent schools if they are included in the exercise). There will probably be more girls than boys. Some ethnic groups will be disproportionately represented, especially Chines and Indian; others – especially Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils – will be conspicuous by their absence.

It is therefore highly likely that the imbalance perceived in PISA 2009 results – between high attainers in comprehensive schools and those in grammar and independent schools – would be increased rather than reversed.

It is hard to see how support for the ‘highly able’ built on these principles could be anything other than a sop to the middle classes.


Chapter 4 poses the question:

‘Does the percentage of pupils returned as “gifted and talented‟ predict how well the schools do in national tests and examinations?’

It rests on the completely false assumption that identification as gifted and talented should necessarily be predictive of high attainment and entry to selective universities.

It is not clear why anyone with any knowledge of how the national gifted and talented policy operated at this time would expect to look at a school’s gifted and talented population to ‘tell how well a school is likely to do in national tests and examinations’ (para 4.5)

The Report is seeking to impose its own narrow attainment-based assumptions about what constitutes high ability without taking the trouble to understand that:

  • Many of these schools were deploying a more sensitive and nuanced appreciation of the difference between ability and attainment;
  • They were drawing on evidence of ability and potential which had not (yet) manifested as high attainment;
  • They were taking account of the gap in performance between those from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds;
  • They were identifying learners with talent in sports and creative arts (gifted and talented are combined in the census because only one census question was permitted, even though it would have been preferable to have two).

It is certainly the case that some schools failed to understand – probably even to read – the guidance. The group of grammar schools that returned all their pupils as gifted and talented could well have been operating within the guidelines, but those who made nil returns would not have been doing so.

Perhaps they wrongly assumed that the national policy was not meant for them, conveniently ignoring the argument that effective top end differentiation is just as much an issue in a selective environment as anywhere else (as is demonstrated by the anecdote in this Report about an exceptionally able boy who is under-challenged in a grammar school environment).

I reject the assumption here that, to be valid, a construct must be capable of only one narrow interpretation. I also reject the assumption that School Census questions can only be confined to constructs which have no scope for flexible interpretation.

If that were the case, it would not be possible to include questions about SEN, or ethnicity. The Information Authority’s advice on the Ethnicity Data Standards says:

‘Ethnicity relates to how a person feels not necessarily how they look or how they are perceived by others. For example, it is possible for a person of mixed Asian and white ancestry to look entirely white but to feel kinship with their Asian heritage.’

So if ethnicity can be reported on an entirely subjective basis, what is wrong with reporting the outcomes of a flexible definition of who is gifted and talented?


The Report’s recommendations are focused disproportionately on adjustments to the accountability framework, all but one of them relating to the School Performance Tables.

This approach rests on the assumption that schools must be ‘incentivised’ through the Performance Tables to focus on high attaining pupils, as well as those who are not yet achieving national benchmarks.

According to the Government’s Response to the Bew Review (July 2011):

‘We welcome the Review’s endorsement of the importance of supporting the progress of the most able primary pupils and the new level 6 test. The test has been available to schools to use on an optional basis for the first time this year. In accordance with the Review’s recommendation it will continue to be optional for schools to use and it will be for schools to decide whether to enter pupils for the test. However, we also believe that it is right that schools which use the test, and successfully support their highest attaining pupils, are given credit for doing so. We shall also therefore consider how best to incorporate this measure in the accountability system.’

This stops short of a firm commitment to incorporate Level 6 outcomes in the Primary Performance Tables.

The Report is right to argue that the current distinctions in the tables between high, middle and low attainers are too crude.

They are based on performance across English and maths, rather than in each of those separately, so pupils must achieve above Level 4 in both subjects to count as a ‘high attainer’. But, in other respects, the threshold for this category is not set particularly high. The ‘high attainer’ group in the secondary tables includes some 38% of all assessed pupils.

This has been has been criticised by academics because it means that schools with relatively advantaged intakes will be favoured:

‘Differences in league table performance between schools will reflect differences in intake as well as effectiveness.’

These researchers had previously proposed an alternative approach based on narrower ranges:

‘We defined groups by quite narrow ten percentile bands, the low attaining group lying between the 20th and 30th percentiles in the KS2 distribution, the high attaining group between the 70th and 80th percentiles, and the middle group between the 45th to 55th percentiles. While clearly there is still variation in student ability within each band, it is second order and the main differences between schools in performance for any group will come from variation in schools’ teaching effectiveness.’

Although such an approach might create presentational difficulties, especially if some schools do not have any pupils in the relevant bands, it would preserve pupil anonymity.

Conversely, it is doubtful whether the data could remain anonymised if any of the three approaches proposed in the Report – 90th percentile at KS2, 9th percentile at KS2, or Level 6 outcomes – were adopted.

And these thresholds could not be applied within the Narrowing the Gaps section of the Performance Tables, where there is a case for extending the existing crude tripartite approach, so parents and other stakeholders can be assured that schools are using the Pupil Premium to improve the attainment of those likely to exceed the national benchmarks.

But the fundamental problem with this section of the Report is that the Government has already announced that the existing eight-level National Curriculum scale will be abolished.

From 2014, there will no longer be a Level 4, 5, or 6. As things stand, we have only a broad commitment to develop:

a qualifications and curriculum framework which supports and stretches every child’ (see Col 181)

And, recognition that, while National Curriculum levels will not be replaced:

‘In terms of statutory assessment, however, I believe that it is critical that we both recognise the achievements of all pupils, and provide for a focus on progress. Some form of grading of pupil attainment in mathematics, science and English will therefore be required, so that we can recognise and reward the highest achievers as well as identifying those who are falling below national expectations. We will consider further the details of how this will work.’

Because the future of National Curriculum assessment is unknown, all of the Report’s Level-based recommendations for the identification of highly able pupils and securing accountability through performance table reform are fundamentally irrelevant. 


Effective Provision for Highly Able Learners

Perhaps the most disappointing feature of the Report is the negligible attention it focuses on defining and describing what constitutes effective whole school provision for the highly able.

We have a sum total of two recommendations, one that provision should be integral rather than bolt-on, the other that it should be defined by the National Curriculum and phased in, with the core subjects coming first.

Chapter 5 of the Report relies exclusively on material gleaned from the small-scale survey. Short statements from different teachers are stitched together into a narrative which is heavy on anecdote but light on effective practice.

There is again no reference from the authors to the content of national guidance documents, including the National Quality Standards, so one is left with the misleading impression that schools have been left more or less entirely to their own devices.

It may be that the Sutton Trust’s change of mind – its decision to follow-up the Report with funded pilot activity focused on effective provision – is recognition that the Report itself is a hollow shell, with nothing meaningful to say about what schools should actually do to challenge and support their highly able learners.

This would have been the section in which to reference more of the aspects of Coalition Government policy I have listed above – and explored the extent to which they offer coherent support for highly able learners. That would have permitted the Report’s recommendations to be presented as complementing and supporting the existing policy agenda, instead of pursuing an almost entirely separate agenda.


Highly Able in Other Countries

The analysis of PISA 2009 data is interesting evidence that there are significant differences in the proportion of high attainers in different countries (and it gives the lie to statements – attributed to Andreas Schleicher – that

‘The top 20% of students in England perform as well as the top 20% anywhere in the world’

It helpfully reinforces points made in my own 2010 blog post on the same topic, though unfortunately without making any reference to the existence of that post.

It would have been even better had it drawn attention to the limitations of PISA-based evidence, and also drawn on data from TIMSS and PIRLS studies to explore the extent to which they tell the same story. Material differences would raise interesting issues about the reliability of such instruments for policy benchmarking purposes.

We know that at least part of the explanation for some countries securing a significantly higher percentage of high attainers is the greater equity they demonstrate in educational outcomes – their results are not tied so strongly to class and socio-economic background – though this is by no means universally the case.

Another part of the explanation may just be that their educational systems are better than ours. (At gifted education conferences it is rare indeed to escape hearing a statement to the effect that good gifted education is nothing more than good education per se.)

The fundamental point is the very justification for the existence of this blog – that gifted educators in England (and everywhere else in the world) have much to learn from careful study of each other’s policies and practices, not to feed some misguided enthusiasm for policy tourism, but to help inform their own national decisions about optimal solutions.

It is a shame that this Report fails to draw on such evidence, though it does at least call for further analysis, based on the PISA differentials. There is no sign from the call for proposals that the Sutton Trust will be funding such work.



Given the lengthy delay in its appearance I had expected great things from this Report, but have been sorely disappointed. It is methodologically suspect and chock-full of factual mistakes, logical non-sequiturs and blind leaps of faith.

The definition of highly able learners that it proposes would derive a population consisting entirely of high attainers or, more accurately, those that were high attainers at the age of 11 on the basis of performance in two of the core National Curriculum subjects.

While that might have the advantage of leaving schools in no doubt which learners to select and support, it would be even less defensible a selection mechanism than the 11+, sharing all its faults and adding a few more besides.

It is undoubtedly the case that the national policy programme analysed in the Report has been misunderstood and misinterpreted in some schools, sometimes wilfully, but other schools stand out consistently as beacons of exemplary practice. Unfortunately, their testimony does not feature within the Report, while the bigger strategic picture is missing entirely.

Considering the country as a whole, huge progress was made from virtually scratch over the decade from 1999-2009 but, by the end of that period, there was still considerable room for improvement.

The Report accentuates the negative for its own purposes, failing entirely to recognise and celebrate the positive – and largely because of its blinkered adherence to such a narrow and impoverished conceptualisation of gifted education.

Faced with a stark choice between:

  • an imposed requirement based on the recommendations in this Report, or
  • a flexible framework permitting a degree of autonomy in accordance with the principles laid down in the national identification guidance and Quality Standards

I would choose the latter every time – and I believe that most schools would do so too.

By all means let us develop and implement a strategy to support our high attaining learners, but let us not pretend – as does this Report – that support for high attainers is synonymous with a properly designed gifted and talented education strategy.

There is considerable irony in the fact that the Sutton Trust – an organisation established to champion social mobility – has published a Report which, if its proposals were implemented, would almost certainly strengthen the advantage enjoyed by high-attaining students from more privileged backgrounds, while denying support to exactly those learners who need it most.

In gifted education, as in all education policy, we must maintain a judicious balance between excellence and equity. To espouse one at the expense of the other does not cut the mustard.



July 2012


One thought on “An Analysis of ‘Educating the Highly Able’

  1. This report resonates strongly with me. Some schools are probably doing a good job (but the report hints they could be doing better), but I fear for really able pupils in schools preoccupied with the C/D boundary at GCSE. The trouble is that any improvement in the help given to the academically very able in poor or rural areas is not viable given the low density of such pupils so a solution would have to be based on some form of identification which would be labelled as selection, following by regionally-based concentration which some would view as segregation. There is a fundamental rift here between ideologies.

    There is also an aspect to the nurturing of highly able pupils which many see as provocative. This is that a significant number of our teachers are simply unequipped to develop very able pupils at secondary level. It is therefore required that whatever solution to this is suggested, it allows pupils to come into contact with academically able teachers who can also teach. I make no apology for this statement, but in an era when the strongest academics have not always been attracted into teaching (except to the most selective schools and sixth form colleges) and where other skills are required on a daily basis to teach pupils of wide ability, this is not likely to be popular stance.

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