Why Do We Need A Bloggers’ Strand at ResearchED 2013?


Moves are afoot to establish a ResearchED Conference:

‘for teachers and researchers who are interested in evidence-based education’

to take place for the first time in September 2013.

I suggested that bloggers might be involved:




and was invited by the organiser to put the case



This very brief post does just that.


Social media are becoming increasingly significant in the generation and dissemination of education research. Microblogging (Twitter) can be used to share research and discuss its findings, but the character limit does not support deeper engagement.

Most in-depth interaction with research is undertaken on specialist blogs. The UK education blogging community is growing and becoming increasingly influential but, as far as I’m aware, has never been drawn together, whether for discussion between themselves or for interaction with teachers and researchers.

Some bloggers are teachers, some are researchers, but many are neither teachers nor researchers. Teachers may distrust bloggers who are not current classroom practitioners; researchers in particular may distrust bloggers because they are not subject to the rigours of research practice (including peer review). Bridges need to be built between these groups.




Most serious education bloggers are engaged in a process of analysis, synthesis and mediation. They convey knowledge and understanding of educational issues to a community of readers, adding significant value in the process. Some blogging deserves to be recognised as a serious contribution to educational research in its own right. It is much more than mere journalism.

This community of readers will include teachers (or other educators) and researchers, but also learners, parents/carers, advocates and policy makers. Bloggers create important connections between these subgroups.

Bloggers have very different specialisms and perspectives but those operating outside the HE education research community (including teachers) face a set of common issues, including:

  • Establishing blog posts (and other social media) as a ‘respectable’ frame for educational discourse (as opposed to a journalistic vehicle for advertising more serious research papers published in academic journals).
  • Gaining a foothold in an environment dominated by the HE research community, which operates a whole range of restrictive practices.
  • Gaining access to education research (without climbing a steep paywall or belonging to a university library) and being able to share that research with their readers.

A discussion of education research issues would be greatly enriched by the inclusion of a cross-section of the UK edublogging community and might also provide the impetus for a new national network.


If an invitation is not forthcoming, perhaps other bloggers might join me in establishing the network anyway.

What are the potential benefits of an edubloggers’ network? Here are some ‘starters for ten’.

It might:

  • Enable experienced bloggers to support comparative novices, including student bloggers – and encourage new bloggers to add their voices to the network.
  • Enable bloggers from different parts of the spectrum to collaborate on joint projects, bringing their very different expertise and experience to bear on some of our more intractable educational problems and issues.
  • Provide a basis for bloggers to push collectively for greater respect for – and recognition of – what they do, so that blog posts are more often cited in mainstream educational research and bloggers have more opportunities to present their work at conferences and similar educational events.
  • Give bloggers a platform from which to advocate for issues of concern to them, to provide each other with professional and technical advice and support, and to build connections with educational bloggers in other countries so achieving a global reach and reputation.
  • Allow them to support the further and faster development of blogging as an educational tool and to help cement its place as an integral element in social media’s potentially enormous contribution to education, advocacy, policy-making, research and professional development.

Is that worth doing fellow bloggers? Is that worth sponsoring anyone?



March 2013

A Progress Report on 16-19 Maths Free Schools


Andrey Kolmogorov courtesy of Svjo

Andrey Kolmogorov courtesy of Svjo

Written on the eve of the 2013 Budget, this post is a progress report on the development of a network of selective 16-19 maths free schools, set in the wider context of the economic arguments for investment in gifted education.

I don’t anticipate a postscript detailing substantive new policy announcements within the Chancellor’s Budget Statement tomorrow. Nor is it likely that further support will be directed towards this existing initiative, given that little of the existing budget has been used up to date.

I set out below the information currently in the public domain and offer a provisional yet constructive assessment of how the 16-19 maths free school project is shaping up.


Announcement of 16-19 Maths Free Schools

Back in November 2011 I devoted a post to the announcement of the introduction of a cadre of selective 16-19 maths free schools in England, as outlined in the Chancellor’s 2011 Autumn Statement.

A proportion of a £600m allocation to meet the capital costs of 100 free schools was notionally earmarked for ‘New Maths Free Schools for 16-18 year-olds’ to be ‘supported by strong university maths departments and academics‘.

The announcement suggested these would be:

‘Exactly what Britain needs to match our competitors – and produce more of the engineering and science graduates so important for our longer term economic success.’

Well-informed press reports prior to the announcement suggested that there would be at least 12 schools and the resulting network would serve as a model that might be extended to other subjects.

It was suggested that the first would be located in major cities. Some might focus solely on maths and others on a wider STEM curriculum but they would all prepare students to excel at top universities and in subsequent IT, academic or entrepreneurial careers.

Assuming a network of 12 schools and £6m per school, the capital funding notionally set aside for this purpose amounts to £72 million. This is presumably available until the end of the current spending review cycle, so would have to be allocated by Spring 2015 at the latest.


Progress since the Announcement

We are now some 16 months on from the announcement and, with almost exactly two years until the end of the spending review period, we are probably about 40% through the project as currently funded.

So it seemed timely to review progress to date.

A handful of 16-19 free schools with a STEM specialism are in the pipeline – including what is now called the Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form in Norwich and STEM6 in Camden, London. But these are slightly different animals, falling outside the project under discussion because they are not supported by university maths departments.

We know from a FAQ briefing published by DfE that:

‘The common feature of all specialist maths Free Schools is significant involvement from a university maths department. Universities can apply to set up a specialist maths Free School on their own, or in partnership with another strong education provider. Similar specialist maths schools, with significant input from universities, already operate in the United States, Russia and China.’

The development of these institutions is described as ‘a pathfinder programme’, which explicitly implies that the model may be extended if successful.

Interested universities are invited to submit brief proposals to a specialist support team whose home page says:

‘Maths is a strategic priority in education and is at the heart of improving our society and economy. This country has some brilliant university maths departments and world-famous mathematicians, but they have become disconnected from schools, school curriculums and exams.

The new specialist maths schools aim to bridge the gap between school and university maths, and in doing so, demonstrate how new approaches can bring dramatic improvements in performance that can be applied more widely.’

Applications are invited to open further schools ‘in September 2014 and beyond’.

I say further because a January 2013 press release celebrates the first two successful applications, submitted by King’s College London and the University of Exeter in the South-West.

This tells us that:

‘The ultimate aim is to create a network of schools that operate across England which identify and nurture mathematical and scientific talent. This is similar to the Russian model, which includes the renowned Kolmogorov School in Moscow, established by Andrei Kolmogorov – one of the 20th century’s most respected mathematicians.’

The shift from discussion of a network to a single Russian school is something of a logical non-sequitur, and it is not clear why Kolmogorov is singled out when there are so many alternative models worldwide.

The Kolmogorov theme is further developed in a TES story from February 2012 which reports that:

‘The DfE has hosted a consultation meeting on the new free schools with interested parties from the mathematical community in order to outline its plans.

Professor Alexandre Borovik, an expert on selective maths schools who teaches at the University of Manchester, attended the meeting and was encouraged by the government’s plans.

“So far, it has been only independent schools that have been able to produce mathematicians on anything like a similar scale, but there has been nothing like it in the state sector,” Professor Borovik said. “To see whether it can be done, you really have to be very selective and go down the route of what was successful in Eastern Europe and Russia.”’

The press release also places this initiative in the context of ‘the government’s strategy to increase universities’ involvement in what pupils learn before applying for a university place’ and wider plans ‘to boost maths education’.

The mid-section of this post draws together currently available information about the two live projects.


From Kew Gardens courtesy of Gifted Phoenix

From Kew Gardens courtesy of Gifted Phoenix


King’s College London Mathematics School (KCLMS)


Press Release

King’s College (KCL) published a press release on 14 December 2012 confirming that it had received a development grant for its planned school which would open in September 2014.

I note in passing that the Department’s FAQ briefing contains the following Q and A:

Is there financial support available to develop our plans?

Not at the beginning. Once we have approved a proposal, we do offer some support to cover the costs of project management, and recruiting some staff before the school opens, in the same way we would for any Free School.’

which would suggest that the development grants made available for the first two projects are not available to support new proposals.

KCL’s press release suggests that the school will contribute to the Government’s plans:

‘to improve mathematics education in the state sector and increase the number of mathematically talented young people with the right levels of attainment to study STEM subjects at top-rated universities…

…It will aim to cater for students who have both exceptional ability in Mathematics and an intense interest in the subject, and to allow them to study with a critical mass of students with a similar passion for Mathematics.’

There is a quotation from Secretary of State Michael Gove:

‘I am delighted that King’s College London is going to open a specialist maths Free School. If we are to find a future Fields Medallist in our schools, we have to raise standards in maths teaching and create an environment that allows the most gifted to flourish…’

The release explains that:

  • The Project involves KCL’s Department of Educational and Professional Studies as well as its Department of Mathematics and is led by Alison Wolf, Professor of Public Sector Management, perhaps best known as author of the Wolf Review of Vocational Education, commissioned by the Government shortly after it came to power.
  • KCL has also been awarded ‘an outreach grant’ by DfE ‘to support work with mathematically talented 14-16 year-olds in schools without high levels of specialist Mathematics teaching’. This builds on an existing programme called The King’s Factor  targeted at Years 12-13. It implies that the outreach programme will be used to ‘talent spot’ potential candidates and act as a feeder for the new free school.
  • The school is likely to be located close to KCL’s Waterloo Campus ‘a transport hub easily reached from a very large part of the greater London area. The school will therefore be able to draw on a wide catchment area in which there are large numbers of prospective high-attaining students.’


Web Pages

KCL’s website also has a set of pages devoted to the new School which adds a few additional snippets of information.

It says the University announced the new school on 14 November, a month before the date of the press release. I think this must be an error.

The ‘initial setting up’ is being undertaken by KCL’s senior management team (which does not seem to contain Alison Wolf, previously named as the project lead).

Several potential sites in and around Waterloo are under consideration by KCL and DfE.

(The location and securing of suitable sites has been a particular problem for new free schools in London, though the final report of the Mayor’s Education Inquiry proposed action to address this.)

All students attending the School will take the same three A levels – Maths, Further Maths and Physics. They will also be expected to take STEP papers and ‘may take another AS level’ (The range of available options is not specified, but a subsequent FAQ section suggests the choice will probably be confined to the Extended Project.)

Otherwise students:

‘will continue with a broad general curriculum, including other sciences, social science, humanities and languages, and have opportunities for sport and the visual and performing arts. Some of these subjects will be delivered through existing King’s facilities.

Through this broader curriculum and learning to see the world through different disciplinary perspectives, the school will foster intellectual curiosity, clear and independent thought, creativity and a sense of social responsibility.’

Exactly how these additional elements will be fitted into the timetable is not explained.

The school roll will be 120 students – 60 per year. In the first year of operation there will be only one intake, so full complement will not be reached until AY2015/16.

The KS4 outreach programme began in September 2012, so has a full two years of operation before the School opens, enabling it to pick up promising candidates at the start of Year 10.

It is:

‘designed to have a positive effect on the people involved, even if they do not wish to apply to KCLMS or are unsuccessful in the selection process.’ [my emphasis]

The FAQ makes clear that graduates of the school will not necessarily be expected to continue their undergraduate studies at King’s (though the project is clearly attractive precisely because it should help to provide them with a richer pool of applicants).

There is no suggestion that graduates of the School will have preferred status in admission to the University (though that might have been an option, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds).

It is also clear that the School will not be suitable for intending medical students:

‘In the main, we expect students to go on to study Maths, Physics, Engineering, Statistics or Computer Science.’

Potential students are invited to apply online from 30 September 2013.  They must have at least 5 GCSE grades A*-C including A*/A in both maths and physics or maths and dual award science. Oddly, GCSE English is not a requirement but ‘will normally be one of those grades’.

These are not particularly demanding requirements, potentially hard to reconcile with the reference to ‘exceptional ability’ above and the comparison with Kolmogorov. Further comment on the pitch of these selection criteria is provided below.

Other admissions criteria are not finalised but will probably include a school reference, ‘our judgement about how much difference attending the school will make to your future based on a number of factors, including the results from an interview’ and the results of a maths aptitude test that will assess problem-solving and mathematical thinking.

Every student will have a maths mentor, either an undergraduate or ‘a junior member of the maths department’. It is not clear whether this is one-to-one provision.

A headteacher will be appointed in April 2013, to take up post in September 2013 and there will be open evenings for prospective students and their families in October and November.

A ‘latest news’ section contains links to various pieces of media coverage about the School. Some are behind paywalls but those that are accessible repeat the information set out in the press release and summarised above.


Headteacher Job Pack

Further details are however available in the job pack for the Headteacher vacancy.

This explains that KCLMS:

‘will be run by a Trust, which the College expects to establish in late March 2013; and by a Board of Governors. This appointment is being managed by King’s College London pending the formal establishment of the trust and the signing of the Funding Agreement between the King’s College London Mathematics School Trust and the Department for Education. The person appointed to this position will be employed by the trust.’

It says that ‘students will be recruited from a wide variety of backgrounds’ adding that:

‘The school will also be committed to recruiting a significant proportion of students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, and to an outreach programme… to further this objective.’

But this ‘significant proportion’ is not quantified. Unless it is truly significant – perhaps  a third of available places – the School could very easily become monopolised by the ‘sharp-elbowed middle classes’ or even by students transferring from the independent sector.

The curriculum will not be accelerative:

‘The aim will not be to cover A-level mathematics rapidly and then start on first year university material, but to teach mathematics which includes the A-level material in a way which develops mathematical thinking and an understanding of the logical connections within the subject….

Thus the material covered will be close to that in A-level maths, but the style of study will be different to that in most schools. Particular features will be:

  • Much greater mathematical rigour, and a general supposition that statements must be proved and methods justified;
  • An intellectual approach, putting work in mathematical and historical contexts;
  • Applications informed by current use of mathematics;
  • Integration of methods and ideas used in computer science.
  • Examinations being seen as hurdles to be taken in the students’ stride, not high jumps to intimidate and confound.’

More on this below.

The provisional timetable is based on a 40-hour working week, including independent study.

This will not be an autonomous institution – the University will be very much ‘hands on’:

‘The Mathematics department of King’s College London will be closely involved in curriculum development for the school, both before and after opening, ensuring strong intellectual foundations and insight into developing applications of mathematics’

Academics will also have ‘regular timetabled contact’, potentially via masterclasses.

There will be strong emphasis on collaboration ‘with other schools and teachers who are interested in developing new pedagogies.’ In addition to continuing the existing outreach programme, it is intended that there will be further engagement for students and teachers alike.

There is reference to a network of schools that ‘could provide a valuable means of sharing expertise and good practice, supporting the professional development of teachers at KCLMS and elsewhere.’


‘In the longer term, the school intends to seek independent funding for a larger CPD programme associated with the school’s curriculum and pedagogy, and to offer it to a wide range of  schools and students, using school premises out of hours. This will contribute directly to schools’ teaching quality (and results), and is an important direct benefit that can be offered in return for schools’ collaboration in identifying potential students.’


From Kew Gardens courtesy of Gifted Phoenix

From Kew Gardens courtesy of Gifted Phoenix


Exeter University’s Specialist Maths Free School

There is much less information so far in the public domain about the parallel institution at Exeter.

We know from the University’s press release of 21 January that the project is a partnership between the University and Exeter College, a tertiary institution providing a range of post-16 and higher education courses.

The new institution will be based in Exeter and is also scheduled to open in September 2014.

The number on roll will again be 120 – 60 in each year group, but 20% of places (so approximately 24) will be boarding places, with students staying at the University from Monday to Thursday in term-time. This will enable students from across the region to attend and implies a compacted four-day timetable, perhaps complemented by independent study on Friday’s journey home and over the weekend.

The new School is described as ‘a regional centre of excellence’ supported by the mathematical strength of the University and the College’s ‘curricular and pastoral support’. These partners have also received a development grant to underwrite their project (see comment above about that provision apparently being removed for subsequent proposals).

Few further details are provided, other than that:

  • Students here will also be encouraged to take STEP papers.
  • The University will provide a proportion of the teaching: ‘at least 13 hours of maths, physics and computer science teaching a week’ and ‘students will be exposed to mathematical problem-solving’.
  • The University will also offer:

.‘An enrichment and critical thinking programme. The emphasis will be on applied maths, with students given the opportunity to work with academics to apply mathematical concepts to scientific research on subjects like advanced engineering.

  • Students will also benefit from ‘one-to-one “maths mentoring”’.
  • The Met Office ‘hopes to involve the Free School students in its work’. (The Met Office College is based in Exeter.) This sounds highly provisional.
  • There is also agreement ‘in principle’ from DfE to pay an outreach grant which will ‘support the teaching of maths in schools in the region, running maths workshops and to identify potential applicants’. The University’s existing outreach effort seems fairly limited

DfE’s press release contains identical information and little more is revealed in the wider press coverage.

These plans are obviously still at a very early stage – although there must have been significantly more detail in the papers submitted for DfE approval – and there has been no update since the announcement.

From the information so far published, the Exeter project seems very close conceptually to the one at King’s, indeed almost a clone. It would have been good to have seen evidence of a fundamentally different approach.

We do not know whether the University’s School of Education will be directly involved (though, interestingly – and perhaps tellingly – its news section makes no reference to the free school, preferring to highlight instead an entirely different initiative).


The Level and Source of Interest from Universities

Sixteen months on from the announcement, initial confirmation of just two projects – both of them still subject to approval of their funding agreements – is arguably indicative of limited interest from potential host universities, despite the very generous capital and recurrent funding available.

There may be some ideological opposition to free schools in some universities, but that is unlikely to be the principal cause of their apparent hesitancy to come forward.

Part of the problem is that the Government is fishing in a small pool. References to ‘leading university maths departments’ and ‘world class institutions’ is rather transparent code for the Russell Group, an organisation comprising 24 universities, just 20 of them in England.

Ministers have been criticised for focusing their policies exclusively on this subset of universities, on the assumption that membership defines higher education quality, when in practice there are weaknesses in some Russell Group provision and exceptionally strong provision in most if not all universities outside the Group.

Even in maths, some universities outside the Russell Group are placed highly in national rankings.

In this example the top 20 includes the Universities of Bath (7), Lancaster (12), Southampton (16), Surrey (18), Loughborough (19) and Kent (20). None are members of the Russell Group.

In comparison, King’s and Exeter are ranked 22 and 25 respectively.

Moreover, each has regional competitors placed higher up the rankings than they are. In London there is Imperial (6), LSE (8) and UCL (11). In the South-West there is: Bath (7), Bristol (9) and, arguably Southampton (16).

These are not idiosyncratic results. If we apply an alternative ranking, Exeter is placed 17th and King’s 18th. In the South-West, Bath is 7th and Bristol 11th. In London, Imperial is 3rd, LSE 14thand UCL 15th. (Non-Russell Group institutions outranking Exeter and Kings include Bath, Lancaster, UEA, Loughborough and Surrey.)

Both Kings and Exeter are therefore likely to be attracted to this initiative because they anticipate that it will help them in future to secure a relatively larger share of the best students, so enabling them to compete more effectively with their better-placed competitors.

On this evidence, the scheme is most likely to attract other Russell Group institutions with a similar mid-table profile in other regions – maybe the likes of Liverpool (35 and 41), Birmingham (32 and 26), York (30 and 21), Sheffield (29 and 26) and Manchester (26 and 30).

It might help the Government to spell out explicitly that they are not interested solely in Russell Group institutions, recognising that excellent maths provision exists elsewhere. It might also help to offer some explicit guidance on the thresholds that they expect such maths departments to exceed.

The trouble is that there is a bewildering array of alternative models already being pursued by universities:

  • Many are involved in the development of a subset of University Technical Schools (UTCs) – the current list of projects is also available from this link.
  • A few are interested in another project which has so far attracted relatively limited interest: University Training Schools. This model was originally set out in the 2010 Schools White Paper but, as far as I can establish, only the University of Birmingham and the Institute of Education have so far taken this path. The latter project seems rather under wraps and this is the only explicit link I can find on the IoE’s own website, though it is also mentioned in this TES article. (I found a reference in Paragraph 43 of Oxford University’s Access Agreement for 2012/13 to ‘development of a University Training School as a laboratory school, once the procedures for developing these schools are clarified’ but this seems to have fallen out of the latest 2013/14 Agreement.)

It is quite likely that many potentially interested and eligible universities have already backed a different model and are reluctant to expand their portfolio at this stage.

Some – such as Warwick University – will be relying on other initiatives to secure a stronger share of the best undergraduates. In Warwick’s case that role is fulfilled by IGGY.

This comparatively limited interest is despite the fact that a capital budget of approximately £6m is available for each project, plus annual recurrent costs of around £4,000 per student in Exeter and £5,115 in Lambeth, London (according to the DfE’s ‘ready reckoners’) not to mention the unspecified sums available in development and outreach grants, or any other supplements made available.

It is not clear how much of a university’s own money would be needed for such a project but one might expect that any cost would be attributable mainly to the staff resource needed to develop and launch the project and then provide steady-state input, including the specified contribution to the teaching and support of students.

That would be a tidy sum no doubt, but surely covered substantively by a development grant and the recurrent funding available. (Set in this context, the apparent decision to withdraw a development grant from new applicants seems rather puzzling.)


From Kew Gardens courtesy of Gifted Phoenix

From Kew Gardens courtesy of Gifted Phoenix


Assessment of the model



16-19 maths free schools are based on the twin pillars of selection and specialisation.

The arguments for and against selection are well-rehearsed and I will not repeat them here. It seems that selection at age 16 is somewhat less contentious than selection at age 11 (with selection at 14 a largely untested assumption).

Nevertheless, most of the arguments against (and for) selection remain in play regardless of the age at when that selection takes place. We can see this writ large in current debate about fair access to university and its impact on social mobility.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that selective universities would harbour an ideological opposition to selection at age 16.

The pitch of the selection is critical. The description of the Government’s policy intention would suggest a cadre of highly selective institutions, though of course that depends ultimately on the number of candidates who apply and, of those, what proportion can satisfy the admissions criteria.

Some aspects of those requirements are currently unclear, even for the school at the most advanced stage of development. For example, we know nothing of the planned aptitude test at KCLMS.

It is clear that their GCSE requirements are not as exacting as they might be, in that they do not require A* grades in maths and physics or a compulsory pass in English.

The latest 2011/12 statistics suggest that 20.2% of students achieve an A*/A grade in mathematics while almost 47% manage this in physics. Given the similarity between the subjects, it is fairly likely that the proportion achieving this level in both subjects (or in maths and combined science) is also likely to be fairly close to 20%.

This places the pitch of selection on a par with the traditional assumption for grammar schools (though the reality is now far different and highly differentiated).

There is an obvious trade-off here between excellence and equity. If selection is pitched too highly, it will become impossible to recruit sufficient students from disadvantaged backgrounds, because high attainment is found disproportionately amongst those from comparatively advantaged backgrounds. As I have suggested, this could mean that the provision is unfairly monopolised by the middle classes.

On the other hand, if it is pitched too low, students will be admitted who are not the very highest achievers and so are relatively less likely to achieve the A level grades they need to secure places in the most competitive university maths departments.

Gifted educators know that this issue boils down to the critical distinction between attainment and ability.

These schools need to find the right blend of admissions arrangements such that they can recruit:

  • A critical mass of the highest achievers from a variety of backgrounds, ideally giving preference to those whose current institutions do not offer high quality post-16 maths education, rather than the products of selective and independent schools; and
  • An even more critical mass of students with demonstrated mathematical ability which may not yet have been translated into high achievement, especially those whose underachievement is attributable – at least in part – to a relatively disadvantaged background.

KCLMS’s aptitude test will be critical in achieving this outcome, as will their decision whether or not to give priority admission to recipients of the Pupil Premium. It will be important that they and Exeter subject their draft admission criteria to proper ‘stress testing’ before they are adopted.


Specialisation and Acceleration

The debate over specialisation is less polarised. Historically there has been argument that the typical A level student experiences a rather narrow curriculum compared with his peers in many other countries, including several of those perceived to have the most successful education systems.

The trade-off between breadth and depth is discussed in Ofqual’s Report on International Comparability.

But the Consultation on A level reform did not enter this territory other than in relation to AS levels, arguing that the majority view is that A levels are broadly ‘fit for purpose’.

The specific issue in this context is that students attending these schools are likely to have an even narrower curricular experience than their peers in other English schools and colleges.

If the KCLMS precedent is followed, they will have an extremely constrained choice of A levels – indeed no choice at all – compared with what would be available in a typical sixth form, even in a small rural school.

There are references to curricular provision beyond maths and physics in the KCLMS plans, but it is not clear how they will be implemented in practice, beyond the option of an AS Extended Project.

It has to be open to question whether a small sixth form containing 60 students in each year group, all taking the same three A level choices, is the optimal solution for many students who, as a consequence, will not be exposed to ideas and perspectives from peers experiencing an entirely different subject context.

There will be limited opportunity to bring out the inter-disciplinary connections that are so often of interest to gifted learners, to undertake cross-curricular collaborative learning with peers who can bring to bear strength in other subject areas.

This seems an artificial constriction which may make the KCLMS option unattractive to some students, especially those who are ‘all-rounders’ with strength in maths and other subject areas. It is not necessarily a given that these students will be weaker mathematicians than peers with just that one string to their bows.

Moreover, the KCLMS proposal is guilty of a different kind of narrowness in that it is avowedly anti-acceleration, so ignoring opportunities to utilise the close relationship with a university to enable school-age students to pursue undergraduate study.

This reflects a strong strand of thinking in parts of the UK maths education community which believes that acceleration is most definitely not in the best interests of students.

It is not the position I would take, which is that acceleration (faster pace) done properly can be combined effectively with enrichment (greater breadth) and extension (more depth; more problem-solving), and that the proportions of each should reflect different students’ needs. (There is not space here to unpack what ‘done properly’ means, but most gifted educators will be familiar with the arguments.)

The KCLMS approach will probably be unattractive to some of the very highest achieving young mathematicians, who will see this as placing an artificial cap on their progress. It will also mean that KCLMS is very different indeed to some comparable institutions in other parts of the world where accelerated study is actively encouraged.

(I note in passing that it is as yet unclear whether these schools will admit already-accelerated students aged under 16.)


A Network of New Schools or a Broader National Network?

One might reasonably question whether setting up a tranche of a dozen or so schools at a capital cost of £72m and an annual recurrent cost in steady state of approximately £6.5m (assuming 12 schools with 120 students each and an average annual per student recurrent cost of £4,500) is the most efficient strategy for increasing the supply of high achievers in maths.

Especially since the benefit under this model is largely confined to an annual cohort of around 720 students (12 x 60) assuming there are 12 schools all the same size as the first two.

In order to roll out the same model, further funding tranches of this magnitude would be required for every additional 12 schools added to the network – there would be few if any economies of scale.

It is likely that this model was adopted because: the Government wanted to increase the stock of free schools; the available capital funding could not be diverted to cover running costs; and it was felt that the infrastructural work involved in building the new schools would itself have a positive impact on economic growth.

Also, perhaps, because, it is ideologically committed to a ‘bottom-up’ distributed model rather than a ‘top down’ prescriptive model – and is reluctant to entertain the possibility that there might be an optimal ‘middle way’.

It would be quite wrong to criticise the current programme at this early stage because we have no evidence of its impact, other than on the grounds that the number of beneficiaries will be comparatively small.

It may eventually be demonstrated that the positive impact on students is so marked that the programme is good value for money despite the heavy outlay.

But, if we were given a development budget equivalent to the cost of one school (£6m), an identical annual running cost budget of £6.5m per year and a blank sheet of paper, what design principles might we establish to underpin a more efficient and fully scalable approach?

One might begin with the core purpose of creating and sustaining a national network designed to support all students in state-maintained schools and colleges with the potential capacity to achieve, say, at least grades AAB in three of the target A level subjects plus a STEP paper grade of 1 (very good) or S (outstanding).

Such support would be available from Year 9 at the latest and ideally from Year 7. From Years 7 to 9 it would be light touch and provided to a relatively broad cohort, in recognition of the difficulty of predicting future performance at such an early stage.

But, from Year 10, it would be concentrated on a smaller group of future high achievers. This would include existing high attainers, but would also give priority and additional intensive support to learners whose potential is significant, but is unfulfilled as a consequence of socio-economic disadvantage.

This national network would need to draw on the co-ordinated strength of the many national bodies already active in this field, including the likes of Nrich, the NCETM and MEI’s Further Mathematics Support. They would be drawn into a powerful coalition, prepared to sink their differences in pursuit of this common cause. (Those receiving Government funding might have it made conditional on their constructive involvement.)

The network would aim to reach every state-maintained secondary school and post-16 institution, and to draw directly on the expertise within the widest range of institutions which have it to offer, including specialist academies, outstanding schools with an old-style maths specialism, national teaching schools, independent schools and post-16 institutions.

It would be developed on ‘flexible framework’ principles, combining a set of challenging common core expectations and light touch accountability with sufficient autonomy for participating institutions to innovate and to meet the very different needs of their students.

The services provided and co-ordinated through the network might include:

  • Outreach by the strongest university, college and school maths departments in each region, regardless of the categorisation of those institutions.
  • Extensive online learning provision, for use in class and via independent learning, again drawing on the combined expertise of all national, regional and local partners. This would be free at the point of delivery and would be designed on social network principles, encouraging students to learn with and from each other.
  • Support from an undergraduate of postgraduate mentor, provided face-to-face in the case of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Additional support to raise the aspirations of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and to equip them with the social and cultural capital necessary to compete for places at the most competitive universities.
  • High quality professional development and support for host schools and colleges and lead mathematics and physics teachers within them

In addition, a small core of schools and colleges – some academies and free schools, some not, some independent – might be identified as post-16 centres of excellence and funded to admit the most promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In the short term there would be ‘quick win’ interventions in the form of direct support for disadvantaged learners across Years 12 and 13.

The Government would ensure that all appropriate policy connections were made – whether with wider support for maths education, academically able pupils, fair access to higher education and so on – to ensure that all are mutually supportive and that benefit from the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

And of course the whole caboodle would be rigorously evaluated, both formatively and summatively. Success would be judged against achievement of a few rigorous performance measures.


The Bigger Picture

As we approach the 2013 Budget, there are many signs that we have emerging consensus on the importance of investment in human capital. Witness, for example:

  • The Heseltine Report on growth ‘No Stone Unturned’, the bulk of which has been accepted by the Government

No doubt there are many more.

But, with the honourable exception of the CBI (which is not as explicit as it might be on the point) none of these recognise the substantial benefits that would accrue from more targeted investment in our school-age high achievers.

To give the Government credit, the 16-19 maths free schools programme shows that they are alive to these arguments, even if only in a relatively narrow STEM-related context.

But it is worth pausing to consider whether a network eventually built around a small set of selective post-16 institutions is the optimal approach.

Assuming that new free schools are a ‘non-negotiable’ it might be preferable to start with the network and drop the schools into it, rather than starting with the schools and waiting for them to build the network from the bottom up.

There are lessons to be learned from the careful study of similar provision in jurisdictions like Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Israel, all of them featured in earlier posts on this blog. In these jurisdictions, the ‘elite’ schools are typically nodal points in a much wider mesh of provision rather than ‘stand-alone’ providers with outreach capacity.

An evaluation of the maths 16-19 free schools pathfinder project might usefully incorporate that comparative dimension, while also reflecting the current predilection for randomised control trials.

Given the recent designation of the Education Endowment Foundation as a more generic ‘what works centre’ for education, it may now be for that body to commission the appropriate study.



March 2013

The Economics of Gifted Education Revisited


This post examines recent developments in what I have termed ‘the economics of gifted education’.

It follows up a commitment I made to revisit the topic in The Gifted Phoenix Manifesto for Gifted Education which relies significantly on the economic case for investment in gifted education:

‘There is a strong economic focus because that is a current predilection – and because the economic arguments are too rarely advanced and often underplayed. They deserve to be paramount in our current financial predicament.’

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds via Compfight cc

Discussion of the Manifesto shows that this view is not unanimous amongst the global gifted education community. Some believe that the economic arguments detract somehow from the educational case for meeting the needs of gifted learners, and results in them being perceived as nothing more than a convenient tool to generate economic growth.

Some are also wary of the economic arguments for education per se, because they are perceived to distort and over-ride the case for education as an end in itself, worth pursuing for its intrinsic benefit alone.

I believe neither of these things. I firmly uphold the educational case for supporting gifted learners and fully recognise the intrinsic benefits of education, but I believe that each can be complemented and enhanced by the economic case rather than being threatened or undermined by it.

It is this which drives me to understand the economic case, as encapsulated in recent research, to synthesise from various sources and to present the result for readers’ consideration. Advocates for gifted education are of course free to use these arguments or to ignore them, entirely as they wish.


I feel it incumbent on me to warn readers that this is a long and complex piece. The meat in the sandwich is academic research – barely digestible at the best of times – but I have tried to make the bread on each side as nourishing as possible. You should be able to get a good sense of the basic argument by consuming the bread alone.


The Gifted Phoenix Premiss

I want to begin by unpacking the basic premiss I advanced in the Manifesto. The case I am advancing has eight distinct steps and runs as follows:

  • Effective gifted education involves maintaining a balance between excellence – raising standards for all – and equity – raising standards relatively faster for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • At national level, excellence might be measured by increasing the proportion of learners achieving the high achievers’ benchmarks in international comparisons studies such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS. This can be described as increasing the ‘smart fraction’.
  • Similarly, at national level, equity might be measured through a country’s success in narrowing the excellence gap between the performance of high achievers from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. This helps to increase the ‘smart fraction’ as more disadvantaged learners reach the high achievers’ benchmarks.
  • Taken together, these two actions contribute significantly to national efforts to increase the supply of highly skilled human capital which has a significant positive impact on economic growth.
  • Efforts to increase the ‘smart fraction’ and narrow the excellence gap must begin during – and be sustained throughout – compulsory schooling, through a dedicated and coherent national programme. This should link seamlessly with continuing efforts within the national higher education system, and beyond.
  • The cost of this programme can be offset against the much greater benefits that will accrue through stronger economic growth, so justifying the initial investment, even during a period of austerity.
  • This national investment will also generate several highly important spillover benefits, not least stronger social mobility as more learners from disadvantaged backgrounds compete on a level playing field with their advantaged peers. There are also cultural, sporting, political and ‘feel-good’ benefits. (These include improving the quality of political leadership which seems increasingly impoverished in many countries at this time, including my own.)
  • It would be wrong to focus investment disproportionately in areas such as STEM and IT, partly because other fields can make a substantive contribution to economic growth, and partly because of the important spillover benefits outlined above.

I wanted to see whether I could find any research evidence to support this premiss since I last discussed the economics of gifted education in June 2010.

There is some evidence and I have drawn together a selection of material that goes some way towards supporting my argument.

But I can find no similar statement of the complete argument. There are bits and pieces here and there, but no perceptible effort to draw the different strands together.

Nor can I find any work that systematically analyses the costs and benefits of a national investment in gifted education, so serving as an exemplar of the Gifted Phoenix premiss.

The economics of gifted education is nascent merely, but still I find this profoundly disappointing. Gifted educators could make a much more convincing case to policy makers with such evidence at their fingertips.

Maybe there is such work and I have failed to find it. Perhaps it is written in languages other than English, possibly to persuade those who have invested so heavily in gifted education in some of the countries I have featured on this blog.

If so, it richly deserves to be translated and disseminated in the English-speaking world.


Flickerings of Interest Since June 2010 (and my own involvement)

I flatter myself that I know something about gifted education but I am certainly not an economist.

A quarter of a century ago I spent two years studying the economics of education as part of a postgraduate diploma at London’s Institute of Education. So I have some basic grounding but I am very rusty indeed.

Nevertheless, I like to think I invented the term ‘the economics of gifted education’. I recall using it in discussion from around 2008 or thereabouts.

If you Google the term most of the references are to my work, especially the two posts dating from June 2010 that appear on this Blog:

As far as I can establish, there is only one other contender writing in English, one Pam Clinkenbeard, Professor of Educational Foundations at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the US.

A biography on the NAGC Website is attached to details of an event due to take place in April 2010, so before I wrote my posts. It says Clinkenbeard:

‘Is working on research projects related to the economics of gifted education and scientific reasoning in diverse gifted preschoolers’.

So maybe I didn’t invent the term after all.

Unfortunately I cannot find further details of Clinkenbeard’s research, though I am aware of a brief article she published in 2007 ‘Economic Arguments for Gifted Education’ which explains the concept of human capital and advances the economic arguments for investment in gifted education from a gifted educator’s perspective.

The article refers to a paper presented at the World Council Conference in 2007, but I can find no record of that online. Further searches on Google Scholar reveal no subsequent publications from Clinkenbeard in this field.

After I wrote my 2010 posts, there were signs of interest elsewhere. The IRATDE considered devoting an edition of its online journal to the topic and I was even offered the chance to serve as joint editor.

Unfortunately the call for manuscripts elicited little interest amongst the academic gifted education community. So I approached Eric Hanushek for some advice about how best to tap in to economics of education networks. He didn’t deign to reply. There will be more from Hanushek later in this post

The abortive IRATDE Conference scheduled for November 2011 in Saudi Arabia included amongst its themes ‘Research in the Economics of Education’, though none of the keynote speakers was scheduled to address the topic. I heard that Hanushek had been invited to speak, but presumably he turned down the opportunity. So did I.

I was originally slated as an ‘invited speaker’ – precise topic to be confirmed – but I took umbrage at my second class status, shared with just one other unfortunate. Moreover, the research I had undertaken to write a post on gifted education in Saudi Arabia led me to conclude that it was definitely not a place I wished to visit.

Also in 2011, the California Association for the Gifted subtitled one edition of its journal, Gifted Education Communicator ‘The Economics of Gifted Education’.

Unfortunately, this sits behind a paywall and, equally unfortunately, the contents list on Amazon is rather oblique, mentioning only:

‘The Most Economical Program for Gifted Learners Lanny Ebenstein… The Economy of Gifted Education U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley)… Economy of Giftedness Carolyn Kottmeyer’.

I have not been able to find out what these contributions add to our understanding of the issue.

Then in June 2012, the World Council’s Newsletter included a report from the outgoing President, which began:

‘During the last month, I was invited by Todd Lubart (Université Paris Descartes) to meet with a number of European scholars. This meeting aimed at discussing the role of creativity in developing business, in addition to the economics of education. This meeting motivated us to talk about the importance of gifted education, and to start working on a special issue of Gifted and Talented International (GTI) concerned with the Economics of Gifted Education.

Based on the outcomes of this discussion, the Editor-in-Chief has invited one of the top leaders in the field of economics of education to write the theoretical framework that will be the target paper. Consequently, a number of scholars will be invited to write their critiques and response articles.’

Needless to say I wasn’t one of those ‘European scholars’. But evidently the World Council had borrowed the idea of a dedicated volume from IRATDE.

I don’t know whether this production is still in the pipeline – there was only one edition of GTI in 2012, though it is supposed to appear twice a year.

The December 2012 newsletter made no reference to it, though it did explain that the outgoing President is himself ‘the Editor-in-Chief’ and it discusses his take on the development process for special issues of GTI in general terms:

‘The success of a special issue depends upon getting the right scholar to write the target paper and the concluding section at the right time, and on the right people to comment, critique, and edit. I will work with the editorial board to develop candidate themes for a number of special issues. We are open to ideas from the members of our community.’

Does this mean that the promised edition featuring the economics of gifted education will not materialise? Certainly I have not been troubled by an invitation to comment on a target article, but perhaps I’m not on the list.


Topicality and Relevance

This is not simply an arid theoretical matter. It strikes to the very heart of many countries’ strategies for extricating themselves from economic stagnation and recession.

Human capital arguments have long been part of the political rhetoric, though they seem to fade in and out of fashion and are often applied in very specific contexts and settings.

In the UK as I write, parts of the Government are beginning to make the case.

A year ago infrastructural investment seemed to be the only game in town (though the Government’s published ‘Plan for Growth’ was admittedly far broader), but now the rhetoric has shifted. There is overt support for human capital arguments:

‘Set out well by the LSE Growth Commission, that long-term growth involves a major and sustained commitment to skills, innovation and infrastructure investment.’

Unfortunately, the Growth Commission has a relatively narrow view of human capital investment.

They recognise that:

‘Improving the quality of compulsory education is the key to achieving these gains [in growth]’

and they cite evidence of the impact on growth of ‘increasing UK school standards’ to the level achieved by some competitors.

But their proposed solutions – while focused on the necessity of improving the quality of human capital – are entirely generic, insufficiently differentiated to support (potential) high achievers.

Their recipe for success consists of across-the-board solutions such as more semi-autonomous academy schools and improvements to teacher quality. Even when they make the case to ‘help to develop the talent of disadvantaged pupils’, their focus is on generic accountability measures and Pupil Premium funding. No sign here of any conception of the smart fraction or the excellence gap!

Yet when it comes to post-compulsory education they readily acknowledge the case for ‘improving the maths and language ability of…post-16 vocational students’ and the need ‘to attract the best students…from around the world’ into our higher education institutions since:

‘There are potential advantages to the UK from having the world’s leaders in economy, society and government educated here.’

English Education Ministers are also seized of the importance of human capital investment and sometime even couch this in differentiated terms. Witness this recent speech from Elizabeth Truss:

‘LiLanqing, the Vice Premier of China from 1993 to 2003…grasped the fact that every country, even if they are among the most powerful, is in a global race. His observation that “We are striving for modernization at the dawn of a knowledge economy and in the midst of intensifying global competition” could have been uttered by me or one of my ministerial colleagues…

…I have no idea what the jobs of the future will be – and nor does anyone else. But we do know that they will demand people with even greater powers of thought, innovation and skill. As the middle is squeezed from the hourglass economy, it will no longer be enough to be able to process – instead much more flexibility and greater cognitive skills will be required.

And along with this ability to think, the demand for specialist skills is rising, particularly for quantitative and mathematical skills and for effective communication skills – ideally in more than one language.’

The Government is advancing a series of actions to tackle this need – some system-wide and some focused specifically on mathematics – but they too stop short of systematic and concentrated effort to increase the supply of high-achieving learners through interventions targeted specifically at them.


The Economic Case for Supporting High Achievers in Maths

The flow of the argument causes me to introduce at this point some recent work by John Jerrim. He richly deserves his position at the top of the bill since he is probably the nearest thing we have to an economist of gifted education in England today.

Jerrim recently published ‘The mathematical skills of school children: how does England compare to the high-performing East Asian countries’ (2013) which examines:

‘Whether the gap between the highest achieving children in England and highest achieving children in East Asia widens (or declines) during secondary school. This is a particularly prominent policy issue, as having a pool of very highly skilled individuals is vital for technological innovation and long-run economic growth.’

The study uses TIMSS and PISA maths test data to identify learners at the 90th percentile of the achievement distribution (so the top 10%) and compares their progress in different countries between the end of primary school and the end of secondary school.

The graph reproduced below compares the performance of this group in England with the same population in various Asian countries that perform particularly well on TIMSS and PISA maths assessments. The subsequent table gives test scores at the 90th percentile for a selection of other countries too (expressed in terms of standard deviations above the mean).


Jerrim Capture

Jerrim 1 Capture


So there is a tendency for the gap between the highest achieving pupils in England and the highest achieving children in the high-performing Asian countries to increase between the end of primary school and the end of secondary school.

The paper also examines the excellence gap, noting that:

‘No country has a significantly bigger socio-economic achievement gap than England at either age 13/14 or age 15/16.’

And the overall gap increases between ages 10 and 16. Jerrim argues that:

‘The most pressing issue is to ensure that the curriculum stretches the best young mathematicians enough, and that they are motivated (and incentivised) to fully develop their already accumulated academic skill. Evidence presented in this paper has suggested that the gap between the highest achieving children in England and the highest achieving children in East Asia widens between ages 10 and 16 (at least in mathematics). This is something that needs to be corrected as highly skilled individuals are likely to be important for the continuing success of certain major British industries (e.g. financial services) and to foster the technological innovation needed for long-run economic growth.’

The paper explores whether the East Asian predilection for private tuition helps explain the difference. But:

‘While a large proportion of East Asian families are willing to personally finance such activities through the private sector, the same is unlikely to hold true in the foreseeable future within England. Consequently, the state may need to intervene. Gifted and talented schemes, a shift of school and pupil incentives away from reaching floor targets (e.g. a C grade in GCSE mathematics) and enhanced tuition for children who excel in school are all possible policy responses.

But there is a caveat – cultural change may also be needed:

‘Consequently, the implementation of some of the characteristics of the East Asian educational model may imply the need for a cultural shift towards greater belief in the value of education amongst all and the importance of a hard work ethic. Indeed, it is important for academics and policymakers to recognise that East Asian children vastly out-perform their English peers even when they have been through the English schooling system. This is perhaps the clearest indication that it is actually what happens outside of school that is driving these countries superior PISA and TIMSS math test performance.’

It is worth emphasising that a well-designed gifted education programme and effort to bring about cultural change need not be mutually exclusive. A gifted programme can be designed to improve the motivation, aspirations and attitudes of the learners who participate (and their immediate families) as well as improving their achievement.

Indeed, given the range and size of out-of-school effects on socio-economic achievement gaps, that is arguably an essential component of any effort to narrow the excellence gap.


Where Had We Got To In 2010? Defining Terms


The Economics of Gifted Education – The Smart Fraction

Before reviewing other key documents published in the last three years, I must briefly reprise the nub of the argument I advanced in 2010, through the two ‘economics of gifted education’ posts already referenced.

I shall also reference another relevant post called ‘The Transatlantic Excellence Gap: A Comparative Study of England and the UK’ published in August 2010.

In ‘The Economics of Gifted Education’, I confined myself to explaining:

  • Human capital, which I described as ‘the collective term for the knowledge, skills, understanding and personal attributes that equip a person to generate economic value’, much of which is typically acquired through education.
  • Endogenous growth theory, which suggests that ‘investment in human capital brings about innovation, improves the efficiency of production and results in better products and services. This generates increasing returns and so brings about continuous long-term improvement in economic growth.’
  • The OECD’s categorisation of human capital as: know-what (knowledge), know-why (scientific knowledge), know-how (skills) and know-who (networks).
  • The evolution of Knowledge-Based Economies (KBEs) in which ‘the generation, application and dissemination of knowledge is seen as the principal driver of economic growth. Education is key to the development of a successful KBE and most national plans focus heavily on strengthening the education sector.’
  • Florida’s concept of the Creative Class ‘a socio-economic group, comprising some 40 million creative and knowledge-based workers in the US, destined to play a key role in future economic growth’.

In ‘The Economics of Gifted Education: Smart Fraction Theory, I outlined the development of this concept, beginning with a description of the impact of cognitive ability on economic growth.

This drew on two papers by the aforementioned Hanushek and his colleague Woessmann: ‘The Role of Cognitive Skills in Economic Development’ (2008) and ‘Do Better Schools Lead to More Growth: Cognitive Skills, Economic Outcomes and Causation’ (2009).

The first of these explained the benefits of setting aside the quantity of schooling as a measure of human capital in favour of a qualitative measure, ‘cognitive skill’, which takes into account environmental and genetic factors and may be demonstrated and measured by performance in international comparisons studies such as PISA.

It suggested that, were countries performing at the mean in PISA and TIMSS maths and science assessments to achieve the level of the highest performing countries, they would secure a 5% improvement in GDP over 20 years.

It also noted (my summary) that:

‘Improvements in top end performance and in average performance have separate and complementary effects on economic growth.’

The second study developed this point further (my summary again):

‘Were countries to secure an improvement of 10% in the proportion of students scoring at 400+ points and 600+ points respectively, each would have a positive impact on economic growth – and the intervention at the top end of the ability range would have 4 times greater impact than the intervention at average ability levels…

…Providing better basic education for all and also pushing significant numbers to very high achievement levels is the best policy for economic growth.’

I proceeded to give a brief account of the development of smart fraction theory, which has its origins in the correlation between national average IQ and per capita GDP.

I explained how these two research strands had been synthesised in a paper ‘The Impact of Smart Fractions, Cognitive Ability of Politicians and Average Competence of Peoples on Social Development’ by Rindermann, Sailer and Thompson (2009).

I summarised their argument:

  • There are strong links between findings in the economic tradition (human capital) the educational tradition (literacy) and the psychological tradition (intelligence) suggesting they are measuring ‘the same underlying latent factor’ of cognitive ability.
  • The smart fraction should be pitched similarly to Hanushek and Woessmann’s higher level, defined here as the 95th percentile on TIMSS, PISA and PIRLS tests of comparative academic performance, which is said to be equivalent to IQ125.
  • There is a much stronger correlation between high national GDP and the smart fraction than high national GDP and average cognitive ability.
  • The positive impact on GDP can be isolated mainly to STEM-related achievement as opposed to achievement outside the STEM fields, suggesting the former are the main drivers of national affluence.

Their ultimate conclusion: ‘our results emphasise the importance of nurturing the highly gifted’.


The Excellence Gap

I began a sequence of posts on the Excellence Gap in August 2010, with one reviewing evidence from the USA, drawing especially on ‘Mind The (Other) Gap: The Growing Excellence Gap in K-12 Education’ by Plucker et al (2010).

The authors applied the term to differences between the achievement of advantaged and disadvantaged students performing at the highest levels, in this case on NAEP reading and maths assessments for Grades 4 and 8 respectively.

They considered the impact of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background and English language proficiency, recognising the complex interaction between these factors.

They found socio-economic gap between advantaged and disadvantaged high achievers had not been narrowed by NCLB, though there was no substantive evidence that NCLB’s focus on lower achievers had actually increased the gap.

They also concluded that federal involvement in reducing the excellence gap was negligible. The Javits Scheme – then in operation – did not bring about any substantive improvements.


‘In some cases where the excellence gap appears to be shrinking, this is attributable to a dip in performance at the higher level – rather than all achievers improving their performance, with lower achievers improving at a relatively faster rate.’

Plucker et al recommended that:

  • The US Government should make closing the excellence gap a national and state-level priority – and should consider the effect of all new policies in addressing this priority.
  • It should also determine the optimal blend of national, state and local interventions to narrow the gap; this would involve more research into effective strategies.
  • There should be financial incentives to encourage states, districts and schools to tackle the excellence gap and realistic targets for them to aim at.
  • High achievement ceilings should be built into the assessment processes supporting the Common Core Standards then under consideration.

I also made a connection between this study and an earlier report by McKinsey ‘The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools’ (2009) which defined two types of ‘top gap’, one based on ethnicity and the other on the gap between top performers/performance in the US and in other countries.

Unfortunately, McKinsey stopped short of quantifying the economic value of reducing either version of the ‘top gap’.

Part Two of this post examined the evidence for a corresponding excellence gap in England, while Part Three discussed the relationship between the excellence gap and fair access to higher education in the UK.


Progress Since 2010

So far as is possible in this paywall-restricted context, I want to explore how these different strands of thinking have evolved since 2010.

In order to make the post manageable I have confined myself principally to the writings of the four key protagonists we have already encountered, namely messrs Hanushek, Jerrim, Plucker and Rindermann (as well as their various co-authors).

I have been fortunate to find all the papers referenced below freely available online. I sincerely hope that they will remain so, because they deserve to be widely read.

As you proceed through the remainder of this post, imagine a dartboard. I will try to show where these leading thinkers have brought forward material that is relevant to the argument I have advanced above. Each paper contributes a score on the board by inserting a dart in one or more segments.


Photo Credit: mags20_eb via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: mags20_eb via Compfight cc


Extending the metaphor, imagine that a bullseye is a full economic justification for the investment in gifted education. How close do these contributors get?

If we piece their contributions together, how far away are we from achieving a bullseye-equalling score from the various darts that have hit the board? Which segments have our selected players failed to hit?

I will tally up the score at the end of the post.

We begin with the excellence gap, drawing principally on work from Plucker and Jerrim, before moving on to consider Hanushek’s more recent work on the impact of high cognitive skills on economic growth and Rindermann’s approach to cognitive competence.


The Excellence Gap


Work in the US

It seems that, in the USA at least, further work on the Excellence Gap since 2010 has been rather limited..

‘Mind the (Other) Gap’ said that:

‘A forthcoming report by CEEP will provide evidence that certain state education policies may have a small but positive relationship with shrinking excellence gaps.’

There is a complete set of ‘State profile reports’ but these are exclusively descriptive, failing to establish which state policies are most effective.

It seems that the forthcoming report must still be forthcoming (but meantime Plucker has moved from CEEP, based at the University of Indiana, to the University of Connecticut).

A 2012 publication: ‘Trends in education excellence gaps: a 12-year international perspective via the multilevel model for change’ by Rutkowski, Rutkowski and Plucker is hidden behind a paywall

The abstract suggests that the study uses TIMSS data to examine international trends in excellence gaps focusing particularly on the gender and immigrant status of learners:

‘Specifically, we found evidence of shrinking sex-based excellence gaps in both science and mathematics. With respect to immigrant status and excellence gaps, small gaps in the proportion of advanced achievers persist over time. In the context of large demographic changes worldwide, we argue that these findings are generally encouraging.’

A 2012 presentation by the same authors seems to cover much the same territory and suggests that the analysis utilises the TIMSS advanced international benchmark in maths and science. Conclusions relate to gender and immigrant status only: there is no treatment of socio-economic gaps.

Other presentations are also available at the link given above. One, by Burroughs and Cogan of Michigan State University, also refers to further work on ‘which (if any) state policies mitigate excellence gaps’.

The list it provides of ‘policies associated with smaller SES excellence gaps’ is unsurprising:

  • Share of school districts with gifted education administrators
  • Requirement of certification for gifted education teachers
  • Dedicated gifted education funding
  • State approval of district gifted education plans

Another presentation, by Plucker himself, uses the TIMSS Grade 8 maths data to highlight stark international comparisons.


Plucker Capture


Using NAEP data, Plucker examines excellence gap trends, concluding that:

‘At the present rate it would take decades (if ever) for the gaps to close’.

He highlights the fact that excellence gaps are distinct from more general achievement gaps:

‘Although achievement gaps are somewhat larger than excellence gaps, there [sic] are also closing more quickly and consistently’.


‘There is no evidence that ANY state has figured out a way to address Excellence Gaps, and many states have laughably low criteria for what constitutes an Advanced student.’

This presentation also references a range of further work:

  • ‘Second edition of report in March 2012
  • Special report on science excellence gaps in near future
  • Special report on the experiences of gifted black males around August 2012
  • Report on NAEP excellence gaps in major urban areas around this time next year [ie early 2013]’

Little if any of this seems to have materialised.

Interestingly, a final presentation from June 2012 fails to include the slide containing details of further work. The CEEP website at Plucker’s former University has no further information and Plucker’s page at UConn is similarly coy.

Meantime, the NAGC in the United States has published ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent: Supporting High Achievement of Low-Income High-Ability Students’ (2012). I will review this in more detail in a separate post. It draws on the excellence gap research above and identifies a research agenda for the future.

But conspicuously absent from this, as from all the research I have found, is any effort by economists of education to quantify the cost of the excellence gap and the savings that would accrue from reducing it. Since McKinsey apparently ducked that calculation in 2009, no-one else seems to have attempted it.


Important Work in the UK

In the UK Jerrim has also undertaken some work on the excellence gap. In March 2011 he and Vignoles published ‘The use (and misuse) of statistics in understanding social mobility: regression to the mean and the cognitive development of high ability children from disadvantaged homes’

This study revisits the contention that young able learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are subsequently overtaken by their more advantaged peers. The contention seems to originate in work by Feinstein.

He assessed children at 22 months, 42 months, 60 months and 120 months respectively. Learners with high ability were defined as those in the top quartile at the first assessment. Socio-economic background was defined on the basis of parental occupation. Feinstein then traces progress by learners from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds with high and low ability respectively, producing this now famous chart.


Feinstein Capture


Though the high ability children begin at the same level, those from disadvantaged backgrounds subsequently fall behind their more advantaged peers, and appear to be overtaken by low ability learners from advantaged backgrounds somewhere between the third and fourth assessment.

Jerrim and Vignoles argue that this effect is attributable to regression towards the mean, which can be caused by selection:

‘Regression to the mean due to selection is a statistical phenomenon that occurs when taking repeated measures on the same individual(s) over time. Due to random error, those with a relatively high (or low) score on an initial examination are likely to receive a less extreme mark on subsequent tests. In the context of the results presented above, children defined as ―high ability‖ based on one single exam are not necessarily the most talented in the population. Rather assignment to this group is actually based on children‘s true ability and the “luck” that the child happened to have when sitting that particular assessment (i.e. random error).’

Such regression can also be attributable to lack of comparability between the tests Feinstein used at different ages.

The authors set out findings from their own studies before concluding:

‘There is currently an overwhelming view amongst academics and policymakers that highly able children from poor homes get overtaken by their affluent (but less able) peers before the end of primary school. Although this empirical finding is treated as a stylised fact, the methodology used to reach this conclusion is seriously flawed. After attempting to correct for the aforementioned statistical problem, we find little evidence that this is actually the case Hence we strongly recommend that any future work on high ability disadvantaged groups takes the problem of regression to the mean fully into account.’

One assumes that other work by Jerrim himself – and by Plucker and his associates – manages not to fall foul of this statistical bear-trap. I apologise if any of my selected pieces have been caught by that trap: it should be clear that I do not have the expertise to judge.

The following year, Jerrim published a further study ‘The socio-economic gradient in teenagers’ literacy skills: how does England compare to other countries?’ (2012).

This examines the strength of the relationship between socio-economic background (as measured by parents’ occupation) and reading skills at age 15, based on the PISA 2009 assessment of reading.

It considers the size of the socio-economic effect at different points of the achievement distribution, using nationally defined deciles. This means that the deciles are pitched at different levels in different countries, (but Jerrim notes that his findings would also hold had he used generic deciles instead).

Comparisons are made between the UK and five other countries: Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany and the US, with a view to exploring whether the most able children from disadvantaged backgrounds can match the performance of their advantaged peers. Jerrim explains the relevance of this in terms of social mobility:

‘This has important implications for those concerned with widening access to higher education (particularly to ‘elite’ institutions) and the top professions. In particular, socio-economic differences towards the top of the achievement distribution need to be sufficiently narrow to make such pathways a viable option for disadvantaged groups. If this is not accomplished, then England is unlikely to foster the ‘top-end’ social mobility that many see as a desirable goal.’

Jerrim begins by considering average differences between advantaged and disadvantaged learners in different countries on the basis of PISA 2009 reading test scores. He finds that:

‘By the final year of compulsory schooling, the reading skills of English children from disadvantaged backgrounds are (on average) two-and-a-half years behind those from the most affluent homes.’

But this difference is relatively similar to most other developed countries: England sits comfortably mid-table. This contrasts with the findings of earlier studies suggesting that the socio-economic gap is particularly large in England.

Jerrim next considers the achievement gap for different deciles of the achievement distribution. In the graph below, these deciles are plotted against the gap between the results of advantaged and disadvantaged learners in the six countries named above.


Jerrim B Capture


Jerrim draws out a particularly interesting comparison with Germany. The gradient is steeper in Germany than England at the bottom end of the distribution, representing the lowest achievers. However, the reverse is true in the case of the highest achievers.

In discussing the reasons for this, he suggests that it may be because policy in England is focused disproportionately on ‘the long tail of low achievement’ with comparatively less attention paid to the excellence gap. Another reason might be the relatively greater segregation in English schools, where more advantaged learners are concentrated disproportionately in the better schools. However, the differences in England remain large ‘if one also includes a school-level fixed effect’.

Jerrim next includes a table showing how the socio-economic gap impacts on different deciles of the achievement distribution in a wider range of countries.


Jerrim C Capture


He comments on the difference between the US – where the association between background and achievement is relatively strong across the achievement deciles – and Finland, where the association is comparatively weak.

In England there is a relatively strong link between socio-economic background and high achievement:

‘Socio-economic test score differences at the 80th percentile are greater here than in 18 out of the other 22 OECD countries considered (and significantly so on 11 occasions). The same is not true, however, at the bottom of the PISA reading test distribution, where England is actually ranked above the median, having smaller socioeconomic test score differences.’

Finally Jerrim considers whether the socio-economic gap has declined since 2000. He finds that, while the average gap has declined and that is repeated at the bottom end of the achievement distribution, this is not true at the top.


Jerrim D Capture


In discussing why this is the case Jerrim draws attention to the impact of the national literacy strategy and criticism that:

‘Initiatives targeting more able children in England (for example, the Gifted and Talented scheme) have, on the other hand, been criticised in the media for not reaching those from lower socio-economic groups.’

But this is somewhat simplistic since it assumes that the resources allocated to these two initiatives were broadly comparable when there was in fact a huge difference between their relative scale and reach.

Jerrim does not rule out the possibility that these changes can be attributed – at least in part – to a decline in academic standards He finds that the narrowing of the gap  appears to have been driven by a relatively greater decline in achievement amongst those from advantaged backgrounds but:

‘Whereas the apparent decline in performance for the top SES quintile seems to have occurred quite evenly across the achievement distribution… the decline suffered by the most disadvantaged group is most apparent at the top end

He ultimately fails to answer the question whether these differences are relatively more attributable to Government initiatives or to falling standards (which might in part be attributable to Government policy).

However, he concludes that improving the educational achievement of the most able learners from disadvantaged backgrounds should be a priority in England:

‘The key question for policymakers is, of course, ‘How do we reach this goal?’… schemes to raise academically able pupils’ aspirations during secondary school may be important if these have a causal influence on their later attainment. Alternatively, a targeted gifted and talented’ scheme could be introduced, where high-potential children from poor backgrounds are identified at the start of compulsory education and receive sustained investment throughout their time at school.

Much valuable research has suggested that it is most efficient to invest early, but also that inputs are complementary (i.e. that later investment is most effective when it builds on earlier investment). Disadvantaged children who have reached school age doing relatively well should thus be in a particularly strong position to benefit from a period of such sustained investment.

Schemes of this nature could be piloted in the most deprived parts of the country and undergo a thorough evaluation before being rolled out on a national scale. Despite the fiscal limitations that governments are acting under, such investment may be needed in order to reduce England’s comparatively strong association between family background and high achievement, and thus to make pathways to elite higher education institutions and the top professions a viable option for more children from disadvantaged homes.

As I have said before, aspiration-raising and support for gifted learners need not be mutually exclusive activities.


Another (MoreTypical) Perspective

Before I leave this topic, I want to draw attention to the bias that still operates in this territory.

Also in 2012, the IPPR (a UK-based think-tank) published ‘A Long Division: Closing the Attainment Gap in England’s Secondary Schools

This favourably references Hanushek and Woessmann’s argument that ‘concentrating on both lower level attainment and high performers is complementary in terms of raising skill levels and economic growth at a national level’. But, quite unaccountably this is glossed by the statement:

‘This evidence challenges the popular logic of ignoring those who are struggling for fear of holding back those at the top’

when surely the ‘popular logic’ involves focusing disproportionately on the lower achievers!

This report also examines the proportion of students at different PISA benchmarks in the 2009 reading assessment. The table below shows the percentage at each benchmark for the UK, compared with the OECD average and a set of named ‘key competitors’


IPPR Capture

The Report draws attention to the significant difference in the volume of pupils failing to achieve level 2, compared with the much smaller volume at the higher levels.

While acknowledging that the UK faces ‘a two-horned challenge’ at the top and bottom of the attainment distribution, it uses another calculation – the number of learners who would have to achieve one level for England to have the same distribution as its key competitors – to advance its arguments for concentrating disproportionately at the lower end.


IPPR1 Capture


The text says:

‘It is clear that the biggest challenge – both in terms of the proportion and absolute number of students that need to improve – is raising the achievement of lower performers. Over 80 per cent of the pupils who would need to improve by one level to ensure the UK matches competitor countries come from attainment levels 3 or below.’

But, as we have seen from Jerrim’s research, the story is markedly different when socio-economic background is factored into the equation. Contrary to the IPPR’s suggestion, the excellence gap is important!

Later on the Report goes some way towards acknowledging this:

‘The government is right to be concerned about the low proportion of FSM pupils achieving top grades at GCSE. Ensuring bright pupils from disadvantaged homes are stretched will be important for narrowing the achievement gap. This will require a number of these pupils to raise their performance by the equivalent of one grade in each of their subjects. We estimate that around half of the FSM pupils that currently achieve straight-As would need to achieve straight-A* grades in order eradicate the achievement gap at the very top of the distribution. ‘

But once more this is immediately undermined:

‘While raising achievement at the top is important, it is only a small part of the picture. It is apparent…that there is also a long tail of underachievement among FSM pupils that needs to be tackled.’

Jerrim published his paper in June 2012 while the IPPR report appeared in September. What a pity that the IPPR failed to take account of Jerrim’s critically important findings.


The Impact of High Cognitive Skills on Economic Growth

It is high time we shifted our attention from a comparatively narrow focus on the excellence gap to consider wider work by Hanushek and Woessmann on the relationship between high level cognitive skills and economic growth.

Following the trajectory in Hanushek’s own work is comparatively easy since he helpfully provides links to most of his publications (all of the papers below can be accessed from this page).

Back in 2007 in a World Bank publication ‘Education Quality and Economic Growth’, Hanushek and Woessmann asked the question ‘Education for all or rocket scientists – or both?’ or, in other words:

‘Does educational performance at different points in the distribution have separate effects on economic growth?’

Drawing on the now familiar evidence in international comparisons studies, they conclude that there are separate and significant effects:

‘Importantly, the relative size of the effects of performance at the bottom and at the top of the distribution depends on the specification, and further research is needed to yield more detailed predictions. Even so, the evidence strongly suggests that both dimensions of educational performance count for the growth potential of an economy…. In sum, different dimensions of the quality of education seem to have independent positive effects on economic growth. This is true both for basic and top dimensions of educational performance and for the math and science dimensions. Because of the thin country samples, however, one should trust the pattern of results more than the specific estimates’.

We have already seen from my previous posts – summarised above – how this thinking had developed by 2010, but what further progress has been made since then?

In a 2012 paper, a small additional gloss is added, which is nevertheless useful:

‘Many countries have focused on either basic skills or engineers and scientists. In terms of growth, our estimates suggest that developing basic skills and highly talented people reinforce each other. Moreover, achieving basic literacy for all may well be a precondition for identifying those who can reach “rocket scientist” status. In other words, tournaments among a large pool of students with basic skills may be an efficient way to obtain a large share of high-performers.’

Unfortunately, although Hanushek and Woessmann can readily quantify the economic impact of improvements in cognitive skills as measured by international comparisons studies, this is always in generic terms.

In an October 2010 study called ‘How Much Do Educational Outcomes Matter in OECD Countries?’ they use PISA test data and GDP data from the Penn World Tables to map the relationship between these two variables in 24 OECD countries.

They find that an increase of one standard deviation – equivalent to 100 points on the PISA scale – ‘yields an average annual growth rate over 40 years that is 1.86 percentage points higher’.

They go on to consider whether basic skills or ‘top skills’ are more significant for developed countries. They begin by discussing a theory attributed to Vandenbussche et al suggesting that countries should prefer to invest in high skills when ‘close to a technological frontier’ whereas the reverse should be true for countries some distance from such a frontier. However they are not convinced, suggesting that arguments for the opposite effect are at least as strong.

Two analyses are offered, one based on differences between those educated at school and higher education level respectively; the other on the distribution of cognitive skills as measured by PISA test scores of at least 400 and at least 600 (so replicating the earlier study mentioned in my 2010 post).

The commentary below refers to the second analysis which is encapsulated in this table


hanushek 2 Capture


The associated commentary notes that:

‘Both skill dimensions enter the model significantly, but the point estimate on the top-skill dimension is substantially higher. A 10 percentage point increase in the basic-skill share is associated with 0.3 percentage points higher annual growth; a 10 percentage point increase in the top-skill share is associated with 1.3 percentage points higher annual growth.’

This is the familiar ‘four times as much from top skills’ conclusion.

But the authors warn that this should not necessarily be taken to signal the relative significance of top skills compared with basic skills, because one has to factor in the feasibility of securing such improvements. It may prove somewhat easier to increase the share of basic skills than the share of top skills. This is particularly likely to be true of countries that are already performing relatively well at the top end.

This may help to explain why these results are not replicated when the analysis is confined solely to OECD countries:

‘When estimating the same model on the OECD sample, though, the point estimate on the top-skill share is only a fourth of the one estimated in the full-country sample and loses statistical significance…By contrast, the point estimate on the basic-skill share is slightly larger than in the full-country sample, and remains highly significant. The…difference in the estimate on the top-skill share between OECD and non-OECD countries is statistically significant.’

But this otherwise surprising disparity is not further explored, as the authors move on to consider the economic value of different education reforms. None of the reforms involves targeted support for high-achieving learners. There is apparently no place for gifted education in the education production function.

Nor do they consider explicitly the economic value of increasing the number of learners who achieve the higher benchmarks on the international comparisons studies.  Instead they use much less specific proxies including:

  • improving average student performance by 0.25 of a standard deviation or 25 PISA points;
  • bringing all countries to the level of the top performer in PISA (Finland); and
  • improving all students to a minimum proficiency level – defined as the 400 point marker on the PISA scale.

None of these is directly relevant to our argument. The broad conclusion is that:

‘Independent of whether the underlying economic model is specified in endogenous-growth or neoclassical terms, improved educational achievement is projected to have a large impact on future economic well-being of OECD countries.’

The same methodology is applied in another study:  ‘The Economic Benefit of Education Reform in the European Union’ (2012) which considers how GDP in the EU and its member states might increase as a consequence of improved educational achievement.

They estimate the impact of bringing each country to the average level achieved by students in Finland (556 points in PISA 2006). Assuming an endogenous growth model:

‘On average, annual EU growth rates would be about one percent higher, reflecting the fact that the average gap with Finland is slightly more than one-half standard deviation on the PISA tests. Across the whole EU, the present value of this educational reform would amount to Euros 95 trillion, or more than 7 times the current GDP of the EU and about 17 percent of the discounted future GDPs over the same time span.’

Alternatively, assuming a neoclassical growth model, the present value of such an improvement amounts to Euros 72 trillion.

The comparable figures for England only are Euros 10,961 billion (endogenous) and Euros 8,393 billion (neoclassical).

It is disappointing that Hanushek and Woessmann seem to have focused their attention on national efforts to reach average levels of high performance in PISA and other international comparisons studies, rather than pursuing their initial distinction between top skills and basic skills.


From Intelligence to Cognitive Capitalism

One further Hanushek and Woessmann publication provides a useful link between their work and the parallel efforts of Rindermann.

In 2011, in a Chapter of a Handbook of the Economics: Economics of Education called ‘The Economics of International Differences in Educational Achievement’ the authors draw on many of the findings from their earlier work, but they also include a commentary on parallel models, in the psychological tradition, which seek to explain variations in economic growth through national IQ differences.

These seem to me fundamentally flawed for three reasons. First, they assume a single measure of intelligence (g); second, they appear to rest on the assumption that intelligence is exclusively heritable; and third, there are issues with the data.

Hanushek and Woessmann deal with the second and third of these (though not, apparently, the first):

‘The potential difference from the preceding analysis is the common view that IQs are fixed and not subject to schooling or environmental influences…This fixed-factor view, often related to ideas of the high degree of heritability of IQs, of course is not the uniform view of researchers in the area. Indeed, in the economics literature, Goldberger and Manski (1995) and Heckman (1995) have clear analyses showing that families and schools have strong effects on measured IQ…

The real question with these analyses is what exactly is being measured. The underlying IQ scores by country come from an idiosyncratic collection of national data that relies on specialized samples for specific cohorts and subsets of the population. Thus the question that arises is how much measurement error there is in an underlying skill dimension….

The conclusion from the various models of the impact of national IQ scores on economic outcomes is that IQ provides another potential measure of cognitive skills…Nonetheless, most of the analyses would suggest that this measure is noticeably more error prone than the international test data stressed here.’

The penultimate sentence is perhaps a little more generous than the evidence warrants.


Tracing the Evolution of Cognitive Competence Through Rindermann’s Thinking


Before the Smart Fraction

Some of Rindermann’s early papers sought to get round this problem by insisting that achievement – as measured by PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS – and intelligence are fundamentally the same entity.

This is evident in a 2007 paper: ‘Relevance of education and intelligence at the national level for the economic welfare of people’.

This acknowledges that research about intelligence at national level faces problems over the quality of data (so agreeing with Hanushek above) but such issues do not apply to the international comparisons studies like TIMSS and PISA.

Since national IQ results:

‘correlate so highly with the results of international school assessments that the two types of tests appear to measure the same or at least a similar construct’.

Rindermann develops an argument that intelligence tests and international comparisons studies are ‘indicators of one common cognitive ability’.

  • At national level the correlations between IQ tests and international comparisons studies are very high (r = 0.80-0.90)
  • They both assess thinking and knowledge. Though there is a theoretical difference between these two concepts these ‘two intertwined ability components are difficult to separate. Knowledge is always required to solve the kinds of task that individuals are confronted with in everyday life or that are used in cognitive ability tests. And thinking ability helps to increase and use knowledge.’
  • Therefore the two types of test ‘are alternative measures of an homogenous construct’ so one can reasonably generate a composite score from the two combined.
  • This will provide a ‘concise measure of knowledge-reduced intelligence, of (as valuable and true estimated) knowledge and of thinking skills that are needed to make use of this knowledge’.

The paper proceeds to demonstrate the international distribution of such a composite score and its correlation with other variables, as well as the impact on GDP.

The average score is derived from a complex aggregation of Lynn and Vanhanen’s IQ database and a vast range of international comparisons studies (IEA reading, TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA for various years).

Rindermann points out close correlations between the results and the evidence of the quality of national education systems as well as various attributes of society. The correlation with GDP stands at (r = 0.63)

Another 2007 paper, ‘The g-Factor of International Cognitive Ability Comparisons: The Homogeneity of Results in PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS and IQ-Tests Across Nations’ makes a similar argument, acknowledging my first reservation above – that this position rests on an understanding that there is a single measure of cognitive ability – the g factor – which correlates with student achievement.

Rindermann discusses the term that should be used to describe these competences assessed through IQ tests and international comparisons studies alike:

‘The sum value of different student assessment scales or of student assessment and intelligence test scales represents a combination of intelligence and knowledge. Knowledge itself has to be assessed normatively by its truthfulness and relevance. Pure knowledge questions (about true and important content) are only indirect measures of intelligence. A term that encompasses both intelligence and knowledge could be general complex (individual and national) cognitive ability.

In a subsequent study dating from 2009 ‘Educational Policy and Country Outcomes in International Cognitive Competence Studies’, Rindermann and Ceci investigate the  extent to which national differences in this composite ‘cognitive competence’ measure are explainable by different aspects of their education systems.

They explore six ‘paradigms’ to explain such differences:

  • Culture – the support that different cultures give to ‘cognitively stimulating education, rationality in thinking and everyday behaviour, reading, diligence, and thinking oriented toward reasonable standards (vs. rote learning, authoritarianism and traditionalism)’.
  • Genes – the controversial idea that there are genetic differences operating at national level (which is explored extensively elsewhere in the psychological research literature).
  • Wealth – the notion that wealth originates in factors such as engagement in trade and colonialism and improves cognitive competence through improved health and nutrition. (Rindermann and Ceci clearly favour the argument that intelligence drives wealth rather than vice versa.)
  • Politics – the impact of democracy, the rule of law, political liberty and suchlike.
  • Geography – through the impact of genetic theories, or the transmission of effects between geographically proximate countries which ‘learn more often from their near and related neighbours than they do from those living in regions far away. They adapt their customs and they benefit from their neighbours’ progress in education and wealth by imitation, by migration, through investments, or by melding their cultures and peoples.’
  • Education – ‘Not only is education an important source of within-country cognitive competence differences, it is probably also an important source of between-country differences. Although evidence for the importance of education on cognitive development does not rule out the importance of non- educational factors (culture, genes, wealth, politics, and geography) as determinants of cognitive development and the possibility of reciprocal causation… a focus on education allows researchers to formulate suggestions for the improvement of educational policy with the probability that they will result in higher cognitive competences that ultimately will contribute to increased wealth, democratization, and better health for society.’

The study examines 16 educational factors that research has associated with positive student outcomes and their correlation with Rindermann’s cognitive competence measure, derived from a blend of intelligence and international comparisons studies.

The overall finding is that:

‘Across the several analyses that we conducted, six important predictors of national competence emerge: (a) the general educational level of adults, (b) kindergarten attendance, (c) discipline (school appropriate behaviour), (d) amount of education of students in given age (including the amount of instruction per year, attendance at additional schools, and attendance of high grades at a young age), (e) use of high-stakes exit tests and central objective exams, and (f) early tracking. In addition, some evidence also points to beneficial effects of early school enrolment, small classes (including high teacher–pupil ratio), direct instruction, and a low rate of grade retention.’

The reference to early tracking (aka setting) is particularly interesting given that the OECD takes a contrary view in its analysis of PISA outcomes.

Rindermann and Ceci argue that:

‘Tracking appears to be valuable when it is oriented toward competences measured by objective exams and not used to limit one’s final possible educational degree at a young age, as seen in systems that stream students into pre-collegiate or vocational tracks at a young age. One benefit of early tracking systems could be meeting the special educational needs of intellectually gifted students… But if high-ability students are adequately challenged in non-tracked school systems (e.g., by streamed classes within schools, by acceleration or skipping classes, by maintenance of ambitious learning goals for all students, or by enrichment courses), tracking between schools would not be necessary.’


After the Smart Fraction

These studies predate the work I described in my previous post on the smart fraction, but where did Rindermann’s thinking move to following that study?

In 2011, Rindermann and Thompson published ‘Cognitive Capitalism: The Effect of Cognitive Ability on Wealth, as Mediated Through Scientific Achievement and Economic Freedom

This discusses the various origins of an ‘Intellectual Class Hypothesis’ in a manner highly redolent of my own blog post:

‘The intellectual-class hypothesis posits that individuals who are cognitively highly competent should have a positive effect on affluence, politics, and culture in their society. Several authors have referred to this phenomenon implicitly or explicitly; for example, Florida (2002) refers to the “creative class,” Hanushek and Woessmann (2009) speak of “rocket scientists,” Pritchett and Viarengo (2009) refer to “global performers,” and La Griffe du Lion (2002) calls the intellectual class the “smart fraction” of the population (see also Gelade, 2008; Weiss, 2009). Unlike with other forms of capital, there are no diminishing returns for cognitive ability: The higher the cognitive ability and the more persons at higher cognitive levels, the better. Performing research at the level of individual differences, Park, Lubinski, and Benbow (2008) found that even among the top 1% of cognitively competent persons, the upper quartile (rank 99.75) unambiguously outperformed the lower quartile (rank 99.25) in scientific and technological fields, as measured by science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) publications and patents.’

Different definitions of the smart fraction are discussed – those exceeding an IQ or student assessment threshold, and those defined in statistical terms, eg at the 90th, 95th or 99th percentile. The authors select the latter option.

They discuss limitations of the Hanushek and Woessmann approach and of Rindermann’s own 2009 paper.

The latter fell short because: it used GDP as an indicator of wealth rather than ‘log GDP’ which would give relatively more value to increased wealth at lower levels than at higher levels; 42 of 90 countries were missing from the analysis; the three cognitive ability levels deployed were highly correlated with each other, so exposing them to ‘unstable path coefficients and suppressor effects’; it failed to explore the impact of other possible determinants of wealth; and, finally, it did not explore ‘the hypothesis that the development and functionality of economic institutions themselves could depend  on cognitive ability, especially on the cognitive ability of an intellectual class.’

On this occasion the authors compare three ability levels – the mean, 95th and 5th percentiles. TIMSS, PISA and PIRLS data is used to calculate ‘mean ability values’ for 90 countries. The results are aggregated and standardised on a common scale with UK at 100. (This they call the ‘Greenwich IQ’).

The three ability levels are correlated with several different variables:

  • Scientific and technological excellence measured through patent rates, Nobel prizes in science, number of scientists, and high technology exports, with all results adjusted for population size.
  • Economic freedom, including ‘property rights, rule of law, low customs, taxes, government-spending ratio and trade restrictions’.
  • The education level of society, a composite derived from adult literacy rates, graduation from secondary school and years of school attendance.
  • Excellence in science, maths and technology from 800BC to 1950 ‘as measured by the eminence and number of important scientists in a country’.

The results are presented in the charts below. The first uses Rindermann’s percentiles; the second adopts Hanushek and Woessmann’s approach of utilising PISA scores of 400+ and 600+ respectively.


 Rind and Thom Capture


Rind and Thom 2 Capture

The study concludes:

‘In modern society, the cognitive level of the intellectual class and its relative size are more important for economic development than are the mean cognitive level or the cognitive level and relative size of lower-ability groups. STEM achievements depend on the level of cognitive ability of the intellectual class; additionally, the intellectual class’s ability level positively influences wealth by increasing economic freedom. We confirmed this result using different measures of the ability and percentage of intellectual classes, different country samples, different time intervals and historical periods, and different statistical methods. The results underscore the relevance of human capital for the wealth of nations, more particularly, the relevance of the intellectual classes, as mediated by high accomplishment in STEM and by economic freedom.

In concrete numbers, an increase of 1 IQ point in the intellectual class raises the average GDP by $468 U.S., whereas an increase of 1 IQ point in the cognitive ability of the mean raises average GDP by $229 U.S….

… Wealth in modern times is the result of cognitive capitalism. Cognitive capitalism refers to the idea that the cognitive ability of society as a whole, and of its cognitive elite in particular, is the prerequisite for the development of technological progress, for the historic development of modern society with its increasing cognitive demands and complexity, and for the wealth furthering norms and institutions that form the core of the capitalist system (economic freedom, free markets, rule of law, property rights). In effect, cognitive ability is crucial in creating and sustaining a high-achievement milieu leading not only to economic growth and wealth, but also to a democratic and free society.’

The concept of cognitive capitalism is further developed in a 2012 study called ‘Intellectual classes, technological progress and economic development: The rise of cognitive capitalism.’

This considers whether intelligence leads to wealth or vice versa, whether other factors are involved and, assuming that intelligence produces wealth, how that is achieved.

Unsurprisingly, Rindermann concludes that intelligence does indeed produce wealth. There are reciprocal effects but these are relatively weaker. He suggests that:

‘Each IQ point increase in the nineteen sixties has raised wealth in 2000 by US $279. Each $1000 GDP increase in 1970 has increased cognitive competence in2000 by 0.23 IQ points.’

He proceeds to advance a more refined theory of cognitive competence to explain how this happens. It is partly attributable to the aggregated effect of the relationship between individuals’ intelligence and their performance at work, but there are several more significant national effects in play:

  • The cognitive ability of the political class, which is critical to the competence of government;
  • The quality of various national institutions – government and administration, courts, companies, police, armed services, schools and universities.
  • Social factors – ‘as cognitive development benefits from the intelligence level of one’s social environment…intelligence of others is important for nurturing individuals’ intelligence. During youth the intelligence of parents, teachers and classmates is important, in adulthood that of colleagues and neighbors, at the level of society the competence of politicians, entrepreneurs, scientists, and intellectuals’.
  • Impact on the political orientations and behaviour of individuals – ‘Intelligence contributes to a general pattern of cognitive rationality including the formation of more reasonable worldviews.’ Intelligence also helps to shape culture and impact on the development of ‘democracy, political liberty and rule of law’

Perhaps aware that some of this sounds a little grandiose – a touch hyperbolic – Rindermann offers an important health warning:

‘However, cognitive ability is not the single determinant of all these outcomes. There are additional factors behind and beneath ability, and between ability and the positive outcomes. And of course, intelligence has no deterministic effect, in the sense that intelligence always leads to the aforementioned results. Intelligence only increases the probability of these outcomes.’

Then he factors the smart fraction into his argument, however that might be defined:

‘Highly able intellectual classes are necessary to manage growing complexity in technology, economy and everyday life. Especially in modern times, wealth depends mainly on technological progress…and this depends on cognitive ability – in particular of the smartest members within a society. Hanushek and Woessmann…found that the level of ‘‘rocket scientists’’ is more important for growth than the mean level of a society or the percentage of people above a low threshold (around IQ 85). But ‘‘rocket scientists’’ as category would be too narrow because for a functioning society not only exceptional scientists and engineers are necessary, but also ‘‘normal’’ scientists and engineers maintaining daily business, also officials, politicians, teachers, and – as Schumpeter (1939) mentioned – entrepreneurs and their primarily cognitively based abilities of economic process innovations and economically successful use of inventions shifting the conventional ways of production, trade and consumption.’

Intriguingly, he begins to expose a new dimension which suggests that this is not simply a matter of individual cognitive competence: there is also a ‘network dimension’:

‘Here it is less the individual’s cognitive competence which is relevant, but more the cognitive competence of social networks, institutions and societies in their interplay (engineers and entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers, politicians and officials, consumers and producers, scientists and editors, universities and companies…Cognitive competence increases with use, and becomes the main capital in the modern production process…’

He then presents a reanalysis using data from Hanushek and Woessmann’s previous study, though the results seem somewhat less convincing than one might have hoped.


Rindermann final Capture


Nevertheless Rindermann draws the conclusion that:

‘Scientific-technological excellence and economic freedom depend more on the size of a smart fraction. Wealth depends more on scientific-technological excellence than on economic freedom…. Economic freedom, the rules and institutions enabling a free economy, depends also on an intellectual class. It seems that not only wealth, but even capitalism depends on the size and cognitive level of a high ability group within society. Capitalism in modernity is a cognitive one!’


Reviewing the Dartboard

We come to the end of a lengthy and intellectually demanding review of a body of research from several different sources, each of which contributes something to our emerging understanding of the economics of gifted education.

It is not straightforward to sum up the key points in a set of bullet points, but here is my best effort. I’ve set out the points in the order they appear above. Imagine each bullet as a dart somewhere in my imaginary dartboard:

  • The pool of high achievers in schools feeds the human capital pipeline which provides the critical mass of highly-skilled employees in the workforce necessary to drive innovation and economic growth.
  • There is a gap between the supply of high achievers we produce in England and the supply of high achievers generated by the Asian countries that dominate international comparisons studies. The gap tends to increase between the end of primary school and the end of secondary school.
  • Even if this is attributable to cultural factors (such as willingness to invest in private tuition and devote extra time to learning) that cannot be replicated here, the Government may need to develop suitable education policy responses.
  • In the US, although excellence gaps are smaller than achievement gaps, they are closing more slowly and less consistently. There is no evidence that any state has identified a solution to its excellence gap.
  • In England, some of the evidence that high ability learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are subsequently overtaken by lower ability learners from advantaged backgrounds is undermined by the statistical effect of regression to the mean.
  • On the evidence of PISA test scores in reading, socio-economic achievement gaps in England are higher than comparator countries at the top end of the ability distribution, whereas the overall gap is broadly similar and, at the bottom, England has a gap smaller than the median. This may be because attention is focused disproportionately on the ‘long tail of low achievement’.
  • While the average gap in England has declined since 2000, as has the gap at the low end of the achievement distribution, the opposite is true at the top end where the gap is widening. This may again be attributable to the relative reach, scale and effectiveness of different policy interventions. It may also be attributable to a decline in standards which, at the top end, has impacted disproportionately on those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • A targeted gifted and talented programme is one appropriate policy intervention to address the excellence gap which could be piloted locally and rolled out nationally. Such investment may be necessary despite the fiscal limitations that currently apply
  • There are separate and significant effects on economic growth from the bottom and the top of the achievement distribution. Developing basic skills and highly talented people are mutually reinforcing (and the latter probably depends on the former). There is evidence that improvements at the top end have a bigger impact on growth, though these may be harder to secure.
  • There is a significant research literature suggesting that national IQ differences have a significant impact on economic growth, but this is undermined by the assumptions upon which that research depends.
  • Attempts have been made to suggest that intelligence tests and international comparisons studies are essentially measuring the same ‘cognitive competence’. There is certainly a strong correlation between them (but this is not quite the same thing as seeing them as fundamentally the same construct).
  • Some educational factors are more associated with ‘cognitive competence than others’, yet no work has been found that positions gifted education programmes within the education production function, either generally or for the top end of the achievement distribution.
  • There is evidence to suggest that the cognitive level of the smart fraction and its size are more important for economic growth than the mean cognitive level or the cognitive level and size of low-achieving groups.
  • Growth is the product of cognitive capitalism which is vested disproportionately in the smart fraction. This also impacts positively on the political class and a wide range of national institutions. Countries need ‘rocket scientists’ but the level below this is even more significant. There may be a network dimension to cognitive capitalism, where the value is derived from groups working collaboratively, rather than solely from the individuals.

When it comes to mapping those conclusions against my initial premiss, which of the elements have been addressed and so how close are we to the ultimate objective I proposed?

It seems to me that:

  • This evidence base reflects the balance between excellence and equity in gifted education.
  • It incorporates the smart fraction and the excellence gap, though none of the studies links the two concepts and looks systematically at the relationship between them.
  • That said, there is abundant evidence that each of these concepts contributes to the supply of human capital and impacts positively on economic growth.
  • There is recognition that both must be tackled systematically during schooling and some support for doing so through a dedicated programme that would be rolled out nationally.
  • The evidence base is confined to reading, maths and science – the focus of the leading international comparisons studies – and there is particularly strong emphasis on STEM. There is no reference within this evidence base to the benefits accruing from talent in, say, arts and sports.
  • There is some focus on additional benefits from the smart fraction in areas such as political leadership, governance and national institutions and on the positive impact on social mobility from reducing the excellence gap. However, wider spillover benefits are not addressed.
  • Finally, there is no attempt within this evidence base to calculate the costs and benefits of a national gifted education programme, so demonstrating that the flow of benefits substantively exceeds the cost.

All of which suggests that there remains a huge agenda to address in this emerging field I have called the economics of gifted education.

There is still a pressing need to bring economists of education and gifted educators together to explore this territory, even though it would appear that some of the initial advances from gifted educators have been spurned.

We really need a champion in the economics of education to act as a conduit on that side of the fence. Step forward volunteers!


Final Thoughts (and the Gifted Phoenix Equation!)

Having regaled you recently with a Gifted Phoenix Manifesto and a Gifted Phoenix Premiss, I feel compelled to inflict on an unsuspecting world the third leg of a self-promotional hat-trick: the Gifted Phoenix Equation!

This applies only to the criterion-referenced method of determining the smart fraction, as opposed to the norm-referenced method which assumes that the fraction is a fixed proportion. (The former incorporates a quantitative as well as a qualitative dimension, whereas the latter is confined to the qualitative. That is a significant distinction which is not discussed extensively in the papers I have reviewed.)

Is it the case that:

Minimising the Excellence Gap  [Equity]


Maximising the Smart Fraction (the size of the fraction and its average level of achievement)   [Excellence]


Maximum impact from high achievers on National Economic Growth?


Min EG + Max SF (Number + Av score) = Max EG impact?


Is Rindermann right when he says there are no diminishing returns on investment in high level human capital, or can a country have too much of a good thing?

Isn’t it possible to generate too large a smart fraction, creating an over-supply of under-employed highly-skilled labour that might then find occupation in dissent, or even crime?

In which case, is there an optimal size for the smart fraction that should be incorporated into the Gifted Phoenix Equation?

Assuming there is not already an answer to that question, I hereby lay down the Gifted Phoenix Challenge – to find one!



March 2013

The Gifted Phoenix Manifesto for Gifted Education


197090_10150107967032027_677107026_6775153_1559390_nI woke last night with the conviction that I should draw up a basic credo, setting out some core principles derived from the experience of writing this blog.

I have set aside all questions of terminology, definition and identification because they are inherently divisive and attract disproportionate attention. Let us suspend disbelief for a moment and assume that we can work together through broad consensus on such matters.

There is a strong economic focus because that is a current predilection – and because the economic arguments are too rarely advanced and often underplayed. They deserve to be paramount in our current financial predicament. I plan to revisit soon the economic case for gifted education. [NB: That post appears here.]

So…What do you support? Where do you disagree? What have I missed?



Why Invest in Gifted Education?

Gifted education is about balancing excellence and equity. That means raising standards for all while also raising standards faster for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Through combined support for excellence and equity we can significantly increase our national stock of high level human capital and so improve economic growth.

High achievers are needed to feed the STEM pipeline and contribute to other areas of the ‘knowledge economy’ which is becoming increasingly important as a consequence of globalisation.

While STEM and IT have an obvious value, it is a mistake to assume that some fields do not contribute to human capital. There are important spillover benefits to society from many fields where the contribution to economic growth is less pronounced. We should avoid the temptation to prioritise STEM above all else.

Excellence in gifted education is about maximising the proportion of high achievers reaching advanced international benchmarks (eg PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS) so increasing the ‘smart fraction’ which contributes to economic growth

Equity in gifted education is about narrowing (and ideally eliminating) the excellence gap between high achievers from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds (which may be attributable in part to causes other than poverty). This also increases the proportion of high achievers, so building the ‘smart fraction’ and contributing to economic growth.

Countries that invest systematically in developing high level human capital recognise that this process begins in compulsory education or even in pre-school education. It cannot be delayed until higher education and employment. They have well-developed national gifted education programmes to secure system-wide engagement in maximising high achievement.

We can estimate:

  • The financial benefits of narrowing the excellence gap and
  • The impact on economic growth (GDP) of increasing the smart fraction

The cost of gifted education can be offset against these significant benefit streams to justify the investment and quantify the net value.

There are also microeconomic benefits to gifted education – the personal rate of return on high achievement – as well as a potentially significant contribution to social mobility on the equity side. There are many other strong arguments in favour of investment in (potential) high achievers built on educational, ethical and personal development grounds.


What Needs Doing? How?

What form should a national investment in gifted education take?

There should be integrated support for learners, educators and parents/carers, to maximise the benefits from synergy between these streams.

Five areas of engagement should also be synergised: learning, professional development, advocacy, research and policy-making.

System-wide solutions should not be exclusively ‘top down’ because they tend to be overly prescriptive, demotivating and inhibit innovation.

But neither should solutions be exclusively ‘bottom up’ because they tend towards competition (rather than collaboration), fragmentation, patchiness of provision and the recycling of mediocrity.

Solutions must draw on the best of both top-down and bottom-up strategies through a middle way that:

  • Provides a universal, unifying ‘flexible framework’ that sets common standards and applies to every setting;
  • Nevertheless gives settings sufficient autonomy within a common framework to innovate, develop and implement diverse approaches;
  • Effectively promotes and supports system-wide collaboration, within and across the three populations and five areas of engagement mentioned above.

A Twenty-First Century learning environment is multi-faceted and multimedia. Whether we are learning in school or as adult lifelong learners, we no longer rely exclusively on didactic teaching in a classroom environment.

School teachers are facilitators, helping gifted learners to synthesise different strands into a coherent learning package. Out-of-school learning must be fully integrated with the school experience; bolt-on enrichment has limited value.

Enrichment, extension and acceleration are overlapping concepts. All three can be combined effectively in different proportions according to learners’ needs. Gifted learners have relatively little in common and widely different needs. It follows that personalised provision is essential.

Social networking and social media can play a very important part in efficiently supporting system-wide collaboration by linking together the wider gifted education community – not just educators but parents/carers, learners, governors, researchers and so on.

Open access to research helps ensure that our collective stock of knowledge about effective gifted education can be shared freely, rather than being rationed or confined to subsets of the community. The existing stock of research must be made more accessible.

Freely available learning opportunities and professional development resources should also be systematically curated and disseminated. Different parts of the gifted education community can develop new learning, knowledge and understanding through their interaction with these resources. Service providers can advertise their wares to potential customers and identify opportunities for partnership and collaboration.

It is not always necessary to develop solutions specific to gifted education if effective generic solutions are already in place. There are strong arguments in favour of integration rather than silo-based provision.

But generic improvements to the education system – eg raising the quality of teaching, investing in school improvement – will not inevitably bring about improvements in gifted education, or such improvements may be less significant or take longer to accrue than those achieved through targeted intervention.

Success depends on active engagement across the system. It involves confronting ideological resistance and striving to find mutually acceptable ways forward. Support for gifted learners must never be at the expense of other learners within the system but, equally, gifted learners have an equal right to such support.

Success also depends on inclusive collaboration amongst the gifted education community. We must set aside fundamental disagreements over the nature and direction of gifted education to achieve the common purpose outlined above.

We must move away determinedly from the disagreements, factions, cliques, petty rivalries, self-promotion and empire-building that characterise the community and work co-operatively together for the benefit of all gifted learners. Everyone’s contribution must be welcomed and valued.

Despite the benefits for national economic growth, this is a global endeavour. We must work across national boundaries, avoiding the temptation to focus exclusively in our own jurisdictions. No country has a monopoly on good practice; every country can learn learn from the experience of others.

The gifted education community is a very broad church, but there is greater strength in unity than in a fragmented approach.


Kew Gardens courtesy of Gifted Phoenix

Kew Gardens courtesy of Gifted Phoenix



Postscript 1: A Vision for Delivery

A few weeks have passed and I have been reflecting again on how we might bring about improvements in line with the Manifesto. The following material was prepared with an eye to the UK (GT Voice) but should hopefully be relevant to other countries, as well as to continents (EU Talent Centre) and the global context (World Council).

It is the current iteration of an argument I have been promulgating since 2010, but it is still very much a ‘work in progress’.  I’ve even been tinkering with the words since I first published it!

My vision, set in the UK national context, is one in which:

  • All learning settings and providers of gifted education need ready access to a universal national network that supports their efforts to continuously improve their quality of service, making it the best that it can be. There should be a ‘one stop shop’ where they can go for help to diagnose their strengths and weaknesses, to build on the strengths and rectify the weaknesses.
  • Learning settings need this network to collaborate in developing effective practice and sharing it as widely as possible. But it should be equally inclusive on the supply side. All providers of gifted education services should be strongly encouraged to join it, in recognition that remaining outside will weaken our collective, collaborative effort to meet fully the needs of all gifted learners. The network should be equally welcoming to, and inclusive of, learners themselves, parents/carers, researchers and policy-makers.
  • The network should be developed on ‘flexible framework’ principles as set out above. A set of universal core standards would be drafted, consulted on and adopted. All parties would commit to them. They would be framed so as to embody the essential underpinnings of effective practice at all levels of the system, across all learning settings and up to national (and even international) engagement. They would be deliberately flexible, to permit innovation and adaptation or adjustment to meet particular needs and circumstances. Subsets of the network would be able to develop and promulgate their own badged models, but all would need to comply with this core framework. It would be kept under review and adjusted as necessary on a cyclical basis. Negotiation of the framework would be a critical exercise in consensus-building across all stakeholders.
  • In the initial stage of development, the network would support a primarily market-driven approach. Providers of services would advertise their wares and settings their needs. The purpose of the network would be to match-make between the demand and supply sides, giving the demand side access to more choice and the supply side access to more potential customers. (The model recognises that the demand and supply sides are not mutually exclusive, in that many learning settings will also be providers of services to others outside those settings.)
  • Collaboration would involve the elimination of existing ‘closed shop’ arrangements whereby some settings can only choose from specified providers, and the restrictive practices that mean many smaller providers are frozen out by larger organisations’ use of  ‘approved’ consultants and sub-contractors. It would no longer be acceptable to rig the market in this way.
  • Over time, the network would transition towards a more coherent approach, enabling settings with common issues to learn with and from each other without any geographical or sectoral restrictions and service providers to offer a seamless package of high quality support to all regardless of their sector or location (while also protecting a degree of choice for settings when selecting providers).
  • The network might develop a core administrative function that all service providers could draw on in return for an annual  subscription. This would enable it to have its own staff resource, which it would need to set up and maintain the network. (These functions cannot be managed without a dedicated human resource.) This income flow could generate savings for providers by eliminating duplication and generating economies of scale.
  • Over time the network might also develop a small tranche of its own core services, such as an annual conference, publications for sale outside the network, consultancy services to third parties (eg abroad). These should cover the network’s costs, so that it can become entirely self-sufficient, but should not be developed beyond this point, otherwise the network becomes a direct competitor to the service providers it exists to serve.
  • Such a network would have significant development and running costs, up to the point where it achieved self-sufficiency. Initial development costs would have to be secured through a combination of fundraising, sponsorship, advertising revenue and/or bids for support from appropriate funding pots.
  • In the first instance, prior to establishment of an administrative core and network services, running costs might be met by a small annual subscription paid by each learning setting and each provider belonging to the network. The annual flow of benefits to every member should be greater than the cost of this subscription.
  • Light touch monitoring would be needed to ensure that all settings receive the quality of service to which they are entitled and all providers avoid the temptation to carve up the market for their own benefit. Sanctions would need to be agreed. Any escalation would be handled within the network rather than by a third party.
  • The network would operate on a ‘blended’ basis combining a sophisticated online dimension – conducted on social networking principles – with a more traditional face-to-face element. The social networking component is critical to sustaining a fully national network at relatively low cost.
  • The network would also operate as a vehicle for collaborative advocacy, research and policy development. One early project might be to draw together the full range of stakeholder interests to develop a ‘gifted curriculum’ which English school settings might introduce in place of the national curriculum (if they have that freedom) or alongside the prescribed programme of study (if they have not). This would define what the very strongest learners might achieve and then strive to bring as many learners as possible as close as possible to that outcome. 

This is admittedly an idealistic vsion. It should be achievable, but only through sustained and determined collaborative effort. Providers with an existing market niche would need to be prepared to abandon all protectionism. The biggest potentially have furthest to fall, so vested interests are powerful and will be hardest to overcome.

All of us would need to be aware that, if the network was perfectly successful, there would no longer be any need for separate fiefdoms in the territory. Some organisations might go to the wall, but the overall quality of gifted education would improve almost immeasurably as a consequence.


Postscript 2: Comments on the Original Text

I am most grateful to colleagues who have taken the trouble to comment positively on this text, whether via the comments facility below or via Twitter and Facebook.

We have also had some interesting discussions on Facebook about the economic justification for gifted education which I have reproduced below for ease of reference.

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Postscript 3: #gtie chat on the Manifesto, Sunday 24th March 2013

The original text of the Manifesto has been featured on the Gifted and Talented Ireland Blog and on Twitter in a #gtie chat on Sunday 24th March 2013.



The full transcript of the chat can be found here.

I have also published my own selective transcript on Storify, with the Tweets reordered so the conversation is easier to follow.

It is unfortunately no longer possible to embed a Storify product on a wordpress-hosted blog, but here are a few contributions to give you the flavour of the discussion. Apologies if this doesn’t cover everyone’s contribution to what was a really helpful discussion.

For further reflections on the chat, including some very kind words about this Blog, please see:

  • this Review on the Gifted and Talented Network Ireland Blog and
  • this post on the Irish Gifted Education Blog.

I really am very grateful for their positive feedback and support.

I’m going to reflect awhile before attempting another edit of the Manifesto. Please don’t hesitate to use the comments facility below if you have further views, suggested contributions or ideas for how the Manifesto might be put to good use.


























March 2013