‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’


This post reviews ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’, a recent publication about support for low income high ability students by the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) in the United States, and considers its relevance to other national settings, especially England.

summer of love 1967 by 0 fairy 0

summer of love 1967 by 0 fairy 0

Although not formally part of the ‘Summer of Love’ series, this is linked to those posts. It offers a useful comparator for an upcoming report on supporting high-achieving disadvantaged learners towards higher education, third of a trio of publications that are staging-posts in the sequence.

It also offers some basis for judgement whether the wider narrative devotes sufficient attention to the equity dimension of gifted education. My Gifted Phoenix Manifesto asserts that it is essential to maintain equity-driven gap-narrowing in judicious balance with excellence-driven efforts to raise standards for all gifted learners regardless of background.

I am particularly interested in the implications for the design of suitable policy interventions. But also in the application in England of the Pupil Premium, additional funding determined by the number of disadvantaged pupils which schools are expected to use to reduce the attainment gap between them and their peers.

The key issue is whether or not the Premium is being utilised effectively to tackle excellence gaps between high attaining learners – and the prospects for further improvement in that quarter, should it be needed.

The NAGC report does not help in this respect, but I have taken the liberty of introducing additional material relevant to the topic, because it is so pivotal to the equity strand of the emerging ‘Summer of Love’ narrative. Put crudely, understanding what constitutes an effective intervention is of limited value if there is no resource or incentive to implement it.

While ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ remains the centrepiece of the post, I have also factored in other recent and relevant material from a variety of US and English sources, especially where it seems to me that the argument in NAGC’s publication is guilty of elision, or needs tempering to enhance its relevance to English settings.


The Summit

‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ made its appearance in November 2012, the product of a two-day National Summit on Low-Income High Ability Learners which took place from 30-31 May, with support from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

The NAGC Website retains a page dedicated to the Summit including biographies of many of the participants and a multitude of background reading. The supporting resources include a list of Summit Presenter Recommended Readings and an Annotated Bibliography. Other useful contributions have been linked into the text below.

According to the Agenda:

  • The event began with an overview and expectation-setting session led by Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, Director of CTD at Northwestern University and current NAGC President;
  • There was a presentation on The Effects of Poverty on Educational Opportunity by Josh Wyner, Executive Director of the College Excellence Program at The Aspen Institute. Three respondents subsequently shared their thoughts on how poverty-related issues present amongst different US populations.
  • Paula Olszewski-Kubilius introduced the themes and rationale for an ensuing discussion focused respectively on school programmes and supplemental programmes that ‘work with promising learners from poverty’. Brief composite summaries of the featured school and supplemental programmes are provided. (Further links to each programme are supplied below.)
  • Following small group discussion and a first stab at delineating an emerging research agenda, the next session focused on ‘Building a Psychological Entity that Supports Commitment to High Achievement/Psycho-social Skills and Issues with Promising Learners from Poverty’.  This featured Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania (whose presentation is here) and Frank Worrell, from the University of California.
  • The second day kicked off with a session on ‘Research and Policy: Next Steps for Action/Reinventing the System for High Ability Learners from Poverty’ with inputs from Chester Finn, President of the Thomas B Fordham Institute and Jonathan Plucker, then Director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University (whose presentation is here).
  • Finally ‘Overlooked Gems Then and Now: What’s Changed, What’s the Same’ – a comparison between the outcomes of an earlier NAGC venture into this territory and the current effort – was led by Joyce VanTassel- Baska from the College of William and Mary Center for Gifted Education.

The resulting publication ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ divides participants in a slightly different way, citing Olszewski-Kubilius, Duckworth, Finn, Plucker, Worrall and Wyner respectively as ‘Featured Presenters’, followed by 18 ‘Moderators, Panelists and Respondents’ and a further 35 ‘Participants’.

Of these 59, all are resident in the United States. Almost half are academics employed in US universities, a further 15 or so work in district, county or state education departments or state associations for the gifted. The remainder are associated with selected programmes featured in the publication or with the sponsors (whose programmes also feature).

It says that the Summit was intended to:

  • Share recent research on the education and development of low-income high ability learners;
  • Identify barriers that prevent them from reaching the highest levels of school achievement and ‘success in adulthood commensurate with their abilities’;
  • Share details of successful school-based and supplementary programmes;
  • Synthesise best practice for identifying and supporting low-income learners, ‘especially culturally and linguistically diverse students’; and
  • Generate a research agenda to inform future practice.

It explains that the Summit and Report together were designed to build on the earlier publication ‘Overlooked Gems: A National Perspective on Low-Income Promising Learners’ dating from 2007. NAGC’s page on the Summit carries a shorter summary of the proceedings of the April 2006 conference that generated this report.

‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ is divided into a series of short chapters which dart around the territory and include a fair degree of duplication. So, in undertaking this analysis, I have taken the liberty of reorganising the material to focus respectively on:

  • The nature of the problem, as currently manifested in US education, including evidence of underachievement and analysis of the barriers to progress and participation by this target group. I have undertaken a good deal more ‘ground-clearing’ than appears in the report itself;
  • The skills and attitudes that can inhibit progress by such learners (which the Report calls ‘Psychosocial Issues’);
  • Effective policies, initiatives, programmes and practice – and the problems associated with replication and scaling (which are given rather cursory treatment);
  • The identified research agenda, insofar as this throws further light on the material already presented.

I have introduced commentary on different but associated material throughout the analysis, wherever it seems to fit best. Much is concentrated in the first part of the post, which considers in some detail the issues that ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ is designed to address.


Park Fauna by Gifted Phoenix

Park Fauna by Gifted Phoenix


Defining the Target Group

The report is rather remiss in not bothering to define with any exactitude what constitutes a ‘Low Income High Ability Student’ and in failing to engage with the issues that arise from the adoption of a definition.

The low income dimension is associated principally with eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches, the criterion applied to data published through the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The analysis also makes use of PISA data on the comparative performance of learners from different socio-economic backgrounds and how this varies between countries.

There is no comparison of these measures and no exploration of their good and bad points compared with alternative approaches to defining educational disadvantage.

Any treatment of these issues in England would be certain to include some commentary on the pros and cons of eligibility for free school meals (FSM) as a measure, compared with alternatives that utilise a localised geographical indicator, based on wards or neighbourhoods, or possibly even an alternative proxy derived from family background.

This analysis suggests that such issues are equally pertinent in the US:

‘Students are entitled to free lunches if their families’ incomes are below 130 percent of the annual income poverty level guideline established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and updated annually by the Census Bureau (currently $21,756 for a family of four). Children who are members of households receiving food stamp benefits or cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, as well as homeless, runaway, and migrant children, also qualify for free meals. Students with family incomes below 185 percent of poverty are eligible for a reduced price lunch…

…Researchers often use free or reduced price lunch (FRPL) enrollment figures as a proxy for poverty at the school level, because Census poverty data (which is used at the state and district level) is not available disaggregated below the school district level and is not collected annually…

While FRPL data is generally a reliable poverty indicator in the elementary grades, it is less so in the high school grades. Because free and reduced price lunch is an opt-in program at the majority of schools, researchers believe that high school students are greatly under-represented in school lunch program enrollment. High school students may refuse to enroll in FRPL due to a perceived stigma attached to the program.’

The high ability dimension is comparatively muddier, in that the report relies principally on attainment measures – the Advanced Level on NAEP assessments and, on one occasion, ‘the highest achievement levels’ in PISA assessments of reading maths and science (for background on the latter see this previous post).

This introduces into proceedings the oft-encountered confusion between ability and attainment/achievement, which are of course quite different animals. Indeed the difference between ability unfulfilled and ability already manifested through high attainment/achievement is absolutely pivotal to this topic.

The problem is that much of the available data relates to high achievement, as opposed to high ability. The resulting bias towards achievement data reproduces at macro level an issue often encountered in identification for gifted programmes, where attainment evidence is  paramount, resulting in neglect of learners with unfulfilled potential, often attributable to disadvantage.

It is strange that no use is made of data about the composition of the population served by gifted programmes of different kinds and levels, even though there must be abundant evidence that many of these are heavily skewed against learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There may even be aggregated national data available. If there is a gifted flag and a FRPL flag in the national data collection, what is the problem in establishing the relationship?

Certainly the Office for Civil Rights publishes information (page 9) about the ethnic composition of gifted programmes nationally.

Their March 2012 summary notes that almost three-quarters of students enrolled in gifted and talented education (GATE) are either White (62%) or Asian (10%) whereas the overall enrolment rates for these populations in areas offering GATE programming are 49% and 5% respectively. Contrastingly, 16% of GATE enrolments are Hispanic and 10% Black, while the comparable overall enrolment rates are 25% and 19% respectively.

Across the sample, only 4% of African-American and 5% of Hispanic students are enrolled in gifted programmes.

This introduces a second problem, in that there is evidence throughout that the report is relying disproportionately on material – both data and research – about the under-representation of (and limited support for) learners from minority ethnic backgrounds in gifted programmes, as opposed to material that relates directly to learners of any ethnic background who are from low-income families.

This is understandable, given the prominent historical focus on minority provision in the US. There are signs that the focus is beginning to shift, given recent data about the increasing size of income achievement gaps compared with minority achievement gaps (see below).

England has already moved to perceiving this issue predominantly through the lens of financial disadvantage, an adjustment that also came about in recognition that some minority ethnic achievement gaps are narrowing (although others remain pronounced) and that financial disadvantage is apparently the core problem.

This approach is not without its critics, since other explanations of minority ethnic gaps may tend to be underplayed as a consequence.

On the other hand, the historical emphasis on minorities may have tended to obscure and even aggravate achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged learners in majority populations. In England, white working class boys are a particular cause for concern.

While there is clear and significant overlap between minority ethnic and financially disadvantaged populations, whether in the US or England, they are by no means synonymous in either country, so prominent health warnings are necessary whenever such assumptions are made.

I have made similar observations in respect of New Zealand, where minority ethnic issues are so prominent in educational discourse – including discourse about gifted education – that they appear to overshadow the issue of financial disadvantage.

To give this report credit, it does point out quite clearly that, while poverty and ethnicity overlap, they are by not the same thing. Three general assumptions are expressed:

  • ‘Poverty and minority status are not the same. Although there is overlap, poverty manifests differently based on geography, ethnicity, and race.
  • Poverty is pervasive and includes students from rural, White, urban, African American, Hispanic, Asian, and other cultural backgrounds.
  • Typical characteristics of gifted students may manifest differently in low-income, high-ability learners.’

Earlier in the report, 2010 Census data is quoted revealing that 38% of African-American, 32% of Hispanic, 17% of White and 14% of Asian children ‘live in low socio-economic circumstances’. (It is not stated whether this is defined by FRPL or some alternative indicator).

It might have gone further in clarifying that the broader construct of disadvantage reflects the complex interaction between these factors and several others, not least gender, parental level of education, incidence of special educational needs, English as an additional language and even month of birth. As in the UK, it is quite likely that social class may also be a factor.

The large number of variables that may impact on disadvantage in any one individual reinforces the danger of embarking on analysis that gives particular prominence to any single factor, even if evidence suggests that it is the main driver.

It is also a salutary reminder that the response to disadvantage – whether or not within gifted programmes – must be tailored to individual circumstances. The data and research evidence may point to significant trends, but programmes will stand or fall on their capacity to address each learner’s unique needs.

It follows that regular assessment of those needs and how they are changing over time is an essential element of effective practice (and one that is probably underplayed in Unlocking Emergent Talent).


Park Flora 1 by Gifted Phoenix

Park Flora 1 by Gifted Phoenix


Analysis of the Problem

The initial Overview section of the report identifies these constituent elements of the problem it seeks to address:

  • Relatively few US students of any description are achieving levels of excellence, whether defined in terms of NAEP Advanced Level or the highest levels of PISA assessment.
  • Poverty has a negative impact on educational achievement. The report draws first on evidence of the impact of socio-economic disadvantage on achievement gaps in the US, compared with other countries, drawn from analysis of PISA 2006 and 2009. The point could have been illustrated pertinently by this diagram

OECD Numbers Final.xlsx

Incidentally, the UK is close to the OECD average (14.0) on this measure

  • Within the US there are also achievement gaps at every level, including ‘excellence gaps’ as evidenced by NAEP. Three different measures are cited:

‘Between 1998 and 2007, 1.7% or fewer of free and reduced lunch program-eligible students scored at the advanced level on the eighth-grade NAEP math exam compared to between 6% and 10% of non-eligible students.

Since 1998, 1% or fewer of 4th-, 8th-, and 12th- grade free or reduced lunch students, compared to between 5% and 6% of non-eligible students scored at the advanced level on the NAEP civics exam.

Since 1998, 1% or fewer of free and reduced lunch program-eligible students scored at the advanced level on the eighth-grade NAEP writing exam while the percentage of non-eligible students who achieved advanced scores increased from 1% to 3%.’

  • Some evidence is also offered to support the argument that US schooling does not currently improve or sustain the performance of the top-achieving students compared with comparatively lower achievers, nor does it close the gap in performance between high- and low-income high-achieving students, as measured by attendance at selective universities, graduation and completion of a postgraduate degree.
  • High ability students (as opposed to high-achieving students) are not perceived as a priority within US education policy. Moreover:

‘Success in closing achievement gaps amongst lower achieving students does not appear to impact gaps amongst groups of top students’.

This is compounded because efforts to address equity in education often fail to embrace those ‘who are already showing advanced ability and/or achievement’ while the overall commitment to supporting gifted education per se is described as ‘tenuous’. The level of support depends where one lives and remaining funding is often under threat.


A very recent US publication ‘Breaking the Glass Ceiling of Achievement for Low-Income Students and Students of Color’ from The Education Trust (May 2013) provides more in-depth analysis of the excellence gap data (though its coverage is frustratingly incomplete and it too is guilty of unhelpfully interweaving minority ethnic and economically disadvantaged data).

It also relies on NAEP advanced level data for FRPL-eligible students, examining trends from 2003 to 2011, particularly in maths and reading at grades 4 and 8 respectively.

  • In 4th grade maths, the percentage of low-income learners achieving the advanced benchmark increased from 1% to 2% between 2003 and 2011; meanwhile the percentage of high-income learners improved from 6 to 12%, thus widening the gap. A similar pattern was seen in 8th grade maths.
  • In 4th grade reading, the percentage of low-income learners achieving the advanced benchmark remained at 2% between 2003 and 2011, whereas high-income learners improved slightly, from 11% to 13%. The gap also widened at 8th grade.

Meanwhile, gaps were typically narrowing at the ‘below basic’ benchmark (though there was no significant change in 4th grade maths at this level).

This study also analyses progress at the 90th percentile of performance, so independently of the NAEP advanced benchmark, finding some evidence of gap-narrowing (which isn’t quantified for low-income students).

By 2011 there are wide gaps in performance between low-income and high-income learners: 21% for 4th grade maths, 26% for 8th grade maths, 24% for 4th grade reading and 21% for 8th grade reading. But these are invariably smaller gaps than apply at the 10th percentile for low-achieving learners.

Only at 12th Grade is this pattern reversed. At that age, the gap at the 90th percentile in maths is 24%, compared with 18% at the 10th percentile; in reading the 90th percentile gap is 21% compared with 19% for the 10th percentile.

So the overall picture is perhaps somewhat less clear-cut than the selective facts provided in ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ would suggest.


The pattern is by no means identical in England. I included materials about England’s own excellence gaps in this recent post, which draws particularly on Jerrim’s work on PISA reading assessments.

His work reveals that, on this measure at least, countries display significantly different profiles when it comes to the relationship between background and achievement at different deciles of achievement:

‘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.’

…He finds that, while the average gap has declined [over time] and that is repeated at the bottom end of the achievement distribution, this is not true at the top.

…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.’

It would be fascinating to pursue further the apparent disparities between the US and England that this amalgamation of sources begins to uncover, but we must content ourselves for the time being with the broader truth that both countries have significant issues with their socio-economic excellence gaps that urgently need addressing.


What can Education Contribute to Gap-Narrowing?


How much Difference Does Education Make?

There is nothing at all in ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ about the relative impact of educational interventions on disadvantage compared with other strategies, such as tackling the root causes of poverty by redistributing wealth. It seems to be taken for granted that the interventions described will address the problems identified, as long as such effective practice is more widely adopted.

The omission is curious, since Plucker’s presentation to the Summit is unfailingly explicit about the fundamental importance of reducing poverty to tackling the excellence gap.

Plucker poverty 1 Capture


Plucker poverty 2 Capture








Another recent publication, ‘Improving Performance of Low-Achieving and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students’, written by Ben Levin for the Global Cities Education Network, sets the context nicely:

‘The relationship between these social factors and school outcomes has been known for a long time. And at least since the Coleman Report (done in the United States in the mid-1960s), there has been a vigorous debate about how much schools can actually do to overcome these differences. That debate continues, with some contending that schools are rather powerless in the face of social disadvantage and others claiming that schools can do a great deal to overcome social inequities. According to various estimates in the research literature, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the variance in student achievement is due to factors outside the school, and anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of the variance is explainable” (in statistical terms) by factors inside the school.’

Levin goes on to point out that there is huge variance between schools’ performance at any given socio-economic level – and that there are similar disparities between countries, as revealed by the PISA data. Although system-wide improvement is feasible, significant achievement gaps remain in even the most successful countries.

The assumption that school factors may account for up to 50% of variance seems relatively optimistic from a UK perspective. For example, the 2010 BERA Paper ‘Social Equality: can schools narrow the gap?’ warns:

‘However, school effects must not be overstated, as they have sometimes been by national policy-makers. According to studies in the UK, typically between 10-20 per cent of the variance in attainment between pupils is related to school factors – though this does not mean all variance is down to school-level factors, since some will be attributable to teachers.’

In addressing the contribution that gifted education can make to reducing excellence gaps, we would do well to inject a dose of realism about the overall impact of such interventions, while not succumbing to the temptation to underplay their potential significance.


The latter position can be all too easy to reach in the light of some contributions to this debate. In recent months, significant attention has been paid to discussion of Sean Reardon’s comparatively pessimistic assessment.

In July 2011 he published The Widening Opportunity Gap Between the Rich and Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations which examines the changing relationship between family economic background and educational achievement since the 1970s.

He compares learners from families at the 90th percentile of the income distribution (around $165,000) with those at the 10th percentile (around $15,000). This is of course a significantly more polarised distinction than exists between those eligible for FRPL and those ineligible.

He notes that income inequality has become much more pronounced since the 1970s, such that a family with school-age children at the 90th percentile in 1970 earned five times the amount of a family at the 10th percentile. Nowadays, the multiple is 11. As a consequence, wealthy families now have a comparatively higher proportion of income to invest in their children’s development.

He argues that:

  • The income achievement gap is almost twice the size of the achievement gap between black and white students whereas, in the 1960s, this ethnic achievement gap was almost twice as large as the income-related gap. Hence family income has become a significantly better predictor of success in school than ethnic background.
  • The increasing gap does not seem attributable to differences in parents’ educational level – the relationship between these two factors has remained fairly stable since the 1960s. Consequently, family income is now almost as strong an indicator of children’s achievement as their parental level of education.
  • The size of the gap is at least partly attributable to a significantly stronger association between income and achievement for families with above average incomes, where the effect is now some 30-60% larger than it was for children born in the 1970s.
  • The gap is already sizeable when US children enter kindergarten but then remains relatively stable throughout the remainder of their schooling, neither increasing nor decreasing, so schooling appears to make relatively little difference (though Reardon appears to compromise this position slightly elsewhere.)
  • Evidence suggests that the increase is partly associated with increasing parental investment in children’s cognitive development at the top end of the distribution. Children from wealthier families are better prepared to succeed in school when they enter kindergarten, and they retain this advantage throughout their subsequent schooling.

Reardon’s research has recently been given fresh impetus by an article in the New York Times which glosses his argument thus:

‘The most potent development over the past three decades is that the test scores of children from high-income families have increased very rapidly. Before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students in academic performance; most of the socioeconomic disparity in academics was between the middle class and the poor. But the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor. Just as the incomes of the affluent have grown much more rapidly than those of the middle class over the last few decades, so, too, have most of the gains in educational success accrued to the children of the rich.’

He suggests that wealthier parents are increasingly focussed on the school success of their children because such success has become increasingly important in an environment where a university degree is no longer a guarantee of a good job. Upward social mobility is much harder to secure, so parents are increasingly competing to secure their children’s success.

The level of this investment is significantly higher amongst high-income families than amongst middle and low income families. The gap between the rich and the middle class – ‘upper tail inequality’ – is a new and unfamiliar condition and little thought has been given to addressing it.

Wealthier parents are gaining this advantage through:

‘More stable home environments, more time for parents to read to their children, access to higher-quality child care and preschool and — in places like New York City, where 4-year-old children take tests to determine entry into gifted and talented programs — access to preschool test preparation tutors or the time to serve as tutors themselves.’

It is this fundamental ‘opportunity gap’ that needs to be addressed, rather than the achievement gap evident in schools, which is partly a consequence of it.

Breaking the link between education and family background might involve replicating the behaviour of wealthy families, by investing heavily in the development of high-quality childcare and pre-school experience, paying relatively more attention to improving the quality of parenting than to improving the quality of teachers.

In the light of this there is arguably negligible benefit in investing in subsequent educational interventions that support low-income high-ability learners, because the damage has already been done and later investment is unlikely to level the playing field sufficiently to make a real difference.

But, as noted above, comparisons between the 90th and 10th percentiles by income – as opposed to eligibility and non-eligibility by FRPL or FSM – are bound to result in a relatively pronounced effect.

Moreover, it is not clear whether Reardon’s conclusions apply equally at all levels of achievement. There might be some reason to believe that the effects he describes are somewhat less pronounced in the case of disadvantaged learners who are relatively high attainers, or who have the potential to be so.

And some might argue that an intervention tailored to individual need, which also includes an explicit focus on parental education, might stand a better chance than most of having a positive effect at least commensurate with its cost.


Inter-school Variance Still Matters at the Micro-Level

Given the temptation to surrender to negativity, it is important that we do not lose sight of Levin’s point about inter-school variance (as well as inter-national variance). There must be scope for improvement if we can bring more schools (and more countries) up to the level demonstrated by the strongest performers.

This of course raises further difficult questions about the transferability and replicability of effective practice –whether between schools or between countries – that must be set aside as beyond the scope of this post.

Let us continue on the brave assumption that, given the right inputs and distribution processes, improved outcomes can be spread and embedded within a much wider range of settings – and that the right inputs and processes are understood and available to us.

Inter-school variance in support for high-achieving low-income learners has been discussed in another recent US publication. ‘A Level Playing Field: How College Readiness Standards Change the Accountability Game’ reports the findings of a three-year study of 35,000 high attaining learners in elementary and middle schools. The sample was drawn from the top 10% of achievers from each school.

The analysis compares the performance of high-achieving learners from high-poverty and low-poverty schools respectively (as defined by the top and bottom quartiles according to the percentage of learners eligible for FRPL).

It is important to note that high achievers in high-poverty schools are not necessarily from a disadvantaged background, though that is significantly more likely. The same goes for advantaged high achievers in low poverty schools. The study is rather quiet about this issue, though its findings are nevertheless significant.

Two measures are used: improvement in outcomes over time, measured through maths and reading achievement on Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests, and projected ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in maths and reading, which were derived from a study that linked MAP scores with these benchmarks.

Key findings were:

  • The vast majority of middle school high-achievers were projected to achieve the ACT benchmarks – 95% in low-poverty schools in both maths and reading; and over 85% in maths and over 80% in reading in the high-poverty schools. So, on this measure, while there is a disparity, the gap between high and low poverty schools is relatively small.
  • As for improvement in performance, the research finds that high- and low-poverty schools ‘produce roughly consistent rates of improvement over time in both reading and mathematics’. The achievement gap between the high- and low-poverty schools did not widen during the study period (though it didn’t narrow either).
  • There is, however, very significant variation between schools on this measure, both in the low-poverty and the high-poverty samples:

‘For example, at the beginning of the study, the average high-achieving math student in a high-poverty school started out performing at about the 90th percentile relative to national (NWEA) achievement norms. But if such a student attended a school that produced 10th percentile growth, that student would enter middle school performing at only the 77th percentile, whereas a comparable student at a 90th percentile growth school would enter middle school performing at the 93rd percentile. For these two students, the differences in opportunities could be quite large.

In short, given the large variance in growth across schools, it is quite clear that factors other than poverty largely control the relative growth of high achievers generated by any given school. This trend is interesting because it is counterintuitive. Given the advantages in resources available to wealthier schools, many might expect that students attending such schools would show superior growth over time. This was not necessarily the case.’

It follows that transferring from a high-poverty to a low-poverty school will not necessarily produce a dramatic improvement in high achievers’ performance. And it is a mistake to assume that low poverty equates to high quality, or vice versa for that matter. Quality operates independently of the relative poverty of the intake.

  • The study calculates that, if all high-poverty schools were able to produce the growth achieved by schools in the 75th percentile of the sample, the college-readiness gap between high- and low-poverty schools would be eliminated. The Preface comments:

‘Perhaps the best news coming from this study is that many high-poverty schools meet and exceed that target. The top high-poverty schools show growth that not only equals the best low-poverty schools but also dwarfs the meagre returns achieved by the worst ones. In fact, the 22 high-poverty elementary schools with the best growth rates entirely erased and surpassed their achievement gap relative to the 27 low-poverty schools with the lowest growth rates. And the 13 high-poverty middle schools with the highest rates of growth closed and surpassed their achievement gap relative to the 16 low-poverty schools with the lowest growth rates.’

So, to sum up, when it comes to narrowing achievement gaps – including excellence gaps -education may not matter that much at the macro level when compared with other key variables, but which school matters considerably at the micro level for the individual gifted learner.

Moreover, if all schools could perform at the level of the best, that would have a significant effect within the relatively narrow limits of education’s contribution to the overall equation. So attention shifts to the optimal way of transmitting effective practice between settings (or it would had we not set aside the difficult questions about this). This issue is another missing link in the argument set out in ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’.

In passing, it is worth noting that one of the policy recommendations in ‘A Level Playing Field’ would be very familiar to those involved in English gifted education:

‘Moving forward, this study encourages policymakers to reframe the national discussion about how to best serve high achievers by recognizing that the nation’s “elite students” should not be defined solely as the top 1%, 5%, or 10% in the standardized testing pool, and that each and every school has its own group of elite students.’

There is real value in framing policy to address the needs of the most able pupils in every school, even though this population would vary considerably compared with national norms. This takes one stage further the arguments in the report in favour of local norms.

Not only should interventions be tailored to the needs of individual learners, but they should also be sufficiently flexible to be adopted in every school, since no school should be allowed to assume that it has no gifted learners. If exceptions are permitted, it follows that high-ability learners within them who are held back by disadvantage will miss out on their entitlement.

This has been an extensive detour and it is high time that we returned to the substance of ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’.


Park Flora 2 by Gifted Phoenix

Park Flora 2 by Gifted Phoenix


Barriers to Overcome

The report identifies seven barriers to participation by disadvantaged learners in programmes suited to their educational needs which, it says, are particularly problematic for those catered for by public (as opposed to private) schools.

  • Narrow conceptions of giftedness that perceive it as an inherited and fixed trait rather than malleable and potentially evidenced through unfulfilled potential. The Report speaks of ‘already-developed ability’ as opposed to ‘potential to achieve’, but this is inaccurate and confusing since the distinction is fundamentally between selection on the basis of achievement (which favours those from advantaged backgrounds) and selection on the basis of ability (which should not do so, assuming that ability is evenly distributed within the population). The report avoids confronting this issue of the distribution of ability head on (see below), though it does acknowledge the deleterious effect of limited exposure to ‘a literacy-rich home’ and ‘challenging curriculum and enriched learning opportunities’.
  • Misconceptions about disadvantaged high-ability learners which boil down to low expectations and over-emphasis on what these learners lack by way of ‘economic, social and cultural capital’ rather than their strengths. These impact negatively on teacher nominations for gifted programmes, often dictated by poor identification practice that fails to utilise qualitative evidence and does not take account of learners’ different cultural backgrounds.
  • Limitations of pedagogy and curriculum which do not foreground talent development but tend to underestimate learners’ capabilities, concentrating overmuch on tackling ‘perceived academic deficits’ through ‘drill to build up missing basic skills and content knowledge’. It is also suggested that US schools do not offer a sufficiently culturally responsive curriculum that reflects the experiences, heritage, language and values of minority ethnic groups as well as of ‘majority cultures living in geographically depressed areas’.
  • Poor identification practice, including using a narrow range of evidence, failing to take account of the limited learning opportunities formerly made available to such students, perhaps by applying inappropriate national norms, relying overmuch on nominations from inexperienced teachers who have had no appropriate training, and failing to offer learners more than one opportunity to demonstrate their ability and to take proper account of improvement over time.
  • Introducing obstacles to programme participation, such as expecting learners to travel outside their own area or expecting them to meet associated transport costs. Sometimes parents’ inability to press for appropriate educational adjustments or secure access to the best quality schooling can also prove problematic.
  • The Gifted Label which can damage relationships between the learner and his peers, even resulting in rejection and/or bullying. Consequently, potential gifted learners may avoid the imposition of the label, or be dissuaded if their own background is under-represented in the gifted group.
  • Limited access to out-of school opportunities, which – in the US particularly – have been used by parents to compensate for ‘the shortage, or absence, of advanced courses in their children’s schools’. There is an extensive tradition of such provision in the US, especially summer schools and shorter weekend and holiday courses, often linked to talent search procedures. But the vast majority require payment of tuition fees, so they are largely enclaves for the advantaged middle classes.

All of these are familiar in the English setting, though the last is somewhat less pronounced, simply because the range of opportunities of this kind is significantly more limited here, and there may be a stronger tradition of schools providing their own out-of-hours learning opportunities.

They are all perfectly valid, but they stand as proxy for the more substantial barrier that I have alluded to above: the assumption that ability (as opposed to achievement) is unequally distributed in the population, whether by ethnicity, gender or socio-economic background.

This issue is now so toxic that there is often a tendency to ignore it. There are continuing research traditions which make it their business to detect perceived differences in intelligence or ability, and to conclude that these impact significantly on educational achievement.

But, even if these arguments can be made to stand up (and they are open to challenge on a variety of grounds), the fundamental difficulty is that they serve to reinforce precisely the low expectations that lie at the root of the problem.

It follows that there is much virtue in starting from the fixed and incontrovertible assumption that, while the distribution of achievement is undoubtedly affected by gender, ethnic and socio-economic background, the distribution of ability is not.

Then the equity-driven side of the equation for gifted educators is far more straightforward to grasp and aim towards: it is simply to ensure that entry to gifted programmes is broadly representative and that success – whether demonstrated by a measure of high achievement, progression to selective higher education or any other outcome – is evenly distributed.

If too few low-income learners are admitted to a gifted programme, this may well be indicative that identification procedures are over-reliant on attainment measures, as opposed to evidence of hidden or emergent potential.

If too few low-income learners are successful within a gifted programme, this may well be indicative that the content and/or assessment is inappropriately weighted against learners from such a background.

This is not to argue for fixed quotas, or affirmative action, but simply to advance a straightforward corrective to the ‘deficit thinking’ that is outlined in the report.

It is only by following these arguments through to this ultimate position that we can effectively counter the hold of unfairly low expectations on our efforts to narrow and ultimately eliminate unhelpful excellence gaps.


Psychosocial Factors

The report poses two questions: which non-cognitive factors are most significant in determining the success of low-income high ability students, and which of these most lend themselves to improvement through education?

It calls for more research into the characteristics of successful learners with this background, which is perhaps tantamount to admission that the treatment subsequently offered is both provisional and potentially incomplete.

As a precursor to that treatment, it offers an outline drawn from research on African-American and Latino gifted students which may not be fully transferrable to the low-income population (the emphases are mine):

‘These students had high educational and career aspirations and were extremely motivated to accomplish them. They demonstrated a strong work ethic and commitment to study. Their families were emotionally supportive and they had extended family and other adults such as teachers, coaches, mentors, and church leaders to turn to for additional support and guidance. High self-esteem gave them the confidence to actively seek advice and assistance from adults outside the family when they needed it. They had a peer network of other students with similarly high goals and commitment to academic achievement who provided psychological, emotional and social support to remain on track despite setbacks or obstacles. They were confident in their own racial identity and open to multicultural experiences, including friendships.’

The subsequent text does not dwell on the importance of support networks within and beyond the family, concentrating exclusively on the learners’ own characteristics. Nor does it treat all of those, selecting instead the following list which it suggests are ‘especially critical and malleable’:

  • Mindsets, or beliefs about intelligence and ability. Those who see their capability as fixed are disadvantaged compared with those who believe they can improve their performance through effort. This is allied with the concept of ‘grit’, or resilience, associated with recognition of the significance of persistent effort over time. Educational settings can encourage learners to appreciate the contribution to success made by their own effort and persistence.

‘Grit’ is currently receiving significant attention. Duckworth’s presentation concludes with an admirably brief summary of the conclusions from her research into this phenomenon

Duckworth grit Capture

  • Motivation, which is associated with students’ belief that they can do well in school, and that doing well is important to them and will contribute significantly to their life chances. Motivation is associated with high expectations from educators, who give learners opportunities to succeed, so building their confidence and motivation to succeed further.
  • Some other factors are identified as particularly relevant to high achievers, though the commentary suggests that findings associated with minority ethnic groups are being applied here to low-income students without too much supporting evidence. Factors include: negative stereotypes of groups to which the learner belongs, which can impact on their engagement and performance; a perceived choice between achievement and affiliation with a group of friends or peers, and the risk that choosing the former lays the student open to isolation and bullying; and the capacity to develop ‘dual identities’ to reconcile conflicting expectations and norms.

There is a fairly extensive literature in England about the impact of aspirations and attitudes – whether the learner’s or their parents’ – on learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, though the extent to which these vary according to ability or prior achievement is relatively less explored.

It will be interesting to compare the findings from the forthcoming ‘Investigation of school and college-level strategies to raise the aspirations of high-achieving disadvantaged pupils to pursue higher education’ with other more generic material and also with the list above.

A 2012 study by Gorard et al: ‘The impact of attitudes and aspirations on educational attainment and participation’ offered a meta-analysis covering 13 different kinds of aspiration, attitude or behaviour (AAB), four of which were relevant to parents (parental involvement, parenting style, parental expectations and parental substance abuse).

Five more relate to a learner’s own attitudes and aspirations: self-concept or esteem (self- perception and evaluation of one’s worth or goodness), self-efficacy or locus of control (belief in one’s ability to achieve and that one’s actions can make a difference), aspiration (what one hopes will happen in the future), motivation (the reason for a decision and strength of purpose in carrying it out) and attitude (one’s feelings about school and education).

The remaining four are behavioural: engagement with extra-curricular activities, engagement with paid work, substance abuse and poor behaviour.

The survey sought evidence of a causal relationship between each of these and attainment/participation, having determined that such a relationship involves four aspects:

  • There is an association, or correlation between the two variables;
  • The AAB pre-existed any improvement in attainment/participation and can be used to predict subsequent changes;
  • Controlled interventions have altered the level of an AAB, so producing changes in attainment/participation that cannot be otherwise explained; and
  • There is a plausible account of how the AAB influenced attainment/participation.

The authors comment:

‘The evidence in most areas is generally too immature at present to estimate the effect sizes or the costs of any type of intervention. It is important, therefore, that future work moves towards estimates of both, which can then be broken down into estimates of cost-effectiveness for specific sub-groups of learners, such as low attainers and families of low socio-economic status (SES).

Much of the work found in this review on the causes of attainment was conducted in the USA. Its results are relevant to the experience on this side of the Atlantic, but it would be helpful to see more of this kind of work, concerning both participation and attainment, being carried out in the UK, and reflecting the country’s specific context and culture.’

This parallel summary report ‘The Role of Aspirations, Attitudes and Behaviour in Closing the Educational Attainment Gap’ concludes:

‘The existing evidence supports the use of interventions focused on parental involvement in children’s education to improve outcomes. The immediate focus should be on rolling out and closely monitoring such interventions.

There is mixed evidence on the impact of interventions focused on extra-curricular activities, mentoring, children’s self-belief and motivation. Further development of such interventions should be trialled alongside evaluations of their effectiveness.

There is little or no evidence of impact for interventions focused on things like addressing children’s general attitudes to education or the amount of paid work children do during term time. Such interventions might be pursued for other reasons, but the evidence does not currently support their use to raise attainment.’

While there are clear differences between the typologies adopted – and the English research relates to all disadvantaged learners rather than just high-ability learners – there is cause for caution.

While ‘psychosocial factors’ may be significant, the evidence base is thin and, without such evidence, we may be tempted to exaggerate their impact relative to other factors that may more readily explain achievement and excellence gaps.


Park Flora 3 by Gifted Phoenix

Park Flora 3 by Gifted Phoenix


Effective Policies, Initiatives, Programmes and Practice

The report comes at effective provision in three overlapping chapters, devoted to programme models, policies and initiatives and best practices respectively.

Six effective practices are identified from analysis of a range of different school-based and supplementary programmes (one or two of which are called slightly into question by the analysis above):

  • Gateway function: a focus on preparation for subsequent educational experience, often at critical transition points, so helping to ‘increase access, create additional entry points into, and address “leaks” in existing pipelines of talent development’.  Ideally provision should comprise ‘comprehensive talent development paths…that begin in pre-school (or earlier) and continue through Grade 12 and beyond.
  • Selection criteria matched to level of developed talent: provision for younger learners is more inclusive and less selective than provision for older students. Selection criteria draw on multiple evidence sources to produce a holistic assessment, including quantitative data based on local norms rather than rigid national cut-off scores.
  • A challenging enriched curriculum that requires higher-level thinking skills: learners with developing abilities can benefit from challenge as much as the highest-achieving students. This often demands professional development to raise teachers’ expectations and develop their differentiation skills.
  • Significantly extended learning time beyond the school day: this may be as important in tackling underachievement amongst potentially high-achieving students as for those performing at lower levels.
  • Components that compensate for the benefits enjoyed by more advantaged students: this might include tutoring, mentoring and counselling, internship opportunities and careers advice.
  • Expanded student support networks: providing opportunities for learners to work with similar students from other schools or localities, so creating a stronger peer network. This might be complemented by mentor support and parental education, so as to strengthen family support.

This is followed by a series of seven ‘policies and action initiatives’:

  • Increase expectations, by introducing and working towards clearer definitions of advanced levels of learning on state tests, focusing simultaneously on increasing the proportion of learners achieving those levels and narrowing achievement gaps. Similar goals should be set in respect of NAEP and PISA measures of advanced performance. Also ensure that high-quality teaching is available to these learners, especially in high-poverty schools.
  • Support high achievement through a range of strategies including more specialist STEM schools, implementing a ‘gifted education pedagogy’, additional focus on gifted education in initial teacher education and subsequent professional development, extending access to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, improved access to out-of-hours supplementary programmes,
  • Start early and sustain, by supporting pre-school and elementary school enrichment activity, identifying high achievers and then providing them with consistent support throughout their time in school. This will demand focus on instilling psychosocial skills ‘supportive of continued commitment to high achievement’.
  • Provide additional support alongside the school curriculum, such as mentoring, tutoring, advice on university entry and access to role models.  Given the significance of family support, programmes must develop parents’ understanding and advocacy.
  • Remove barriers to programme participation, ensuring that definitions and identification processes are inclusive of ‘marginalised and under-identified gifted students’, that information is translated into community languages and that districts and schools are supportive of learners progressing through the curriculum at their own pace.
  • Focus wider school reform on high ability: ensure that efforts to address achievement gaps incorporate excellence gaps, that Response To Intervention (RTI) and grouping strategies address these learners’ needs and that success is measured in a way that incorporates high achievement. Effective practice must be shared, so that successful programmes can be replicated and adapted elsewhere.
  • Invest in research to determine ‘the conditions under which interventions are effective and with whom’. It is critical that these are cost-effective and scalable. (There is a brief and not too helpful section on replicability and scalability which rather vaguely suggests exploration of distance education models and the development of ersatz supplementary education within school settings, possibly built on partnership between organisations offering supplementary programmes and school districts.)

Finally, there is a third series of ‘best educational practices’ which highlights material earlier in the text. In summary it advocates:

  • Inclusive, culturally responsive and holistic identification practice, supported by teacher education.
  • Culturally responsive programmes and services incorporating development of both cognitive and psychosocial skills.
  • Positive cultures in schools that ‘exalt individual differences of all kinds and value and reward high academic achievement create [sic] contexts in which low-income, high-ability students from all backgrounds can thrive’.

There is also a final exhortation:

‘A list of best practices will remain just that unless it is coupled with a commitment to looking at low-income and culturally and linguistically diverse students from a different lens and from a perspective that emphasises strengths instead of weaknesses, differences rather than deficits, possibilities as opposed to limitations, and solutions instead of obstacles.’

The Appendix to the report provides separate summaries of eight different programmes featured at the Summit. This is both a small sample and a mixed bag, containing some very small programmes and some rather large ones. There are also two projects focused exclusively on supporting learners from minority ethnic backgrounds.

The links below are to project websites where these are available:

  • Project Excite, a year-round out-of-school programme for minority learners in Grades 3-8 provided by Northwestern University and two local school districts.
  • Project Nexus, a former programme of the Maryland State Education Department (2005-2008) helping to prepare low-income students for higher education.
  • The Scholars Program, provided by Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO), a year-round out-of-school programme supporting urban students in New York and San Francisco to progress to selective universities.
  • The TEAK Fellowship, a year-round out-of-school programme for talented New York City students from low income families supporting admission to high school and university.
  • The Young Scholars Program, operated by Fairfax County, Virginia to support low-income high ability learners in grades K-2, preparing them for subsequent gifted programmes.


Moving Forward

The report admits to ‘a lingering concern’ associated with the interaction of different variables – it specifies rural/urban/surburban, race and culture – and the implications for effective provision. This is welcome in light of some of the reservations expressed above.

It also quite rightly rejects ‘categorical designations’ because they ‘fail to capture the variation in levels of poverty, opportunity and education within the subgroups included in each category’. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work.

It proposes a research agenda that foregrounds our limited understanding of the characteristics of successful learners from low-income backgrounds since:

‘Although we can speculate on obstacles and impediments, there is not a deep understanding of how these intersect with race, culture, gender and domain of talent.’

There is surely a risk that the interaction of so many different factors – elements of disadvantage, as well as variations in background, schooling and personal attitudes – is so complex and individualised that it will not be possible to draw general conclusions that can be consistently applied across this population?

The research agenda proposes further work to investigate the characteristics of successful learners, the development of psychosocial skills, the removal of barriers (professionals’ perceptions and assumptions, identification, family and community beliefs) and effective provision (appropriate curriculum and instruction, the characteristics of successful programmes, scaling and replication and teacher education).

One cannot help feeling that, rather than providing a basis for extensive further work of this nature, any available funding might be better spent in devising cost-effective and scalable interventions that start from our current understanding of effective practice – and evaluating them formatively and summatively so as to refine that understanding and adjust the programmes accordingly.

But maybe this is the tension between giftedness and gifted education once more raising its ugly head. Or maybe it is my bias against research and in favour of policy-making; or perhaps a little of both.

Still, a focus on the tangible and immediate – on inputs and processes and their success in generating efficiently the right mix of positive outcomes – is likely to generate more substantive and more immediate returns than in-depth psychological study.


Apple Blossom by Gifted Phoenix

Apple Blossom by Gifted Phoenix


Drawing the Strands Together


Unlocking Emergent Talent and Elements of Effective Provision

Unlocking Emergent Talent is a helpful resume of what is currently understood as effective practice in identifying and meeting the needs of high ability low income learners, but it does not add conspicuously to our collective understanding of such practice.

It also displays some shortcomings, in substituting evidence about minority ethnic students to fill gaps in the evidence base for low-income students and, to a lesser extent, in not consistently differentiating findings about high-achieving students from findings about high-ability students.

It does not fully address, or else skips over, a series of substantive issues including:

  • Different definitions of ‘high ability’ and ‘low income’ and the issues associated with selecting one of several alternatives.
  • The wider evidence base on excellence gaps, which presents a rather more complex picture than that presented in the report.
  • The range of factors that contribute towards disadvantage and the complex manner in which different factors interact and impact on the learner.
  • The relatively limited contribution that education can make to tackling disadvantage and the correspondingly significant impact of poverty on educational achievement.
  • Variation in the quality of support between settings, the impact of reducing this variance (and associated questions about our capacity to spread and embed effective practice).
  • The distribution of ability within the population.
  • The value of parental engagement compared with learners’ own ‘psychosocial skills’, and the significance of those skills relative to other variables.
  • Cost and efficiency and their influence on the shape of interventions to support the target group.
  • Identifying the right blend of in-school and out-of-hours provision.
  • Considering the relative advantages and disadvantages of stand-alone provision for disadvantaged learners, integrated support for advantaged and disadvantaged alike, or a mixed economy.

All that said, it provides a helpful framework against which to assess current practice and from which to begin to develop new practice. From a domestic perspective it supplies a reasonable reference point for consideration of the relatively similar English publication we expect in September.

The read-across will not be perfect. The English report will be dedicated specifically to support for progression to higher education and its focus is exclusively 11-18 year-olds. It will adopt a relatively liberal definition of ‘high-achieving’ which is broad in terms of the range of achievement it embraces, but does not otherwise accommodate those whose ability is not yet translated into high achievement. It is likely to concentrate substantively on in-school and in-college strategies, as opposed to external programmes.

Nevertheless, my forthcoming review will undoubtedly be aided by this prior excursion into broadly similar territory on the other side of the Atlantic.


The Pupil Premium

That said, one further critical issue will not be assisted by the comparison: whether available funding, principally in the form of the Pupil Premium, is allocated in such a manner that high-achieving disadvantaged learners receive their fair share of support – and whether such funding is making a real difference to their expectations of progression to higher education, and especially to selective universities.

I have raised in at least one previous post the question whether:

‘Gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds will receive the same level of benefit from the Premium as other disadvantaged learners, notably those who are not likely to achieve national benchmarks at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4.

For the Premium does not currently operate as an individual entitlement following the learner. The Government has issued no advice to schools to suggest that it should be deployed in this fashion…

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has argued that each eligible learner should receive a Pupil Premium Entitlement, so ensuring that the funding directly benefits those eligible for it. The IPPR argues that this should pay for:

‘extra catch-up tuition, small group tuition or one-to-one teaching to stretch the most able low-income pupils’.’

While there has been no apparent shift towards such an entitlement, other levers have been brought to bear to increase the general emphasis on gap narrowing. Ofsted inspectors will be monitoring the attainment gap in every school and will not rate a school outstanding unless it is closing that gap. Schools that are struggling will be required to appoint a head teacher from a successful school to advise them.

Ofsted has reinforced the message that schools should have:

‘Carefully ringfenced the funding so that they always spen[d] it on the target group of pupils’.

And, when it comes to high achievers, has expressed the desire that they have:

‘Never confused eligibility for the Pupil Premium with low ability, and focused on supporting their disadvantaged pupils to achieve the highest levels’.

One might reasonably expect that the imminent Ofsted report on provision for highly able learners, next in line for publication in the ‘Summer of Love’, will incorporate some further coverage of this kind, including some guidelines to differentiate effective and less effective practice. That messaging should then be traceable across to the third and final publication, where it should be an important feature.

It remains to be seen whether the other key accountability lever School Performance Tables, will be used to incentivise schools to support their higher achievers. The consultation on secondary school accountability – recently closed – proposed the publication of generic attainment data for pupils attracting the Premium, but did not commit to differentiating that by prior achievement.

We know that the current method of delineating such achievement, National Curriculum levels, is set to disappear in 2016 and, although there has been a commitment to a new system for grading high attainment in the core subjects at the end of KS2, we do not yet know how that will be done.

The Government has published a series of short case studies of effective use of the Premium, one of which features the gifted and talented programme at Paignton Community and Sports College. It doesn’t offer any startling insights into best practice, but it does confirm official endorsement for deploying some of the available funding in this fashion.

There is evidence elsewhere that the broad message has already been taken on board. A new scheme administered by the National College of Teaching and Leadership ‘Closing the Gap: Test and Learn’ supports school-based research into effective approaches to narrowing the gap. It is beginning with a consultation phase in which schools have been asked ‘which group of pupils should we be most attending to?’

The initial results make positive reading.

Curee consultation Capture

As things stand, one might reasonably expect that a significant proportion of the funded projects will be focused on our target group.

But there are also issues associated with the fact that the Pupil Premium is not available in post-16 settings, where entirely different funding arrangements apply. There is no mechanism for securing consistent support across the transition between 11-16 and 16-19 education for the substantial proportion of students who progress to higher education via two separate institutions with a break at 16 (or, for that matter, for those who change institutions at some other point in their school careers, most often as a consequence of moving house).

There have been suggestions that this might change. Press coverage in May 2012 reported that consideration was being given to a Student Premium for all pupils eligible for free school meals who passed the EBacc. The funding, worth up to £2,500 a year, would be confirmed at the age 16, subject to confirmation of a university place, but would not be available until the student entered higher education.

Then the Government’s report on progress in the first year of its social mobility strategy mentioned:

‘Options for reform of the National Scholarship Programme and other forms of student support, including a possible ‘HE Premium’, alongside other models… and whether we can give greater certainty of the support available to individuals at the point they are considering applying to university.’

No reforms of this nature have so far been forthcoming.

Towards the end of the first post in the Summer of Love series, I proposed a targeted intervention programme supported by an annual Pupil Premium topslice. The funding would be transferred into a personal entitlement or voucher that could be passported on the individual learner, following them across into a post-16 setting if necessary.

There is a precedent for such a topslice in the form of the £50m of Pupil Premium funding set aside for summer schools. A further £50m topslice represents just 2% of the total sum available for the Pupil Premium in 2014-15.

It should be possible to generate a matched contribution from a separate 16-19 funding source if necessary, though the total amount required would be relatively small.

Let us end with some traditional but provisional ‘back-of the envelope’ costings,

In the early secondary years the funding might be targeted at broader awareness-raising for all Premium-eligible learners achieving Level 5 at KS2 in English and Maths (or the equivalent in the new assessment regime). This is currently some 14% of the Year 6 cohort so, assuming a total year group of 600,000, some 84,000 learners annually across Years 7-9.

From Year 9/10 onwards it might be focused more tightly on a tailored programme for each Premium-eligible learner with the capacity to enter a selective higher education course, or a selective university, or to achieve a specified benchmark, such as A levels at Grades AAB+. In 2010-11, just 7% of all state school students achieved these grades (though admittedly in ‘facilitating subjects’ only).

I cannot find a reliable estimate of the proportion formerly eligible for free school meals, but modelling undertaken by HEFCE in 2011 (Annex D) suggests very small numbers in POLAR Quintile 1 (2,741 aged under 21) achieved this outcome (and not only in ‘facilitating subjects’ either). It is highly unlikely that the national cohort of Premium-eligible learners considered likely to achieve this would exceed 5,000 per year group.

So we might expect a steady-state national cohort of around 250,000 in Years 7-9 and some 20,000 in Years 10-13. A sum of £50m would enable one to allocate:

  • £1,500 per year to learners in Years 10-13 (20,000 x £1,500 = £30m)
  • An average of £6,000 per year per school for learners in Years 7-9 (3,000 x £6,000 = £18m) though the sums provided would be weighted to reflect distribution while avoiding ‘penny packages’

So leaving sufficient change for formative and summative evaluation, possibly even a thorough randomised control trial!



May 2013

A Summer of Love for English Gifted Education? Episode One: KS2 Level 6 Tests


summer of love 1967 by 0 fairy 0

summer of love 1967 by 0 fairy 0

This post is the first in a short series, scheduled to coincide with three publications – two yet to be published – that focus directly on provision for gifted learners in England.

Each Episode will foreground one of the publications, set within the emerging overall narrative. Each will assess the likely impact of the target publication and the broader narrative as it unfolds while also reflecting associated developments in educational policy anticipated during the next few months.

Episode One:

  • Analyses the first publication, an Investigation of Level 6 Key Stage 2 Tests, already published in February 2013, exploring its findings in the context of current uncertainty about future arrangements for assessment in primary schools.
  • Reviews the outcomes of the most recent Ofsted survey of gifted and talented education, conducted in December 2009, so establishing a benchmark for consideration of a new Ofsted survey of how schools educate their most able pupils, due for publication in May 2013.
  • Sets out what we know about the third document, an Investigation of School and College-level strategies to raise the Aspirations of High-Achieving Disadvantaged Pupils to Pursue Higher Education, due for publication by mid-September 2013.

Future Episodes will scrutinise the new Ofsted Survey and the second Investigation respectively, linking them with other developments over the summer period, not all of which may yet be in the public domain.

By this means I plan to provide a kind of iterative stocktake of current issues and future prospects for their resolution. I am curious to learn whether I will be more or less positive at the end of the series than at the beginning.

For I enter the fray in a spirit of some world-weariness and pessimism over the continuing inability of the gifted education community to act collaboratively, to reform itself and to improve practice. This is seemingly a global malaise, though some countries stand out as bucking the trend. Many have featured in previous posts.

Will the Summer of Love provide the spur for trend-bucking reform here in England, or will the groundswell of energy it generates be dissipated in the long, languorous, lazy sunshine days ahead?


Publications in the Last Two Years and Associated Developments

Following a lengthy period in the doldrums, we may be on the verge of a rather livelier season in the evolving history of English gifted education.

It would be wrong to suggest that we have been entirely becalmed. Over the past two years we have digested a trio of key publications, all of which have been reviewed on this Blog:

  • The Sutton Trust’s ‘Educating the Highly Able’ (July 2012), which I took seriously to task for its over-emphasis on excellence at the expense of equity and almost entire failure to address the needs of underachieving gifted learners, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Given the sponsoring organisation’s raison d’etre (improving social mobility) that seemed, frankly, bizarre.

These documents may have had some limited positive impact, by maintaining gifted education’s profile within wider education policy, but I can find no evidence to suggest that they have reformed our collective thinking about effective gifted education, let alone improved the learning experience and life chances of English gifted learners.

Indeed, it is conceivable that the two latter publications have set back the cause of gifted education by taking us down two successive blind alleys.

I have made my own small efforts to refocus attention on a more productive direction of travel through The Gifted Phoenix Manifesto for Gifted Education.

I do not claim any great status or significance for the Manifesto, though there are encouraging early signs that it is stimulating productive debate amongst others in the field, at least amongst those who are not firmly wedded to the status quo.

The Sutton Trust promises further work, however:

‘Helping the highly able

Piloting programmes that support and stretch bright students from non-privileged backgrounds in state schools, and opening up selective state schools to bright children from low and middle income homes.’

This presumably includes the outcome of the call for proposals that it issued as long ago as July 2012, ‘with a view to developing the first project by the end of the year’ – ie 31 December 2012 (see attachment at the bottom of the linked page).

The call for proposals sought:

‘Cost-effective, scalable projects which support highly able pupils in non-selective maintained schools.  The Trust is particularly interested in initiatives which are based on sound evidence and / or which draw on proven models of intervention.’

It expressed interest in:

  • ‘proposals that focus on those pupils capable of excellence in core academic school subjects’;.
  • ‘various methods of defining this group – for example those attaining at the 90th percentile and above, the 95th percentile, or the new Level 6’ or ‘on the basis of school performance and local context’;
  • Support for ‘“exceptionally able” pupils’ especially ‘imaginative ways of bringing them together’;
  • Provision that is ‘integral to schools and not simply a “bolt-on” to mainstream provision’
  • Programmes that start ‘in key stage three or four, but which may continue to support the students through their transition to FE and HE’.

There is some reasonable hope therefore that the Trust might still contribute in a positive way to the Summer of Love! If there is an announcement during the timeframe of this series I will of course feature the details in a future Episode.

But I plan to build the series around a second trio of documents which have the capacity to be somewhat more influential than those published from 2011 to 2012.


Kew once more 1 by giftedphoenix

Kew once more 1 by giftedphoenix


Key Stage 2 Level 6

One is already with us: an ‘Investigation of Key Stage 2 Level 6 Tests’ commissioned by the Department for Education and published in late February 2013. (OK, so I’m stretching a point by extending Summer back into the Winter, but this study has so far escaped serious in-depth attention.)

The authors are Mike Coldwell, Ben Willis and Colin McCaig from the Centre for Education and Inclusion Research (CEIR) at Sheffield Hallam University.

Before engaging directly with their findings, it is necessary to sketch in a fair amount of contextual background, since that will be critical to the broader narrative we expect to evolve over the coming months.


Background: Level 6 Tests

Level 6 Tests are by no means the first example of efforts to raise the assessment ceiling for high-attaining learners at the end of Key Stage 2 (KS2) (typically the final year of primary school when children are aged 11), but there is insufficient space here to trace the history of their predecessors.

The current iteration, optional Level 6 tests, was introduced in 2011 in reading, writing and maths. The tests were not externally marked, nor were results published.

QCDA was still in place. Its website said:

‘The tests provide the opportunity to stretch high attaining pupils and also provide a useful tool for measuring the ability and progression of gifted and talented pupils. You are advised to view the tests to make a judgement on how appropriate they are for your pupils.’

In June 2011, the Bew Report into KS2 testing, assessment and accountability reflected this experience:

‘We recognise that the current system of National Curriculum tests can appear to place a ceiling on attainment for the most able pupils. This has important implications for measures of progress, since a pupil who achieves level 3 at the end of Key Stage 1 can currently only achieve level 5 in the end of Key Stage 2 tests, and can therefore only make two levels of progress (currently the expected rate of progress).

Allowing pupils to attain level 6 at the end of Key Stage 2 would enable pupils with high Key Stage 1 attainment to make better than expected progress. Secondary schools receiving pupils who had attained level 6 would understand that these pupils would need to be particularly challenged and stretched from the start of Year 7…

It is important to challenge the most able pupils. We welcome the Government’s decision to make level 6 tests available to schools on an optional basis this year. We believe that these optional tests could allow particularly able pupils an opportunity to develop and fully demonstrate their knowledge and understanding.

However, we do have some concerns, in particular over the extent to which it will be possible for primary schools to cover enough of the Key Stage 3 curriculum to allow pupils to attain level 6. NFER, one of the few respondents who commented on this issue, suggested that it would be more appropriate to award a ‘high 5’ than a level 6.’

So Bew concluded:

‘We believe that the Government should continue to provide level 6 National Curriculum Tests for schools to use on an optional basis, whose results should be reported to parents and secondary schools.’

But there was also a rider:

‘If, following the review of the National Curriculum, any changes are made to the current system of levels, alternative arrangements should be put in place to ensure the most able pupils are challenged.’

More about that anon.

In the light of this, externally marked KS2 Level 6 tests were offered in 2012 in Reading and Maths. There was also an option to undertake internally marked Level 6 teacher assessment in Writing.

The 2012 KS2 Assessment and Reporting Arrangements Booklet offered a brief commentary:

‘These tests are optional and are aimed at high attaining children. Headteachers should take into account a child’s expected attainment prior to entering them for these tests as they should already be demonstrating attainment above level 5…

To be awarded an overall level 6 in a subject, a child must achieve both a level 5 in the end of Key Stage 2 test and pass the level 6 test for that subject. Schools can refer to the 2011 level 6 test papers in order to inform their assessment of whether to enter children for the test.’

The Investigation examines this 2012 experience, but is confined to the two externally marked tests.

Meanwhile – and skipping ahead for a moment – in 2013, the optional Reading and Maths tests are once again available, alongside a new optional test of Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling, in place of the teacher assessment of writing.

Reporting of Level 6 results in School Performance Tables has also changed. In 2012, Level 6 outcomes were used only in the ‘calculation of progress measures, Value Added,  percentage achieving level 5+ and average point scores’.

When it comes to the 2013 Performance Tables:

‘…the percentage of the number of children at the end of Key Stage 2 achieving level 6 in a school will also be shown in performance tables. The Department will not publish any information at school level about the numbers of children entered for the level 6 tests, or the percentage achieving level 6 of those entered for level 6.’

This change may have been significant in driving increased interest in the tests, though not necessarily for all the right reasons, as the discussion below will reveal.

Although the 2012 Performance Tables made limited use of Level 6 results some aggregated performance data was published, as my post on the outcomes noted:

‘900 pupils achieved Level 6 in the KS2 reading test and 19,000 did so in the maths test. While the former is significantly lower than 1% of total entries, the latter is equivalent to 3%, so roughly one pupil per class is now achieving Level 6 in maths. (About 700 pupils also achieved Level 6 in science teacher assessment). Almost all learners achieving a Level 6 will have demonstrated three levels of progress. We know from other provisional data that some 2,500 of those securing Level 6 in maths achieved either Level 2A or even Level 2B in maths alone at KS1, so managing four levels of progress in crude whole-level terms.’

Incidentally, we now know from DfE’s website that:

‘There will not be a Key Stage 2 science sampling test in 2013; a new, biennial (every other year), pupil-level sampling system will be introduced in 2014.’

And slightly more accurate performance data was supplied in an Appendix to the Investigation itself. It tells us that, across all schools (including independent schools that opted to take the tests):

  • 55,212 learners were entered for Level 6 Maths and 18,953 of them (34.3%) achieved it; and
  • 46,810 pupils were entered for level 6 reading and 942 (2.0%) achieved it.

That gives a total of 102,022 entries, though we do not know how many came from independent schools or, indeed, how many learners were entered for Level 6 tests in both Maths and Reading.


Background: The Future of National Curriculum Assessment

We have known since June 2012 that National Curriculum levels will be phased out and were informed, through a kind of policy aside in March 2013, that this would happen ‘from 2016’.

The new National Curriculum will be introduced from September 2014, so will be assessed through the existing assessment framework during its first year of implementation, despite the apparently strong case for keeping it and the associated assessment reforms fully synchronised.

It may be that this decision is associated with recent difficulties over the procurement of a contractor to undertake external marking of the KS2 tests from 2014-2016, or else progress on determining the new arrangements was insufficiently advanced by the time that contract came to be negotiated.

At the time of writing we still await a promised consultation document on primary assessment and accountability, some 10 months after the removal of levels was first communicated.

The issues discussed below will need revisiting once the Government’s proposals are safely in the public domain: the spectre of assessment reform hangs over this post as well as the Investigation it is supposed to be reviewing.

There are few clues to the direction of travel, apart from some suggestion that the Government has been influenced by Bew’s deliberations, even though his clarity on this point left something to be desired.

I quote the relevant sections fully below, to ensure that I haven’t missed any vital inflection or  hint of what Bew intended. The emphases are mine:

‘In the short term, we believe we need to retain levels as a means of measuring pupils’ progress and attainment… However, in the long term, we believe the introduction of a new National Curriculum provides an opportunity to improve how we report from statutory assessment. We believe it is for the National Curriculum Review to determine the most appropriate way of defining the national standards which are used to categorise pupils’ attainment.

We realise that, in order to measure progress, it is necessary to have an appropriate scale against which attainment and progress can be measured at various points. For example in Australia, a ‘vertical scale’ (where a movement along the scale between any two equally spaced points must reflect similar levels of progress) is created by testing several year-groups, using some common questions to link scores on each test together. A particular question might be considered difficult for a Year 3 pupil, but much easier for a Year 5 pupil. Although this is technically defensible, it does require tests at more regular intervals than we currently have in England.

In England, we currently use National Curriculum levels as a scale against which to measure progress. However, as stated later in this chapter, concerns have been raised as to whether the levels, as they currently exist, are appropriate as a true vertical scale. We recommend that, as part of the review of the National Curriculum, consideration is given to creating a more appropriate ‘vertical scale’ with which to measure progress.

And, a little later in the Report:

‘In the longer term, we feel it may be helpful for statutory assessment to divide into two parts. All pupils could be expected to master a ‘core’ of essential knowledge by the end of Key Stage 2, concentrating on the basic literacy and numeracy which all pupils require if they are to access the secondary curriculum. This ‘core’ could be assessed through a ‘mastery’ test which all pupils should be expected to pass (only excepting cases of profound Special Educational Needs), providing a high minimum standard of literacy and numeracy at the end of primary education.

We recognise the risk that this approach may lead to ‘teaching to the test’, may set an unhelpfully low ceiling on attainment and would not reflect pupils’ progress. We would suggest two solutions. Firstly, it might be helpful to allow pupils to take ‘core’ tests in Years 4, 5 or 6 to ensure that able pupils are challenged. Secondly, we feel there could also be a separate assessment at the end of Key Stage 2 to allow pupils to demonstrate the extent of their knowledge and therefore to measure pupils’ progress during the Key Stage. This assessment could be designed to identify the extent of pupils’ attainment and understanding at the end of Year 6, spreading them out on a ‘vertical scale’ rather than being a pass/fail mastery test. Such an assessment should be as useful as possible to pupils, parents and teachers. It may be helpful for the results to report in greater detail than is currently provided by National Curriculum Test data, so they can identify more effectively the pupil’s attainment in key broad aspects of a subject.

We feel the combination of these statutory assessments could ensure that all pupils reach a minimum standard of attainment while also allowing pupils to demonstrate the progress they have made – which would indicate the quality of the school’s contribution to their education. It could provide a safety net in that all pupils should achieve a basic minimum, but would not impose a low ceiling on the able.’

And then finally:

‘A key criticism of the current Key Stage 2 tests is that pupils’ knowledge and skills over a four-year Key Stage is assessed via tests in a single specified week in May. Some critics have raised concerns that this approach causes stress for pupils, particularly those working at the lower end of a spectrum, and may have unfair implications for schools, whose overall results may be affected if for example a highly-performing pupil is absent on test day. In addition, criticism suggests there is little incentive to challenge the more able children, who may well be working at level 5 at an earlier point in the Key Stage or year.

We believe that our earlier recommendations address these issues. However, we also recognise the benefits of a system based on the principle of ‘testing when ready’. The proponents of such an approach argue that it would allow each pupil to be entered for statutory tests when he/she is ready, and then able to move on to more advanced learning. We believe that it would be possible for a statutory ‘testing when ready’ system to meet the statutory assessment purposes we have specified.

However, we are not convinced that moving to a ‘testing when ready’ approach is the best way of achieving the purposes of statutory assessment under the current National Curriculum. We suggest that the principle of ‘testing when ready’ should be considered in the future following the National Curriculum Review. We believe that the principle of ‘testing when ready’ may fit well if computer administered testing is introduced, making it easier for each pupil to sit his/her own personalised test at any point in time when teachers deem him/her to be ready.’

In summary then, Bew appears to suggest:

  • Assessment of mastery of an essential core of knowledge that all should pass but which might be undertaken as early as Year 4, two years before the end of KS2;
  • A separate end of KS2 assessment of the extent of learners’ knowledge and their progress against  a new ‘vertical scale’ that will judge their progress over time, this potentially incorporating reporting on attainment in ‘key broad aspects of a subject’;
  • Consideration of transition to a universal ‘testing when ready’ approach at some indeterminate future point (which may or may not be contemporaneous with and complementary to the changes above).

Quite what learners will do after they have successfully completed the mastery test – and its relationship to the draft Programmes of Study that have now been published – is not explained, or even explored.

Are learners expected to begin anticipating the Key Stage 3 programme of study, or to confine themselves to pursuing the KS2 programme in greater breadth and depth, or a combination of the above?

In short, Bew raises more questions than he answers (and so effectively reinforces the argument for keeping curricular and assessment reforms fully synchronised).

At this point we simply do not know whether the Government is ready to unveil plans for the introduction of a radically new ‘test when ready’ assessment regime from 2016, or whether some sort of intermediate position will be adopted.

The former decision would be a very bold reform given the ‘high stakes’ nature of these tests and the current state of cutting edge assessment practice. Given the difficult history of National Curriculum assessment, the risk of catastrophic error might well be too great to contemplate at this stage.

Awash in all this uncertainty, one might be forgiven for assuming that an analysis of the impact of the introduction of Level 6 tests has been overtaken – or almost overtaken – by events.

But that would be unjustified since the Investigation addresses some important issues about gifted education in the upper primary years, effective management of the transition between primary and secondary schools and the role of assessment in that process.


Kew once more 2 by giftedphoenix

Kew once more 2 by giftedphoenix


The Investigation: Key Points

The Report is structured around the sequence of events leading from a school’s decision to enter learners for the tests, proceeding from there to consider the identification and selection of participants, the support provided to them in the run up to taking the test, and the outcomes for participants, other pupils, the host school and receiving secondary schools.

It addresses five research questions:

  • How have the tests affected school behaviour towards the most able pupils?
  • What is the difference in behaviours between schools that do well in the tests and those which do not?
  • What are the positive and negative effects of the tests, on schools and pupils respectively?
  • Why did some schools enter pupils for the tests whereas others did not?
  • How are schools identifying pupils to enter the tests?

It does so by means of a tripartite methodology, drawing on 20 case studies of schools undertaking the tests, 40 telephone interviews with schools that decided not to take part and 20 telephone interviews with secondary schools.


The Decision to Enter Learners

Schools that decided to enter pupils for the tests did so because:

  • They wanted to provide additional challenge for able pupils and/or remove an unhelpful ceiling on their attainment. There was a perceived motivational benefit, for staff as well as learners,  while some primary schools ‘hoped that an externally validated exam might make secondary schools more secure in their views about primaries’ judgements’, as well as protecting learners from expectations that they would repeat work at their receiving secondary schools.
  • They wanted to evidence positive performance by the school, by demonstrating additional progress by learners and confirming teacher assessment outcomes. Entry was assumed to assert their high expectations of able pupils. Some were anxious that failure to take part would be perceived negatively by Ofsted.
  • Some were encouraged by the ‘low stakes’ nature of the assessment, identified entry as consistent with the school’s existing priorities, saw a positive marketing opportunity, or wanted to attract or retain staff ‘with sufficient confidence and expertise to teach level 6 content’.

Conversely, schools deciding against participation most often did so because they judged that they had no pupils for which the tests would be suitable (though there was recognition that this was a cohort-specific issue).

Many said they had received insufficient guidance, about the test itself and about the need to teach the Key Stage 3 programme of study, and there was related concern about the absence of dedicated teaching materials.

Some objected to the tests in principle, preferring an alternative approach to assessing these learners, or concerned at a disproportionate focus on the core subjects. ‘Quite a number’ took the reverse and negative position on secondary schools’ anticipated response, assuming that receiving schools would re-test and repeat the work pupils had undertaken.


Identification and Selection of Participants

Concern about lack of guidance extended to advice on selection of participants. There was widespread worry at the limited availability of past papers. Lack of confidence led to schools adopting very different approaches, some rather liberal and others much more conservative.

Some entered only those learners they believed had a very good chance of passing. Others extended entry to all those they believed had some chance of success, sometimes including even those they felt probably would not pass.

On average, case study schools nominated 41% of the subset of learners who achieved Level 5 in Maths, though some entered 20% or fewer and others 81% or more. Most fell between these two extremes. (The national figure is given as 26%.)

But, in Reading, case study schools nominated on average only 25% of learners who had achieved Level 5. Only a minority of schools nominated over 41%. (The national figure is given as 18%.)

Timing of selection varied considerably. Identifying potential entrants relatively early in Year 6 and confirming selection nearer the April deadline was a common strategy.

Decisions typically took into account several factors, foremost of which were learners’ own preferences. Few schools consulted parents systematically. There was generally less clarity and confidence in respect of Reading.

Schools typically utilised a mix of objective, quantifiable and subjective, value-driven measures, but ‘many schools struggled to convey coherently a specific selection strategy’ and it is clear that the probability of a learner being entered varied considerably according to which school they attended.

Objective evidence included formative assessment, tracking data, cross-moderation of work between partner schools and the outcomes of practice tests. Though schools felt secure in their levelling, only a handful stated explicitly that they had learners working at Level 6, either at the point of selection for the tests or subsequently. In reality, most made their judgements on the basis of performance at Level 5.

Subjective considerations – eg learners’ ‘wellbeing’ – were significant:

‘In certain instances possessing the raw ingredients of academic ability and a track record of high academic performance in isolation were not necessarily seen to be sufficient grounds for selection. Instead a number of schools also attached considerable importance to the particular pupils’ maturity, personality and, in some cases, behaviour.’

Many schools expected to tighten their selection criteria in response to low pass rates, especially in Reading. There was marked dissatisfaction with ‘the increased threshold marks (compared with those from the pilot tests)’ and a feeling that this had led schools to underestimate the difficulty of the tests.

The Executive Summary argues that ‘schools were largely effective in ensuring that the very top ability pupils were identified and put forward’, but the substantive text is not quite so bullish.

There was clear evidence of reticence on teachers’ parts in outlining the characteristics of learners working at Level 6. Reference was made to independence, tenacity and motivation and ‘an innate flare or capability to excel at a particular subject’.

Some schools struggled to pin down these traits, especially for Reading. Teachers mentioned ‘excellent inferential skills and capacity to access authorial intent’.

Maturity was also a key consideration:

‘The parameters of the Level 6 Reading test are just not compatible with the vast majority of pupils aged 11 (even the very brightest ones) – they simply do not possess the experiences and emotional maturity to be able to access what is required of them within the level 6 test.’


Support Provided to Participants

Limited guidance was a prominent issue, leading schools to use ‘an array of ad hoc means of support’ derived from their own research and experience.

Many adopted aspects of the KS3 Programme of Study, despite concern at the attitude of receiving secondary schools. Materials and support were much more evident in Maths than in Reading.

Lack of clarity over the relationship between Level 6 tests and the KS3 programmes of study was a significant issue. Most schools drew on the KS3 curriculum but a few preferred to emphasise breadth and depth at KS2 instead.

Schools were generally more confident in their support for Maths because ‘there appeared to be more internal and external expertise available’ and they found selection of participants less problematic.

Two aspects of support were prominent:

  • Classroom differentiation, focused on specific aspects of the curriculum – though the tests themselves were not widely perceived to have had a material impact on such practice. Some form of ability grouping was in place in all schools in respect of maths and most schools in respect of reading (as part of literacy).
  • Test preparation, mostly undertaken in additional booster sessions combining teaching with test-taking practice and the wider use of practice papers.

The Report characterises three broad approaches adopted by schools: outcome focussed (heavily emphasising test preparation); teaching and learning focused (with markedly less emphasis on booster sessions and test practice); and a composite approach marking the continuum between these two extremes.

Several schools reported an intention ‘to focus more on teaching and learning’ in the coming year.


Outcomes of the Tests

In Maths it was possible ‘to identify a small number of schools that performed particularly well and others that performed relatively poorly’.

The analysis focuses on the simple pass rate, the Level 5 to 6 conversion rate and a ‘top Level 5’ to Level 6 conversion rate across the 20 case study schools.

The simple pass rate was 40% (34% nationally), though this masked significant variation – from 0% to 100% indeed.

These outcomes correlated broadly with the level 5 to 6 conversion rates for which the case study school average was 17%, with variance from 0% to 50%.

However, when it came to the’ top Level 5’ to Level 6 conversion rate, the Report can only admit that, while there was some degree of correlation with the other two measures:

‘On this measure there was polarity: most schools either found that all of their ‘top level 5s’ achieved level 6 or that none of them achieved it. This is difficult to interpret, and the qualitative data does not shed a light on this.’

Even more problematically, only one learner in the entire sample was successful in achieving Level 6 in the Reading test – equivalent to a 1% success rate (the national pass rate was 2%).

The Report offers some rather approximate findings, wrapped around with health warnings, suggesting that better results were more typically found in schools with a combined approach featuring learning and outcomes (see above), as opposed to either of those two extremes.

Positive outcomes for schools have already been outlined above.

Benefits for learners, identified by teachers and learners alike, included the scope provided by the tests for learners to demonstrate (even fulfil) their potential. Wider personal outcomes were also mentioned including a positive impact on motivation (though there were also corresponding concerns about overloading and over-pressurising learners).

Secondary schools rather tended to reinforce the negative expectations of some primary schools:

  • They were ‘generally ambivalent about primary schools’ use of L6 test and aspects of the KS3 curriculum…due to the fact that secondary schools in general felt that measures of KS2 outcomes were not accurate… Consequently, they preferred to test the children pre-entry or at the beginning of Year 7’.
  • ‘Many of the secondary schools were concerned about primary schools ‘teaching to the test’ and thus producing L6 pupils with little breadth and depth of understanding of L6 working…Generally secondaries viewed such results as unreliable, albeit useful for baseline assessment, as they help to identify ‘high fliers’’
  • While most noted the benefits for learners ‘some felt that inaccurate test outcomes made the transition more difficult’. The usual range of concerns was expressed.


The Investigation’s own Conclusions

The Investigation offers four main conclusions:

  • It is abundantly clear…that greater guidance on pupil selection and support and more practice materials are key issues’. This needs to incorporate guidance on coverage, or otherwise, of the KS3 curriculum. The main text (but not the executive summary) identifies this as a responsibility of ‘DfE with the STA’. It remains to be seen whether the Government will take on this task or will look instead to the market to respond.
  • Schools adopting a strongly outcome-focussed approach were less likely to produce successful results than those adopting a mixed learning and outcome approach. Some schools seemed too heavily driven by pressure to secure positive inspection results, and

.‘responded to the direction from inspectors and policymakers to support the most able by a narrowing of the curriculum and overemphasising test preparation, which is not in the best interests of pupil, teachers or schools’

There is a ‘need for policy to aim to drive home the vital importance of pedagogy and learning to counteract the tendency’.

  • Secondary schools confirm primary schools’ scepticism that they will not ‘judge the tests as an accurate reflection of levels’. There is therefore ‘a strong need to engage secondaries much more with primaries in, for example, curriculum, assessment and moderation’. This is presumably a process that is most easily undertaken through local collaboration.
  • The very low pass rate in Reading, selection issues (including maturity as a key component) and secondary scepticism point to a need ‘to review whether the L6 Reading test in its current form is the most appropriate test to use to identify a range of higher performing pupils, for example the top 10%’. The full commentary also notes that:

.‘The cost of supporting and administering a test for such a small proportion of the school population appears to outweigh the benefits’.


My Conclusions

There is relatively little here that would be unusual or surprising to a seasoned observer of how gifted education is currently practised and of wider educational issues such as the impact of Ofsted on school practice and transfer and transition issues.

The study is rather narrow in its conceptualisation, in that it fails to address the interface between the Level 6 tests and other relevant aspects of Government thinking, not least emerging policy on the curriculum and (of course) assessment.

It entirely ignores the fact that a decision to abandon National Curriculum Levels was announced eight months prior to publication.

There is no attempt to analyse the national data in any depth, or to look at any issues concerning the gender, ethnic and socio-economic profile of learners entered for the tests and successful within it, even though there will have been some heavy biases, especially in favour of those from comparatively advantaged backgrounds.

It would have been particularly helpful to see how much bigger the FSM gap at Level 6 is, compared with Level 5, whether schools had focused on this issue and, if so, what action they had taken to address it. Was there any evidence of the positive use of Pupil Premium funding for this purpose?

The Investigation’s general point about the negative impact of Ofsted on schools’ practice may also be rather misleading, in that the negative influence of overly outcomes-focussed thinking is at least partly attributable to School Performance Tables rather than Ofsted’s school inspection framework.

In that guise it will probably also feature in Ofsted’s own upcoming publication (see below). Whether there is any reference in Ofsted’s report to the case for rebalancing schools towards pedagogy and learning, so they are more in equilibrium with the pursuit of assessment outcomes, is rather more doubtful. Quite how that might be undertaken is ducked by the Level 6 Investigation and so likely to be sidelined.

The issues relating to transition and transfer are longstanding and a heavy drag on the efficiency of our school system, both for gifted learners and the wider population. If the upcoming consultation affects the timing of Key Stage 2 assessment, that may provide the impetus for renewed efforts to address the generic problem. Otherwise this seems unlikely to be a priority for the Government.

The response to date to the call for additional guidance has been rather limited.

Certainly, a range of sample material has been posted to assist schools interested in taking up the new test of grammar, punctuation and spelling. But the information available to support the Maths and Reading tests remains relatively thin. I have found nothing that addresses substantively the issues about pre-empting elements of Key Stage 3.

Despite the limited support available, evidence has recently emerged that Level 6 test entries are significantly higher for 2013 than for 2012. A total of 113,600 pupils have been entered, equivalent to 21% of the relevant pupil population.

This is said to be an increase of 55% compared with the 73,300 entered in 2012 (though that figure does not seem to agree with those quoted in the Investigation and reproduced above).

Moreover, some 11,300 schools have registered for the tests, up 41% on the 2012 figure of 8,300 schools.

Given the issues associated with the Reading test set out in the Report, one might hazard a reasonable guess that the increase will be attributable largely to the Maths test and perhaps to schools experimenting with the new grammar, punctuation and spelling test (though the figures are not broken down by test).

Increased emphasis in the 2013 Performance Tables (see above) will also be a significant factor. Does this suggest that schools are increasingly slaves to the outcomes-driven mentality that the Investigation strives so hard to discourage?



The key point here is that it is unlikely to be wise or appropriate to enter over one fifth of all end KS2 learners for tests in which so few are likely to be successful.

One might reasonably hope that, incorporated within the design principles for whatever assessment instruments will replace Level 6 tests, there is explicit recognition that a basic pass/fail distinction, combined with an exceptionally high threshold for a pass, is not the optimal solution.

It is important to retain a high threshold for those with the capacity to achieve it, but other relatively strong candidates also need opportunities to demonstrate a positive outcome at a slightly lower level. A new approach might look to recognise positively the performance of the top 10%, top 5% and top 1% respectively.

It will also be critical to ensure an orderly transition from the current arrangements to those in place from 2016. There is a valuable window of opportunity to pilot new approaches thoroughly alongside the existing models. The reform need not be rushed – that is the silver lining to the cloud associated with decoupling curriculum and assessment reforms.

So, what is my overall judgement of the contribution made by this first publication to my wished for ‘Summer of Love’?

A curate’s egg really. Positive and useful in a small way, not least in reminding us that primary-secondary transition for gifted learners remains problematic, but also a missed opportunity to flag up some other critical issues – and of course heavily overshadowed by the primary assessment consultation on the immediate horizon.

Still, one hopes that its recommendations will be revisited as part of a holistic response to all three publications, and that those to follow will take full account of its findings, otherwise the overall narrative will be somewhat impoverished and will almost certainly fail to give due prominence to the critically important upper primary phase.


Kew once more 3 by giftedphoenix

Kew once more 3 by giftedphoenix


The Ofsted Survey



Next in line for publication is an Ofsted Survey, conducted using the Inspectorate’s rapid response methodology, which will examine ‘how state schools teach the most able children’.

Unusually, this was announced in January 2013 through a press briefing with a national newspaper. Given the political leanings of the paper in question, the contents of the story may be a somewhat biased version of reality.

There is no information whatsoever on Ofsted’s own website, with the sole (and recently added) exception of a publication schedule confirming that the survey will be published in May.

The newspaper report explains that:

  • Despite being a rapid response exercise, this publication ‘will be the most extensive investigation of gifted and talented provision undertaken’ by Ofsted.
  • It will focus predominantly – if not exclusively – on secondary schools where ‘children who get top marks in primary school are being let down by some secondary school teachers who leave them to coast rather than stretch them to achieve the best exam results’.
  • It will examine ‘concerns that bright pupils who are taught in mixed ability classes are failing to be stretched and that schools are entering clever children too early for GCSE exams so that they gain only the C grades that count in league tables and are not pushed to the full extent of their abilities’.
  • Ofsted will interrogate existing inspection data on educational provision for gifted and talented learners, as well as pupil progress data. They will also survey provision afresh, through visits to a representative sample of over 50 secondary schools.

HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw is quoted extensively:

‘I am concerned that our most able pupils are not doing as well as they should be…Are schools pushing them in the way they should be pushed and are pushed in the independent sector and in the selective system?

The statistic that four independent schools and a very prestigious six [sic] form college are sending more youngsters to Oxbridge than 2,000 state secondary schools is a nonsense. When the history of comprehensive education is written people need to say that they did as well by the most able pupils as they did by the least able…

I am passionate about this, it will be a landmark report…I am as concerned as the next person on the issue of social mobility. Are our children and our children from the poorest backgrounds who are naturally bright doing as well as they should?

…I would like to see GCSE league tables reformed…The anxiety to get as many through those C boundaries have sometimes meant that schools haven’t pushed children beyond that.

We need sophisticated league tables which shows [sic] progress. Youngsters leaving primary school with level 5 should be getting A*, A or B at GCSE.’

It is arguable that the Government has already responded to the final specific point via its proposal – in the consultation on secondary accountability released alongside the draft National Curriculum – to publish an ‘average point score 8’ measure based on each pupil’s achievement across eight qualifications at the end of KS4 (though whether it has done enough to counterbalance other pressures in the system to prioritise the C/D borderline is open to question).

Otherwise there are several familiar themes here:

  • whether gifted learners are insufficiently challenged, particularly in secondary comprehensive schools;
  • whether they are making sufficient progress between the end of Key Stage 2 and the end of Key Stage 4;
  • whether they are held back by poor differentiation, including a preponderance of mixed ability teaching;
  • to what extent they are supported by schools’ policies on early entry to examinations, particularly GCSEs;
  • whether more can be to done to support progression by state school students to the most competitive universities, especially by those from disadvantaged backgrounds; and
  • whether there are perverse incentives in the accountability system that result in gifted learners being short-changed.

Given the puff generated by Sir Michael, expectations are high that this will be a substantial and influential piece of work. It follows that, if it turns out to be comparatively a damp squib, the sense of disappointment and frustration will be so much greater.

The Report will be judged by what new and fresh light it can bring to bear on these issues and, critically, by the strength of the recommendations it directs towards stakeholders at national, local and school level.

Just how interventionist will Ofsted show itself in backing up its leader’s passion? Will it take responsibility for co-ordinating a response from central government to any recommendations that it points in that direction – and what exactly will Ofsted commit itself to doing to help bring about real and lasting change?

Not to labour the point (though I fear I may be doing so) a limp effort that repackages familiar findings and appeals rather weakly to stakeholders’ better judgement will not display the landmark qualities of which HMCI has boasted.

A future Episode in this series will be dedicated to assessing whether or not these inflated expectations have been satisfied, and what the consequences are for the Summer of Love.


Benchmarking the New Report

In the meantime, it is instructive to look back at the most recent inspection report on gifted education, thus supplying a benchmark of sorts against which to judge the findings in this new publication.

This will help to establish whether the new report is simply bearing out what we know already about long-standing shortcomings in gifted education, or whether it has important messages to convey about the impact – positive or negative – of the predominantly ‘school led’ approach adopted by successive Governments over the past three years.

The most recent report was published in December 2009, in the latter days of the previous government.

Gifted and Talented Pupils in Schools’ is based on a rapid response survey of 26 primary and secondary schools, selected because their most recent school-wide inspections had identified gifted and talented education as ‘an improvement point’.

The survey was undertaken shortly after the previous government had, in the Report’s words:

‘Reviewed its national programme for gifted and talented pupils and concluded that it was not having sufficient impact on schools. As a result, provision is being scaled back to align it more closely with wider developments in personalising learning. Schools will be expected to do more themselves for these pupils.’

Eight of the 26 schools (31%) were judged to be well-placed to respond to this new environment, 14 (54%) displayed adequate capacity for improvement and the remaining four (15%) had ‘poorly developed’ capacity to sustain improvement.

The schools that were well-placed to build their own capacity could demonstrate that their improved provision was having a positive impact on outcomes for all pupils, were making use of available national resources – including the critically important Quality Standards – and were making sure that all pupils were suitably challenged in lessons.

The majority of schools in the middle group could demonstrate some improvement in pupil outcomes since their last inspection, but ‘many of the developments in these schools were fragile and the changes had had limited success in helping gifted and talented pupils to make appropriate and sustained progress’.

Gifted education was not a priority and:

‘To build their capacity to improve provision, they would benefit from better guidance, support and resources from outside agencies and organisations.’

In the four schools with inadequate capacity to improve, lead staff had insufficient status to influence strategic planning, teachers had not received appropriate training and schools:

‘Did not sufficiently recognise their own responsibilities to meet the needs of their gifted and talented pupils’.

The Report’s Key Findings identify a series of specific issues:

  • Many schools’ gifted education policies were ‘generic versions from other schools or the local authority’, so insufficiently effective.
  • In the large majority of schools (77%) pupils said their views were not adequately reflected in curriculum planning and they experienced an inconsistent level of challenge.
  • None of the schools had engaged fully with the parents of gifted learners to understand their needs and discuss effective support.
  • The better-placed schools were characterised by strong senior leadership in this field and lead staff with sufficient status to influence and implement policy. Conversely, in the poorer schools, senior staff demonstrated insufficient drive or commitment to this issue in the face of competing priorities.
  • In schools judged to have adequate capacity to improve, subject leaders had too much flexibility to interpret school policy, resulting in inconsistency and lack of coherence across the curriculum.
  • Most schools ‘needed further support to identify the most appropriate regional and national resources and training to meet their particular needs’. Lead staff were seeking practical subject-specific training for classroom teachers.
  • All schools ‘felt they needed more support and guidance about how to judge what gifted and talented pupils at different ages should be achieving and how well they were making progress towards attaining their challenging targets across key stages’
  • Just over half the schools had established collaborative partnerships with other schools in their localities. Lack of such support was evident in the schools with limited capacity to improve. There was comparatively little scrutiny through local accountability arrangements.
  • All the schools had developed out-of-hours provision though the link with school-based provision was not always clear and schools were not consistently evaluating the impact of such provision.
  • There was little analysis of progression by different groups of gifted learners.

The Report offers the customary series of recommendations, directed at central and local government and schools, designed to help schools build the necessary capacity to improve their performance in these areas. It will be telling whether the new Report assesses progress in implementing those.

Rather oddly, they fail to endorse or propose arrangements for the ongoing application of the Quality Standards in a ‘school-led’ environment, although the Standards incorporate all these elements of effective practice and provide a clear framework for continuous improvement.

With the benefit of hindsight, one might argue that many of the problems Ofsted cited in 2009 would have been rather less pronounced had the Inspectorate fully embraced the Standards as their official criteria for judging the effectiveness of gifted education when they were first introduced.

The Standards are now growing significantly out of date and require an urgent refresh if they are to remain a valuable resource for schools as they continue to pursue improvement.

Ideally Ofsted might lead that process and subsequently endorse the revised Standards as the universal measure for judging the quality of English schools’ gifted education. I can think of nothing that would have a more significant impact on the overall quality of provision

But I suspect that will be an idea too interventionist for even the most passionate HMCI to entertain.

It will be fascinating, nevertheless, to map the shortcomings identified in the upcoming Report against the existing Standards, as well as against those flagged in the predecessor Report. But that’s a topic for another day.


Kew once more 4 by giftedphoenix

Kew once more 4 by giftedphoenix


Raising the Aspirations of High-Achieving Disadvantaged Pupils

Thirdly and finally, DfE has commissioned an ‘Investigation of School and College-level Strategies to Raise the Aspirations of High-achieving Disadvantaged Pupils to Pursue Higher Education’.

This is still some way from publication, but the contract – including the specification – is available for public scrutiny (see documents section on this link).

The contract was awarded to TNS-BMRB (where the Project Lead is Mark Peters) working with the Institute for Policy Studies in Education (IPSE) based at London Metropolitan University (where the lead is Carole Leathwood).

IPSE is undertaking the qualitative element of the research and carries this outline of the project on its website.

According to the contract, the contractors must deliver their final report by 28 June and the Department must publish it within 12 weeks of this date, so by 20 September 2013 at the latest. The project is costing £114,113 plus VAT.

Its aims, as set down in the contract, are to discover:

  • ‘What strategies are being used by schools across years 7-11 and in school sixth forms (years 12-13) to support high-achieving disadvantaged pupils in to [sic] pursue HE.
  • If the pupil premium is being used in schools to fund aspiration raising activities for high-achieving disadvantaged pupils.
  • What strategies are being used by colleges to support high-achieving disadvantaged pupils pursue HE and
  • To identify assess [sic] any areas of potential good practice.

‘High-achieving’ is defined for these purposes as ‘pupils who achieve a Level 5 or higher in English and Maths at KS2’.

As reported in a previous post, some 27% of pupils achieved this outcome in 2012, up from 21% in 2011, so the focus is on the top quartile, or perhaps the top two deciles of pupils on this measure.

‘Disadvantaged’ is defined as ‘pupils eligible for free school meals’ (and, in the case of post-16 students, those who were eligible for FSM in Year 11). This is of course a somewhat narrower definition than eligibility for the Pupil Premium, even though the Premium is pivotal to the study.

The national proportion of pupils achieving Level 5 in KS2 English and maths in 2012 who are eligible for FSM is, I believe, 14%, compared with 32% of non-FSM pupils, giving a gap on this measure of 18%.

This data is not provided in School Performance Tables nor is it easily sourceable from published national statistics, though it does appear in schools’ Raise Online reports. (Incidentally, the comparable gap at Level 4 is somewhat lower, at 16%.)

The full set of objectives for the project is as follows (my emphases, but not my punctuation):

‘For Schools:

  • To identify to what extent schools are supporting high-achieving disadvantaged pupils to raise their aspiration to go on to HE?
  • To identify what activities take place in Years 7 -11 for high-achieving disadvantaged pupils to raise their aspiration to go on to HE and the Russell Group universities?
  • To identify whether the Pupil Premium being used [sic] to fund specific activities to help pupils pursue HE?
  • To identify what good practice looks like for supporting high-achieving disadvantaged pupils to pursue HE? (Focusing particularly on schools that have a high percentage of FSM pupils who go on to HE).

For FE colleges, sixth forms colleges and school sixth forms:

  • To identify to what extent are colleges supporting high-achieving disadvantaged learners post-16 to pursue HE?
  • To identify what strategies, if any, do high-achieving disadvantaged learners receive post-16 to pursue HE and more specifically Russell Group Universities?
  • To identify what good practice looks like for supporting high-achieving disadvantaged learners to pursue HE? (Focusing in particular on the strategies used by colleges that have a high percentage of disadvantaged learners who go on to HE).

For schools and colleges

  • To establish how schools and colleges are identifying ‘high-achieving, disadvantaged’ pupils/learners?
  • To identify which particular groups (if any) are being identified as requiring specific support and why?
  • To identify what extent schools/colleges engage in aspiration raising activities specifically designed to increase participation in Russell Group Institutions (rather than HE in general)?
  • To identify what good practice look like in relation to different groups of pupils/learners?’

It is evident from this that there is some confusion between aspiration-raising activities and wider support strategies. But there is clearly interest in comparing strategies in the school and post-16 sectors respectively (and perhaps in different parts of the post-16 sector too.) The primary sector does not feature.

There is also interest in establishing approaches to identifying the beneficiaries of such support; how such provision is differentiated between progression to HE and progression to ‘Russell Group universities’ respectively; the nature of good practice in each sector, drawn particularly from institutions where a significant proportion of students progress to HE; and distinguishing practice for different (but non-defined) groups of learners.

Finally, there is some interest – though perhaps a little underplayed – in exploring the extent to which the Pupil Premium is used to fund this activity in schools. (Funding sources in post-16 environments are not mentioned.)

The study comprises 6 phases: pre-survey scoping; survey piloting; national school survey (a sample of 500 schools, including 100 that send a high proportion of FSM-eligible pupils to HE); national FE and sixth form college survey (a sample of 100 institutions); case studies (eight schools and two colleges); and results analysis.

The latter will incorporate:

  • ‘To what extent schools and colleges are providing aspiration raising activities to high achieving disadvantaged pupils.’
  • ‘What activities take place across different year groups.’
  • ‘Analysis by school characteristics including region, school size, distance to the nearest Russell group university, proportion of FSM eligible pupils’
  • Comparison of the 400 schools with the 100 sending a high proportion of their FSM pupils on to higher education.
  • Whether ‘activities are associated with higher numbers of pupils progressing to HE and trends in what works for different pupil groups’
  • Triangulation of data from different strands
  • Analysis of ‘best practice’, incorporating ‘comparisons between schools and colleges’.

There is no overt reference to other Government policies and initiatives that might be expected to impact on institutions’ practice, such as the Destination Measures (which will be presented separately for FSM-eligible learners in 2013, as well as being incorporated in School and College Performance Tables) or the Dux Scheme. Nor is there any explicit reference to the outreach activities of universities.

One assumes, however, that the outcomes will help inform Government decisions as to the effectiveness of existing school and college level policy interventions that contribute towards the achievement of its Social Mobility Indicators, specifically:

The Report is likely to result in arrangements of some sort for for disseminating effective practice between institutions, even if that amounts only to a few brief case studies.

It may even help to inform decisions about whether additional interventions are required and, if so, the nature of those interventions.

Previous posts on this Blog have made the case for a nationally co-ordinated and targeted intervention provided through a ‘flexible framework’ which would synergise the currently separate ‘push’ strategies from schools/colleges with the ‘pull’ strategies from higher education in support of the ‘most disadvantaged, most able’.

This would be a subset of the 14% achieving KS2 Level 5 in English and maths, defined by their capacity to enter the most competitive universities. It might incorporate a specific focus on increasing substantively progression to particular ‘elite’ targets, whether expressed in terms of courses (eg medicine, veterinary, law) or institutions (notably Oxbridge).

At the moment all the running is being made on the ‘pull’ side, spearheaded by joint OFFA/HEFCE efforts to develop a ‘National Strategy for Access and Student Success’.

A joint effort would:

  • Passport funding on individual learners and support them through transition at 16 and 18, probably topslicing Pupil Premium for the purpose.
  • Enable learners and facilitators to draw on provision offered via the (currently fragmented) supply side, drawing in third party providers as well as schools/colleges and universities.
  • Provide for a menu of such provision from various sources to be synthesised into a personalised programme based on needs assessment and subject to regular monitoring and updating.

Although there is presently some ideological inhibition hindering the adoption of such scaffolded programmes, an intervention of this nature – targeted exclusively at a select cohort of ‘high ability, high need’ students – would be likely to result in much more significant improvements against these indicators, and do so much more quickly than generic system-wide reform.

In ‘holding the Government’s feet to the fire’ over social mobility issues, perhaps the recently-established Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission might see its way to making that case when it reports on Government progress in the Autumn.


Kew once more 5 by giftedphoenix

Kew once more 5 by giftedphoenix


Drawing These Strands Together

So, as things stand at the end of Episode One:

  • There is a decent, if relatively narrow report on the table which draws attention to longstanding transition and transfer problems and an outcomes-obsessed mentality at the top end of Key Stage 2, as well as a range of narrower issues associated with the effective delivery of Level 6 tests.
  • We impatiently await a consultation document on primary accountability that should provide some clarity over the future assessment of high-attaining learners within Key Stage 2, so enabling us to complete the bigger picture of National Curriculum and associated assessment reforms across Key Stages 1-4.
  • We also await a much-vaunted Ofsted survey report which – if it satisfies our high expectations – might provide the spur for real action at national, local and school levels, perhaps even inspiring the Sutton Trust to announce the outcomes of its 2012 call for proposals.
  • Then in September the third report (the second Investigation) will ideally be sufficiently strategic and influential to cause some important joining up to be undertaken across that part of the agenda focused on progression to higher education by high-attaining learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, potentially at the behest of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

I am hopeful that this series of posts will support the process of distilling and synthesising these different elements to provide a composite picture of national strengths and weaknesses in gifted education throughout the continuum from upper Key Stage 2 to university entry. Some kind of audit if you will.

But the question begged is how to respond to the state of affairs that this ‘joining up’ process reveals.

As matters stand, at the end of this first post in the series, I have proffered unto the melting pot a cautiously provisional wishlist comprising three main items: a Manifesto that sets out some principles and arguments for a genuinely collaborative response, revised Quality Standards integrated within the accountability machinery and a targeted intervention for ‘high ability; high need’ learners designed to eliminate the fragmentation that bedevils current efforts.

This menu may well grow and change as the ‘Summer of Love’ progresses, not least to reflect planned and unplanned discussion of the issues . I would be delighted if some of that discussion were to take place in the comments facility below.

I believe one of the Manifesto principles must be to pursue an optimal middle way that is neither top-down nor bottom-up but a ‘strategy of all the talents’. That is reflected in my own version. Your comments are ever welcome about that, too.

But that principle presupposes a national gifted education community with the capacity and wherewithal to build on strengths and tackle weaknesses in a strategic, collaborative, inclusive and universal fashion.

For, if the next stage of reform is once more to be school-led, it is abundantly clear from the evidence presented above that schools will need our support to bring about real and lasting improvements in gifted education practice, for the benefit of all English gifted learners.

I was once optimistic about the prospects, but now I’m not so sure. Perhaps the Summer of Love is a chance in a generation – maybe the last chance – to galvanise the putative community into a real community and so make that happen.



May 2013