2014 Primary and Secondary Transition Matrices: High Attainers’ Performance


This is my annual breakdown of what the Transition Matrices tell us about the national performance of high attainers.

Data Overload courtesy of opensourceway

Data Overload courtesy of opensourceway

It complements my reviews of High Attainment in the 2014 Primary Performance Tables (December 2014) and of High Attainment in the 2014 Secondary and Post-16 Performance Tables (forthcoming, in February 2015).

The analysis is based on:

  • The 2014 Static national transition matrices for reading, writing and mathematics – Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 2 (October 2014) and
  • The 2014 Static key Stage 2 to 4 National transition matrices unamended – English and maths (December 2014).

There is also some reference to SFR41/2014: Provisional GCSE and equivalent results in England, 2013 to 2014.

The post begins with some important explanatory notes, before examining the primary and then the secondary matrices. There is a commentary on each matrix, followed by a summary of the key challenges for each sector.


Explanatory notes

The static transition matrices take into account results from maintained mainstream and maintained and non-maintained special schools. 

The tables reproduced below use colour coding:

  • purple = more than expected progress
  • dark green = expected progress
  • light green = less than expected progress and
  • grey = those excluded from the calculation.

I will assume that readers are familiar with expectations of progress under the current system of national curriculum levels.

I have written before about the assumptions underpinning this approach and some of the issues it raises.

(See in particular the sections called:

 ‘How much progress does the accountability regime expect from high attainers?’ and

‘Should we expect more progress from high attainers?’)

I have not reprised that discussion here.

The figures within the tables are percentages – X indicates data that has been suppressed (where the cohort comprises only one or two learners). Because of rounding, lines do not always add up to 100%.

In the case of the primary matrices, the commentary below concentrates on the progress made by learners who achieved level 3 or level 4 at KS1. In the case of the secondary matrices, it focuses on those who achieved sub-levels 5A, 5B or 5C at KS2.

Although the primary matrices include progression from KS1 level 4, the secondary matrices do not include progression from KS2 level 6 since the present level 6 tests were introduced only in 2012. Those completing GCSEs in 2014 will typically have undertaken KS2 assessment five years earlier.

The analysis includes comparison with the matrices for 2012 and 2013 respectively.


The impact of policy change on the secondary matrices

This comparison is straightforward for the primary sector (KS1 to KS2) but is problematic when it comes to the secondary matrices (KS2 to KS4).

As SFR41/2014 makes clear, the combined impact of:

  • vocational education reforms (restricting eligible qualifications and significantly reducing the weighting of some of them) and 
  • early entry policy (recording in performance measures only the first result achieved, rather than the outcome of any retakes)

has depressed overall KS4 results.

The impact of these factors on progress is not discussed within the text, although one of the tables gives overall percentages for those making the expected progress under the old and new methodologies respectively.

It does so for two separate groups of institutions, neither of which is perfectly comparable with the transition matrices because of the treatment of special schools:

  • State funded mainstream schools (excluding state-funded special schools and non-maintained special schools) and
  • State-funded schools (excluding non-maintained special schools).

However, the difference is likely to be marginal.

There is certainly very little difference between the two sets of figures for the categories above, though the percentages are very slightly larger for the first.

They show:

  • A variation of 2.3 percentage points in English (72.1% making at least the expected progress under the new methodology compared with 74.4% under the old) and
  • A variation of 2.4 percentage points in maths (66.4% making at least the expected progress compared with 68.8%).

There is no such distinction in the static transition matrices, nor does the SFR provide any information about the impact of these policy changes for different levels of prior attainment.

It seems a reasonable starting hypothesis that the impact will be much reduced at higher levels of prior attainment, because comparatively fewer students will be pursuing vocational qualifications.

One might also expect comparatively fewer high attainers to require English and/or maths retakes, even when the consequences of early entry are factored in, but that is rather more provisional.

It may be that the differential impact of these reforms on progression from different levels of prior attainment will be discussed in the statistical releases to be published alongside the Secondary Performance Tables. In that case I will update this treatment.

For the time being, my best counsel is:

  • To be aware that these policy changes have almost certainly had some impact on the progress of secondary high attainers, but 
  • Not to fall into the trap of assuming that they must explain all – or even a substantial proportion – of any downward trends (or absence of upward trends for that matter).

There will be more to say about this in the light of the analysis below.

Is this data still meaningful?

As we all know, the measurement of progression through national curriculum levels will shortly be replaced by a new system.

There is a temptation to regard the methodology underpinning the transition matrices as outmoded and irrelevant.

For the time being though, the transition matrices remain significant to schools (and to Ofsted) and there is an audience for analysis based on them.

Moreover, it is important that we make our best efforts to track annual changes under the present system, right up to the point of changeover.

We should also be thinking now about how to match progression outcomes under the new model with those available under the current system, so as to secure an uninterrupted perspective of trends over time.

Otherwise our conclusions about the longer-term impact of educational policies to raise standards and close gaps will be sadly compromised.


2014 Primary Transition Matrices




TM reading KS12 Capture



  • It appears that relatively few KS1 learners with L4 reading achieved the minimum expected 2 levels of progress by securing L6 at the end of KS2. It is not possible for these learners to make more than the expected progress. The vast majority (92%) recorded a single level of progress, to KS2 L5. This contrasts with 2013, when 12% of KS1 L4 learners did manage to progress to KS2 L6, while only 88% were at KS2 L5. Caution is necessary since the sample of L1 KS4 readers is so small. (The X suggests the total cohort could be as few as 25 pupils.)
  • The table shows that 1% of learners achieving KS1 L3 reading made 3 levels of progress to KS2 L6, exactly the same proportion as in 2012 and 2013. But we know that L6 reading test entries were up 36% compared with 2013: one might reasonably have expected some increase in this percentage as a consequence. The absence of improvement may be attributable to the collapse in success rates on the 2014 L6 reading test.
  • 90% of learners achieving KS1 L3 made the expected 2 or more levels of progress to KS2 L5 or above, 89% making 2 levels of progress to L5. The comparable figures for those making 2 LoP in 2013 and 2012 were 85% and 89% respectively.
  • In 2014 only 10% of those achieving LS1 L3 made a single level of progress to KS2 L4, compared with 13% in 2013 and 10% in 2012. 
  • So, when it comes to L3 prior attainers, the 2013 dip has been overcome, but there has been no improvement beyond the 2012 outcomes. Chart 1 makes this pattern more obvious, illustrating clearly that there has been relatively little improvement across the board.


TM chart 1

Chart 1: Percentage of learners with KS1 L3 reading making 1, 2 and 3 Levels of progress, 2012 to 2014


  • The proportion of learners with KS1 L3 making the expected progress is significantly lower than the proportions with KS1 L2A, L2B or L2 overall who do so. This pattern is unchanged from 2012 and 2013.
  • The proportion exceeding 2 LoP is also far higher for every other level of KS1 prior achievement, also unchanged from 2012 and 2013.
  • Whereas the gap between KS1 L2 and L3 making more than 2 LoP was 36 percentage points in 2013, by 2014 it had increased substantially to 43 percentage points (44% versus 1%). This may again be partly attributable to the decline in L6 reading results.




TM writing KS12 Capture


  • 55% of learners with L4 in KS1 writing made the expected 2 levels of progress to KS2 L6, while only 32% made a single level of progress to KS2 L5. This throws into sharper relief the comparable results for L4 readers. 
  • On the other hand, the 2013 tables recorded 61% of L4 writers making the expected progress, six percentage points higher than the 2014 success rate, so there has been a decline in success rates in both reading and writing for this small cohort. The reason for this is unknown, but it may simply be a consequence of the small sample.
  • Of those achieving KS1 L3, 12% made 3 LoP to KS2 L6, up from 6% in 2012 and 9% in 2013. The comparison with reading is again marked. A further 2% of learners with KS1 L2A made 4 levels of progress to KS2 L6.
  • 91% of learners with KS1 L3 writing made the expected 2 or more levels of progress, up from 89% in 2013. Some 79% made 2 LoP to L5, compared with 80% in 2013 and 79% in 2012, so there has been relatively little change.
  • However, in 2014 9% made only a single level of progress to KS2 L4. This is an improvement on 2013, when 11% did so and continues an improving trend from 2012 when 15% fell into this category, although the rate of improvement has slowed somewhat. 
  • These positive trends are illustrated in Chart 2 below, which shows reductions in the proportion achieving a single LoP broadly matched by corresponding improvements in the proportion achieving 3 LoP.

TM chart 2 

Chart 2: Percentage of learners with KS1 L3 writing making 1, 2 and 3 Levels of progress, 2012 to 2014


  • The proportion of learners with KS1 L3 making the expected progress is again lower than the proportions with KS1 L2A, L2B or L2 overall doing so. It is even lower than the proportion of those with KS1 L1 achieving this outcome. This is unchanged from 2013.
  • The proportion exceeding 2 LoP is far higher for every other level of KS1 achievement excepting L2C, again unchanged from 2013.
  • The percentage point gap between those with KS1 L2 overall and LS1 L3 making more than 2 LoP was 20 points in 2013 and remains unchanged at 20 points in 2014. Once again again there is a marked contrast with reading. 




TM maths KS12 Capture



  • 95% of those achieving L4 maths at KS1 made the expected 2 levels of progress to KS2 L6. These learners are unable to make more than expected progress. Only 5% made a single level of progress to KS2 L5. 
  • There is a marked improvement since 2013, when 89% made the expected progress and 11% fell short. This is significantly better than KS1 L4 progression in writing and hugely better than KS1 L4 progression in reading.
  • 35% of learners with KS1 L3 maths also made 3 levels of progress to KS2 L6. This percentage is up from 26% in 2013 and 14% in 2012, indicating a continuing trend of strong improvement. In addition, 6% of those with L2A and 1% of those at L2B managed 4 levels of progress to KS2 L6.
  • 91% of learners with KS1 L3 made the expected progress (up one percentage point compared with 2013). Of these, 56% made 2 LoP to KS2 L5. However, 9% made only a single level of progress to KS2 L4 (down a single percentage point compared with 2013).
  • Chart 3 illustrates these positive trends. It contrasts with the similar charts for writing above, in that the rate at which the proportion of L3 learners making a single LoP is reducing is much slower than the rate of improvement in the proportion of KS1 L3 learners making 3 LoP.


TM chart 3

Chart 3: Percentage of learners with KS1 L3 maths making 1, 2 and 3 Levels of progress, 2012 to 2014


  • The proportion of learners with KS1 L3 in maths who achieved the expected progress is identical to the proportion achieving L2 overall that do so, at 91%. However, these rates are lower than for learners with KS1 2B and especially 2A.
  • The proportion exceeding 2 LoP is also identical for those with KS1 L3 and L2 overall (whereas in 2013 there was a seven percentage point gap in favour of those with KS1 L2). The proportion of those with KS1 L2A exceeding 2 LoP remains significantly higher, but the gap has narrowed by six percentage points compared with 2013.


Key Challenges: Progress of High Attainers between KS1 and KS2

The overall picture from the primary transition matrices is one of comparatively strong progress in maths, positive progress in writing and a much more mixed picture in reading. But in none of these areas is the story unremittingly positive.

Priorities should include:

  • Improving progression from KS1 L4 to KS2 L6, so that the profile for writing becomes more similar to the profile for maths and, in particular, so that the profile for reading much more closely resembles the profile for writing. No matter how small the cohort, it cannot be acceptable that 92% of KS1 L4 readers make only a single level of progress.
  • Reducing to negligible the proportion of KS1 L3 learners making a single level of progress to KS2 L4. Approximately 1 in 10 learners continue to do so in all three assessments, although there has been some evidence of improvement since 2012, particularly in writing. Other than in maths, the proportion of KS1 L3 learners making a single LoP is significantly higher than the proportion of KS1 L2 learners doing so. 
  • Continuing to improve the proportion of KS1 L3 learners making 3 LoP in each of the three assessments, maintaining the strong rate of improvement in maths, increasing the rate of improvement in writing and moving beyond stagnation at 1% in reading. 
  • Eliminating the percentage point gaps between those with KS1 L2A making at least the expected progress and those with KS1 L3 doing so (5 percentage points in maths and 9 percentage points in each of reading and writing). At the very least, those at KS1 L3 should be matching those at KS1 L2B, but there are presently gaps between them of 2 percentage points in maths, 5 percentage points in reading and 6 percentage points in writing.


Secondary Transition Matrices




TM English KS24 Capture



  • 98% of learners achieving L5A English at KS2 made at least 3 levels of progress to GCSE grade B or above in 2014. The same is true of 93% of those with KS2 L5B and 75% of those with KS2 L5C. All three figures have improved by one percentage point compared with 2013. The comparable figures in 2012 were 98%, 92% and 70% respectively.
  • 88% of learners achieving L5A at KS2 achieved at least four levels of progress from KS2 to KS4, so achieving a GCSE grade of A* or A, as did 67% of those with L5B and 34% of those with 5C. The comparable figures in 2013 were 89%, 66% and 33% respectively, while in 2012 they were 87%, 64% and 29% respectively.
  • 51% of learners with KS2 L5A made 5 levels of progress by achieving an A* grade at GCSE, compared with 25% of those with L5B, 7% of those with L5C and 1% of those with L4A. The L5B and L5C figures were improvements on 2013 outcomes. The 2014 success rate for those with KS2 L5A is down by two percentage points, while that for L5B is up by two points.
  • These cumulative totals suggest relatively little change in 2014 compared with 2013, with the possible exception of these two-percentage-point swings in the proportions of students making 5 LoP. 
  • The chart below compares the proportion of students with KS2 L5A, 5B and 5C respectively making exactly 3, 4 and 5 LoP. (NB: these are not the same as the cumulative totals quoted above). This again shows relatively small changes in 2014, compared with 2013, and no obvious pattern.


TM chart 4

Chart 4: Percentage of learners with KS2 L5A, L5B and L5C in English achieving 3, 4 and 5 levels of progress, 2012-2014


  • 1% of learners with KS2 L5A made only 2 levels of progress to GCSE grade C, as did 6% of those with L5B and 20% of those with L5C. These percentages are again little changed compared with 2013, following a much more significant improvement between 2012 and 2013).
  • The percentages of learners with KS2 L4A who achieve at least 3 and at least 4 levels of progress – at 87% and 48% respectively – are significantly higher than the corresponding percentages for those with KS2 L5C. These gaps have also changed very little compared with 2013.




TM Maths KS24 Capture



  • 96% of learners with L5A at KS2 achieved the expected progress between KS2 and KS4 in 2014, as did 86% of those with KS2 L5B and 65% of those with KS2 L5C. The comparable percentages in 2013 were 97%, 88% and 70%, while in 2012 they were 96%, 86% and 67%. This means there have been declines compared with 2013 for L5A (one percentage point) L5B (two percentage points) and L5C (five percentage points).
  • 80% of learners with KS2 L5A made 4 or more levels of progress between KS2 and KS4, so achieving a GCSE grade A* or A. The same was true of 54% of those with L5B and 26% of those with L5C. In 2013, these percentages were 85%, 59% and 31% respectively, while in 2012 they were 84%, 57% and 30% respectively. So all the 2014 figures – for L5A, L5B and L5C alike, are five percentage points down compared with 2013.
  • In 2014 48% of learners with KS2 L5A made 5 levels of progress by achieving a GCSE A* grade, compared with 20% of those with L5B, 5% of those with L5C and 1% of those with L4A. All three percentages for those with KS2 L5 are down compared with 2013 – by 3 percentage points in the case of those with L5A, 2 points for those with L5B and 1 point for those with L5C.
  • It is evident that there is rather more volatility in the trends in maths progression and some of the downward swings are more pronounced than in English.
  • The chart below compares the proportion of students with KS2 L5A, 5B and 5C respectively making exactly 3, 4 and 5 LoP. (NB, these are not the cumulative totals quoted above). The only discernible pattern is that any improvement is confined to those making 3 LoP.


TM chart 5

Chart 5: Percentage of learners with KS2 L5A, L5B and L5C in Maths achieving 3, 4 and 5 levels of progress, 2012-2014

  • 4% of those with KS2 L5A made only 2 LoP to GCSE grade C, as did 13% of those with L5B and 31% of those with L5C. All three percentages have worsened compared with 2013, by 1, 2 and 4 percentage points respectively.
  • The percentages of learners with KS2 L4A who achieve at least 3 and at least 4 levels of progress – at 85% and 37% respectively – are significantly higher than the corresponding percentages for those with L5C, just as they are in English. And, as is the case with English, the percentage point gaps have changed little compared with 2013.


Key Challenges: Progress of High Attainers Between KS2 and KS4

The overall picture for high attainers from the secondary transition matrices is of relatively little change in English and of rather more significant decline in maths, though not by any means across the board.

It may be that the impact of the 2014 policy changes on high attainers has been relatively more pronounced in maths than in English – and perhaps more pronounced in maths than might have been expected.

If this is the case, one suspects that the decision to restrict reported outcomes to first exam entries is the most likely culprit.

On the other hand, it might be true that relatively strong improvement in English progression has been cancelled out by these policy changes, though the figures provided in the SFR for expected progress regardless of prior attainment make this more unlikely.

Leaving causation aside, the most significant challenges for the secondary sector are to:

  • Significantly improve the progression rates for learners with KS2 L5A to A*. It should be a default expectation that they achieve five levels of progress, yet only 48% do so in maths and 51% in English – and these percentages are down 5 and 2 percentage points respectively compared with 2013.
  • Similarly, significantly improve the progression rates for learners with KS2 L5B to grade A. It should be a default expectation that they achieve at least 4 LoP, yet only 67% do so in English and 54% in maths – down one point since 2013 in English and 5 points in maths.
  • Reduce and ideally eliminate the rump of high attainers who make a single LoP. This is especially high for those with KS2 L5C – 20% in English and, still worse, 31% in maths – but there is also a problem for those with 5B in maths, 13% of whom fall into this category. The proportion making a single LoP from 5C in maths has risen by 4 percentage points since 2013, while there has also been a 2 point rise for those with 4B. (Thankfully the L5C rate in English has improved by 2 points, but there is a long way still to go.)
  • Close significantly, the progression performance gaps between learners with KS2 L5C and KS2 L4A, in both English and maths. In English there is currently a 12 percentage point gap for those making expected progress and a 14-point gap for those exceeding it. In maths, these gaps are 20 and 11 percentage points respectively. The problem in maths seems particularly pronounced. These gaps have changed little since 2013.



This analysis of high attainers’ progression suggests a very mixed picture, across the primary and secondary sectors and beween English and maths. There is some limited scope for congratulation, but too many persistent issues remain.

The commentary has identified four key challenges for each sector, which can be synthesised under two broad headings:

  • Raising expectations beyond the minimum expected progress – and significantly reducing our tolerance of underachievement amongst this cohort. 
  • Ensuring that those at the lower end of the high attaining spectrum sustain their initial momentum, at least matching the rather stronger progress of those with slightly lower prior attainment.

The secondary picture has become confused this year by the impact of policy changes.

We do not know to what extent these explain any downward trends – or depress any upward trends – for those with high prior attainment, though one may tentatively hypothesise that any impact has been rather more significant in maths than in English.

It would be quite improper to assume that the changes in high attainers’ progression rates compared with 2013 are entirely attributable to the impact of these policy adjustments.

It would be more accurate to say that they mask any broader trends in the data, making those more difficult to isolate.

We should not allow this methodological difficulty – or the impending replacement of the present levels-based system – to divert us from continuing efforts to improve the progression of high attainers.

For Ofsted is intensifying its scrutiny of how schools support the most able – and they will expect nothing less.



January 2015

Gifted Phoenix 2014 Review and Retrospective


I am rounding out this year’s blogging with my customary backwards look at the various posts I published during 2014.

This is partly an exercise in self-congratulation but also flags up to readers any potentially useful posts they might have missed.



Norwegian Panorama by Gifted Phoenix


This is my 32nd post of the year, three fewer than the 35 I published in 2013. Even so, total blog views have increased by 20% compared with 2013.

Almost exactly half of these views originate in the UK. Other countries generating a large number of views include the United States, Singapore, India, Australia, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Canada and South Korea. The site has been visited this year by readers located in157 different countries.

My most popular post during 2014 was Gifted Education in Singapore: Part 2, which was published back in May 2012. This continues to attract interest in Singapore!

The most popular post written during 2014 was The 2013 Transition Matrices and High Attainers’ Performance (January).

Other 2014 posts that attracted a large readership were:

This illustrates just how strongly the accountability regime features in the priorities of English educators.

I have continued to feature comparatively more domestic topics: approximately 75% of my posts this year have been about the English education system. I have not ventured beyond these shores since September.

The first section below reviews the minority of posts with a global perspective; the second covers the English material. A brief conclusion offers my take on future prospects.


Global Gifted Education

I began the year by updating my Blogroll, with the help of responses to Gifted Education Activity in the Blogosphere and on Twitter.

This post announced the creation of a Twitter list containing all the feeds I can find that mention gifted education (or a similar term, whether in English or another language) in their profile.

I have continued to update the list, which presently includes 1,312 feeds and has 22 subscribers. If you want to be included – or have additions to suggest – please don’t hesitate to tweet me.

While we’re on the subject, I should take this opportunity to thank my 5,960 Twitter followers, an increase of some 28% compared with this time last year.

In February I published A Brief Discussion about Gifted Labelling and its Permanency. This recorded a debate I had on Twitter about whether the ‘gifted label’ might be used more as a temporary marker than a permanent sorting device.

March saw the appearance of How Well Does Gifted Education Use Social Media?

This proposed some quality criteria for social media usage and blogs/websites that operate within the field of gifted education.

It also reviewed the social media activity of six key players (WCGTC, ECHA, NAGC, SENG, NACE and Potential Plus UK) as well as wider activity within the blogosphere, on five leading social media platforms and utilising four popular content creation tools.

Some of the websites mentioned above have been recast since the post was published and are now much improved (though I claim no direct influence).

Also in March I published What Has Become of the European Talent Network? Part One and Part Two.

These posts were scheduled just ahead of a conference organised by the Hungarian sponsors of the network. I did not attend, fearing that the proceedings would have limited impact on the future direction of this once promising initiative. I used the posts to set out my reservations, which include a failure to engage with constructive criticism.

Part One scrutinises the Hungarian talent development model on which the European Network is based. Part Two describes the halting progress made by to date. It identifies several deficiencies that need to be addressed if the Network is to have a significant and lasting impact on pan-European support for talent development and gifted education.

During April I produced PISA 2012 Creative Problem Solving: International Comparison of High Achievers’ Performance

This analyses the performance of high achievers from a selection of 11 jurisdictions – either world leaders or prominent English-speaking nations – on the PISA 2012 Creative Problem Solving assessment.

It is a companion piece to a 2013 post which undertook a similar analysis of the PISA 2012 assessments in Reading, Maths and Science.

In May I contributed to the Hoagies’ Bloghop for that month.

Air on the ‘G’ String: Hoagies’ Bloghop, May 2014 was my input to discussion about the efficacy of ‘the G word’ (gifted). I deliberately produced a provocative and thought-provoking piece which stirred typically intense reactions in several quarters.

Finally, September saw the production of Beware the ‘short head’: PISA’s Resilient Students’ Measure.

This takes a closer look at the relatively little-known PISA ‘resilient students’ measure – focused on high achievers from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds – and how well different jurisdictions perform against it.

The title reflects the post’s conclusion that, like many other countries, England:

‘…should be worrying as much about our ‘short head’ as our ‘long tail’’.

And so I pass seamlessly on to the series of domestic posts I published during 2014…


English Education Policy

My substantive post in January was High Attainment in the 2013 Secondary and 16-18 Performance Tables, an analysis of the data contained in last year’s Tables and the related statistical publications.

Also in January I produced a much briefer commentary on The 2013 Transition Matrices and High Attainers’ Performance.

The purpose of these annual posts (and the primary equivalent which appears each December) is to synthesise data about the performance of high attainers and high attainment at national level, so that schools can more easily benchmark their own performance.

In February I wrote What Becomes of Schools that Fail their High Attainers?*

It examines the subsequent history of schools that recorded particularly poor results with high attainers in the Secondary Performance Tables. (The asterisk references a footnote apologising ‘for this rather tabloid title’.)

By March I was focused on Challenging NAHT’s Commission on Assessment subjecting the Commission’s Report to a suitably forensic examination and offering a parallel series of recommendations derived from it.

My April Fool’s joke this year was Plans for a National Centre for Education Research into Free Schools (CERFS). This has not materialised but, had our previous Secretary of State for Education not been reshuffled, I’m sure it would have been only a matter of time!

Also in April I was Unpacking the Primary Assessment and Accountability Reforms, exposing some of the issues and uncertainties embodied in the government’s response to consultation on its proposals.

Some of the issues I highlighted eight months ago are now being more widely discussed – not least the nature of the performance descriptors, as set out in the recent consultation exercise dedicated to those.

But the reform process is slow. Many other issues remain unresolved and it seems increasingly likely that some of the more problematic will be delayed deliberately until after the General Election.

May was particularly productive, witnessing four posts, three of them substantial:

  • How well is Ofsted reporting on the most able? explores how Ofsted inspectors are interpreting the references to the attainment and progress of the most able added to the Inspection Handbook late last year. The sample comproses the 87 secondary inspection reports that were published in March 2014. My overall assessment? Requires Improvement.



  • A Closer Look at Level 6 is a ‘data-driven analysis of Level 6 performance’. As well as providing a baseline against which to assess future Level 6 achievement, this also identifies several gaps in the published data and raises as yet unanswered questions about the nature of the new tests to be introduced from 2016.
  • One For The Echo Chamber was prompted by The Echo Chamber reblogging service, whose founder objected that my posts are too long, together with the ensuing Twitter debate. Throughout the year the vast majority of my posts have been unapologetically detailed and thorough. They are intended as reference material, to be quarried and revisited, rather than the disposable vignettes that so many seem to prefer. To this day they get reblogged on The Echo Chamber only when a sympathetic moderator is undertaking the task.
  • ‘Poor but Bright’ v ‘Poor but Dim’ arose from another debate on Twitter, sparked by a blog post which argued that the latter are a higher educational priority than the former. I argued that both deserved equal priority, since it is inequitable to discriminate between disadvantaged learners on the basis of prior attainment and the economic arguments cut both ways. This issue continues to bubble like a subterranean stream, only to resurface from time to time, most recently when the Fair Education Alliance proposed that the value of pupil premium allocations attached to disadvantaged high attainers should be halved.

In June I asked Why Can’t We Have National Consensus on Educating High Attainers? and proposed a set of core principles that might form the basis for such consensus.

These were positively received. Unfortunately though, the necessary debate has not yet taken place.



The principles should be valuable to schools considering how best to respond to Ofsted’s increased scrutiny of their provision for the most able. Any institution considering how best to revitalise its provision might discuss how the principles should be interpreted to suit their particular needs and circumstances.

July saw the publication of Digging Beneath the Destination Measures which explored the higher education destinations statistics published the previous month.

It highlighted the relatively limited progress made towards improving the progression of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to selective universities.

There were no posts in August, half of which was spent in Norway, taking the photographs that have graced some of my subsequent publications.

In September I produced What Happened to the Level 6 Reading Results? an investigation into the mysterious collapse of L6 reading test results in 2014.

Test entries increased significantly. So did the success rates on the other level 6 tests (in maths and in grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS)).  Even teacher assessment of L6 reading showed a marked upward trend.

Despite all this, the number of pupils successful on the L6 reading test fell from 2,062 in 2013 to 851 (provisional). The final statistics – released only this month – show a marginal improvement to 935, but the outcome is still extremely disappointing. No convincing explanation has been offered and the impact on 2015 entries is unlikely to be positive.

That same month I published Closing England’s Excellence Gaps: Part One and Part Two.

These present the evidence base relating to high attainment gaps between disadvantaged and other learners, to distinguish what we know from what remains unclear and so to provide a baseline for further research.

The key finding is that the evidence base is both sketchy and fragmented. We should understand much more than we do about the size and incidence of excellence gaps. We should be strengthening the evidence base as part of a determined strategy to close the gaps.



In October 16-19 Maths Free Schools Revisited marked a third visit to the 16-19 maths free schools programme, concentrating on progress since my previous post in March 2013, especially at the two schools which have opened to date.

I subsequently revised the post to reflect an extended series of tweeted comments from Dominic Cummings, who was a prime mover behind the programme. The second version is called 16-19 Maths Free Schools Revisited: Oddyssean Edition .

The two small institutions at KCL and Exeter University (both very similar to each other) constitute a rather limited outcome for a project that was intended to generate a dozen innovative university-sponsored establishments. There is reportedly a third school in the pipeline but, as 2014 closes, details have yet to be announced.

Excellence Gaps Quality Standard: Version One is an initial draft of a standard encapsulating effective whole school practice in supporting disadvantaged high attainers. It updates and adapts the former IQS for gifted and talented education.

This first iteration needs to be trialled thoroughly, developed and refined but, even as it stands, it offers another useful starting point for schools reviewing the effectiveness of their own provision.

The baseline standard captures the essential ‘non-negotiables’ intended to be applicable to all settings. The exemplary standard is pitched high and should challenge even the most accomplished of schools and colleges.

All comments and drafting suggestions are welcome.



In November I published twin studies of The Politics of Setting and The Politics of Selection: Grammar Schools and Disadvantage.

These issues have become linked since Prime Minister Cameron has regularly proposed an extension of the former as a response to calls on the right wing of his party for an extension of the latter.

This was almost certainly the source of autumn media rumours that a strategy, originating in Downing Street, would be launched to incentivise and extend setting.

Newly installed Secretary of State Morgan presumably insisted that existing government policy (which leaves these matters entirely to schools) should remain undisturbed. However, the idea might conceivably be resuscitated for the Tory election manifesto.

Now that UKIP has confirmed its own pro-selection policy there is pressure on the Conservative party to resolve its internal tensions on the issue and identify a viable alternative position. But the pro-grammar lobby is unlikely to accept increased setting as a consolation prize…



Earlier in December I added a companion piece to ‘The Politics of Selection’.

How Well Do Grammar Schools Perform With Disadvantaged Students? reveals that the remaining 163 grammar schools have very different records in this respect. The poor performance of a handful is a cause for concern.

I also published High Attainment in the 2014 Primary School Performance Tables – another exercise in benchmarking, this time for primary schools interested in how well they support high attainers and high attainment.

This shows that HMCI’s recent distinction between positive support for the most able in the primary sector and a much weaker record in secondary schools is not entirely accurate. There are conspicuous weaknesses in the primary sector too.

Meanwhile, Chinese learners continue to perform extraordinarily well on the Level 6 maths test, achieving an amazing 35% success rate, up six percentage points since 2013. This domestic equivalent of the Shanghai phenomenon bears closer investigation.

My penultimate post of the year HMCI Ups the Ante on the Most Able collates all the references to the most able in HMCI’s 2014 Annual Report and its supporting documentation.

It sets out Ofsted’s plans for the increased scrutiny of schools and for additional survey reports that reflect this scrutiny.

It asks the question whether Ofsted’s renewed emphasis will be sufficient to rectify the shortcomings they themselves identify and – assuming it will not – outlines an additional ten-step plan to secure system-wide improvement.


So what are the prospects for 2015 and beyond?

My 2013 Retrospective was decidedly negative about the future of global gifted education:

‘The ‘closed shop’ is as determinedly closed as ever; vested interests are shored up; governance is weak. There is fragmentation and vacuum where there should be inclusive collaboration for the benefit of learners. Too many are on the outside, looking in. Too many on the inside are superannuated and devoid of fresh ideas.’

Despite evidence of a few ‘green shoots’’ during 2014, my overall sense of pessimism remains.

Meanwhile, future prospects for high attainers in England hang in the balance.

Several of the Coalition Government’s education reforms have been designed to shift schools’ focus away from borderline learners, so that every learner improves, including those at the top of the attainment distribution.

On the other hand, Ofsted’s judgement that a third of secondary inspections this year

‘…pinpointed specific problems with teaching the most able’

would suggest that schools’ everyday practice falls some way short of this ideal.

HMCI’s commitment to champion the interests of the most able is decidedly positive but, as suggested above, it might not be enough to secure the necessary system-wide improvement.

Ofsted is itself under pressure and faces an uncertain future, regardless of the election outcome. HMCI’s championing might not survive the arrival of a successor.

It seems increasingly unlikely that any political party’s election manifesto will have anything significant to say about this topic, unless  the enthusiasm for selection in some quarters can be harnessed and redirected towards the much more pertinent question of how best to meet the needs of all high attainers in all schools and colleges, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But the entire political future is shrouded in uncertainty. Let’s wait and see how things are shaping up on the other side of the election.

From a personal perspective I am closing in on five continuous years of edutweeting and edublogging.

I once expected to extract from this commitment benefits commensurate with the time and energy invested. But that is no longer the case, if indeed it ever was.

I plan to call time at the end of this academic year.



December 2014

High Attainment in the 2013 Secondary and 16-18 Performance Tables



This post reviews high attainment and high attaining student data in the 2013 Secondary and 16-18 Performance Tables relating

Data Overload courtesy of opensourceway

to GCSE and A level respectively. It compares key outcomes with those reported in last year’s tables.

It also draws extensively on two accompanying statistical publications:

and derives three year trends, from these and the comparable 2011 and 2012 publications, focused primarily on variations by sector and school admission arrangements.

This post complements a briefer analysis of High Attainment in the 2013 Primary School Performance Tables published on 12 December 2013 and updates last year’s High Attaining Students in the 2012 Secondary School Performance Tables (January 2013).

This year’s secondary/post-16 analysis is presented in a somewhat different format, organised into sections relating to key measures, beginning with GCSE and moving on to A level.

A few preliminaries:

There are sometimes discrepancies between the figures given in the Tables and those in the supporting statistical publications that I cannot explain.

The commentary highlights results – some extraordinarily good, others correspondingly poor – from specific institutions identified in the Tables. This adds some richness and colour to what might otherwise have been a rather dry post.

But there may of course be extenuating circumstances to justify particularly poor results which are not allowed for in the Tables. Equally, strong results may not always be solely attributable to the quality of education provided in the institution that secures them.

As always, I apologise in advance for any transcription errors and urge you to report them through the comments facility provided.

Those who prefer not to read the full post will find a headline summary immediately below. The main text provides additional detail but is intended primarily for reference purposes.




Media Coverage

There has been relatively little media coverage of what the Performance Tables reveal about the achievement of high attainers, though one article appeared in the Daily Telegraph.

It said that the high attainer population comprised some 175,800 students of which:

  • about 9,300 ‘failed to gain five good GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths’;
  • around 48% per cent (over 84,200) did not pass the EBacc and 35% [approaching 62,000] did not enter all the necessary subjects;
  • in English almost 14% [24,000] ‘effectively went backwards in English by gaining lower scores at GCSE level than comparable tests taken at 11, while 12% [21,000] did so in maths’.

The figures in square brackets are my own, derived from the percentages provided in the article.

The final point suggests that sizeable minorities of high attainers achieved the equivalent of Level 4 in English and maths GCSEs, but this is incorrect.

These figures relate to the proportion of high attainers who did not make at least three levels of progress from KS2 to KS4 in English and maths (see below) – quite a different matter.


Headlines from this analysis

The following extended bullet points summarise the key findings from my own analysis:

  • The high attainer population constitutes almost exactly one third of the population of mainstream state-funded schools. A gender gap that had almost closed in 2012 has widened again in favour of girls. There are significant variations between school types – for example just over 20% of students attending sponsored academies are high attainers compared with just under 40% in academy converters. The population in free schools, UTCs and studio schools has fallen by 11.5% since 2012, presumably as a consequence of the sector’s rapid expansion. Only 90% of the selective school cohort constitutes high attainers, which suggests 10% of their intake are middle attainers who perform well on ability-based 11+ assessments. The selective school high attainer population has fallen by 1.4% since 2011. Ten selective schools record that their cohort consists entirely of high attainers, but some selective schools register a cohort in which two-thirds or fewer students are high attainers. This is comfortably lower than some non-selective schools, raising awkward questions about the nature of selective education. Although there are no schools with no high attainers, two schools recorded 3% and 99 have fewer than 10% (down from 110 in 2012). Academies in coastal towns are well-represented. The schools containing these small high attaining groups demonstrate huge variations in high attainer performance. This warrants further investigation.
  • 60.6% of all students in state-funded schools achieved 5 or more GCSEs at grades A*-C (or equivalent) including GCSEs in English and maths, a 1.8% improvement compared with 2012. But the success rate for high attainers improved by only 0.7% to 94.7%. This is better than the 0.2% fall in the success rate amongst low attainers but falls well short of the 2. 3% improvement for middle attainers. One in every twenty high attainers continues to miss this essential benchmark. But 50 more schools recorded 100% returns than in 2012 – and 19 fewer schools were at 75% or below. Apart from selective schools falling foul of the ineligibility of some IGCSEs, Ark King’s Academy in Birmingham was the lowest performer at 33%. Trends vary considerably according to school type. Free schools, UTCs and studio schools have improved by 4.2% since 2012, which must be partly a consequence of the growth of that sector. Meanwhile high attainers in selective schools have fallen back by 2.0% (and selective schools overall by 2.3%) since 2011. It is unlikely that idiosyncratic IGCSE choices are solely responsible. The profiles of sponsored and converter academies are still markedly different, though the gap between their high attainers’ performance has halved since 2011, from 5.3 percentage points to 2.7 percentage points.
  • There were big increases in the percentage of all students entered for all EBacc subjects in state-funded schools – up 12.4% to 35.5% – and the percentage successful – up 6.6% to 22.8%. The comparable entry and success rates for high attainers were 65.0% and 52.1% respectively. The entry rate for 2012 was 46.3%, so that has improved by almost 19 percentage points, a much faster rate of improvement than the headline figure. The success rate has improved from 38.5% last year, so by 13.6 percentage points, more than double the improvement in the headline figure. The EBacc is clearly catching on for high attainers following a relatively slow start. That said, one could make a case that the high attainer success rate in particular remains rather disappointing, since something like one in five high attainers entered for the EBacc fail to convert entry into achievement. Forty-seven schools entered all of their high attainers but only four recorded 100% success, two selective (Chelmsford County High for Girls and Queen Elizabeth’s Barnet) and two comprehensive (St Ursula’s Convent School in Greenwich and The Urswick School in Hackney). Only 55 schools entered no high attainers for the EBacc, compared with 186 in 2012. Seventy-nine schools recorded 0% of high attainers achieving the EBacc, also down significantly, from 235 in 2012. Seven of these were grammar schools, presumably all falling foul of IGCSE restrictions.
  • 70.4% of all students in state-funded schools made at least the expected three levels of progress in English and 70.7% did so in maths. These constitute improvements of 2.4% and 2.0% respectively. High attainers registered 86.2% success in English and 87.8% in maths. Their rates of improvement were broadly comparable with the headline figures, though slightly stronger in English. It remains disturbing that one in seven high attainers fail to make the expected progress in English and 1 in 8 fail to do so in maths. More schools achieved 100% success amongst their high attainers on each measure than in 2012 – 108 in English and 120 in maths. Forty-four schools were at or below 50% on this measure in English, some IGCSE-favouring grammar schools amongst them. Apart from those, the worst performer was Gloucester Academy at 28%. In maths 31 schools were at or below this 50% benchmark and the worst performer was Stafford Sports College at 29%. Six schools managed 50% or below in both English and maths, several of them academies. Amongst those at 50% or below in English, 11 had better rates of performance for both their middle and their low attainers than for their high attainers. Amongst those at 50% or below in maths, only one school achieved this feat – St Peter’s Catholic College of Maths and Computing (!) in Redcar and Cleveland. It is a cause for concern that high attainers in English attending selective schools continue to fall back on this measure and that one in five high attainers in sponsored academies, free schools, UTCs and studios is failing to make three levels of progress in English, while the same is true of maths in sponsored academies.
  • 7.5% of students in state-funded schools and colleges achieved grades of AAB or higher at A level with all three in facilitating subjects, an improvement of 0.1% compared with 2012. But the comparable percentage for students who achieved these grades with at least two in facilitating subjects shot up to 12.1%, an improvement of 4.3% on 2012. There are big variations between sectors, with the percentage achieving the former measure ranging from 3.5% (FE colleges) to 10.4% (converter academies. The figure for selective schools is 21.1%. Turning to the latter measure, percentages vary from 5.4% in mainstream sponsored academies to 16.4% in mainstream converter academies, while selective schools stand at 32.4%. Across all sectors, more students achieve grades AAA or higher in any A level subjects than achieve AAB or higher in three facilitating subjects. The proportion of students achieving AAA or higher in any A levels is falling in most sectors and institutional types, except in free schools, UTCs and studios and in FE colleges. The proportion achieving AAB or higher in any subjects is falling except in sponsored academies and FE colleges. Conversely there are improvements for AAB or higher with all three in facilitating subjects in LA-maintained mainstream schools, sponsored academies, sixth form colleges and FE colleges (and also across all comprehensive schools).  Across all state-funded mainstream schools, the percentage of A level A* grades has fallen back by 0.5% since 2011 while the percentage of A*/A grades has declined by 0.1%.

The full commentary below names 22 schools which perform particularly badly on one or more GCSE high attainer measures (leaving aside selective schools that have adopted ineligible GCSEs).

Of those 22, only nine are below the floor targets and, of those nine, only four are not already academies. Hence the floor targets regime leaves the vast majority of these schools untouched.

The only hope is that these schools will be caught by Ofsted’s renewed emphasis on the attainment and progress of the ‘most able’ learners (though that provision could do with further clarification as this previous post explained).



The analysis of GCSE performance is focused primarily on high attainers, while the A level analysis is confined to high attainment.

This is a consequence of the way the two sets of performance tables are constructed (such distinctions were brought out more fully in this October 2013 post.)

There is no coverage of A*/A performance at GCSE within the Secondary Tables so we must necessarily rely on performance against standard measures, such as 5+ GCSEs at A*-C including English and maths and the English Baccalaureate (EBacc).

The Government response to the consultation on secondary accountability reform suggests that this will remain the case, with material about achievement of top GCSE grades confined to the supporting Data Portal. It remains to be seen whether this arrangement will give high attainment the prominence it needs and deserves.

The current definition of high attainers is based on prior performance at the end of KS2. Most learners will have taken these KS2 tests five years previously, in 2008:

  • High attainers are those who achieved above Level 4 in KS2 tests – ie their average point score (APS) in English, maths and science tests was 30 or higher.
  • Middle attainers are those who achieved at the expected Level 4 in KS2 tests – ie their APS in these tests was between 24 and 29.99 – and
  • Low attainers are those who achieved below Level 4 in KS2 tests – ie their APS in these tests was under 24.

Since high attainers are determined on the basis of APS across three subjects, the definition will include all-rounders who achieve good (if not outstanding) results across all three tests, as well as some with a relatively spiky achievement profile who compensate for middling performance in one area through very high attainment in another.

Conversely, learners who are exceptionally strong in one subject but relatively poor in the other two are unlikely to pass the APS 30 threshold.

Both the Secondary Tables and the associated statistical publications remain bereft of data about the performance of high attainers from disadvantaged backgrounds and how that compares with the performance of their more advantaged high attaining peers.

This is unfortunate, since schools that are bucking the trend in this respect – achieving a negligible ‘excellence gap’ between their high attainers from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds – richly deserve to be celebrated and emulated.

At A level a variety of high attainment measures are reported in the statistical publications, but the Performance Tables focus on the achievement of AAB+ grades in the so-called ‘facilitating subjects’.

The Statement of Intent for last year’s Tables confirmed the intention to introduce:

‘Percentages of students achieving three A levels at grades AAB or higher in facilitating subjects, reflecting the subjects and grades most commonly required by Russell Group and other top universities.’

These subjects are listed as ‘biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, geography, history, English literature, modern and classical languages.’

Such measures have been widely criticised for their narrowness, the Russell Group itself asserting that:

‘It would be wrong to use this simple indicator as a measure of the number of pupils in a school who are qualified to apply successfully to a Russell Group university.’

Nevertheless, they support one of the Government’s preferred Social Mobility Indicators which compares the percentage of students attending state and independent schools who achieve this measure. (In 2012 the gap was 15.1%, a full percentage point smaller than in 2011.)

There is nothing in the 16-18 Tables about high attainers, although the consultation document on 16-19 accountability reform includes a commitment to:

‘Consider how we can report the results of low, middle and high attainers similarly [to KS4] in the expanded 16-19 performance tables’.

At the time of writing, the response to this consultation has not been published.


GCSE Achievement


The High Attainer Population

Before examining the performance data it is important to review the size of the high attaining population and how this varies between genders, sectors and types of school.

Tables 1A, B and C below show that the population has remained relatively stable since 2011. It accounts consistently for almost exactly one third of students in state-funded mainstream schools.

The gender gap amongst high attainers has changed slightly since 2011. The percentage of high attaining girls has fallen back, slightly but consistently, while the percentage of high attaining boys increased in 2012, only to fall back again in 2013.

A gender gap that had almost been eliminated in 2012 has now widened again to a full percentage point. The percentages of high attaining learners of both genders are the lowest they have been over the three year period.

There are significant variations according to sector and school type, since the high attainer population in converter academies is almost double that in sponsored academies, where it constitutes barely a fifth of the student body. This is a strikingly similar proportion to that found in modern schools.

The percentage of high attainers in comprehensive schools is only very slightly lower than the overall figure.

At the other end of the spectrum, the high attaining cohort constitutes around 90% of the selective school population, which begs interesting questions about the nature of the other 10% and possible discrepancies between KS2 results and ability-focused 11+ assessment.

It cannot be the case that the majority of the missing 10% attended independent preparatory schools and did not take KS2 tests, since those without test results are excluded from the calculations.

The underlying trend is downward in all types of school. There has been a huge 11.5% fall in the proportion of high attainers in free schools, UTCs and studio schools. This is presumably consequent upon the expansion of that sector and brings it much more into line with the figures for all maintained mainstream and other comprehensive schools.

Otherwise the most substantial reduction has been in converter academies. The percentage in selective schools has fallen by 1.4% since 2011, twice the rate of decline in comprehensive schools.


Table 1A: Percentage of high attainers by sector 2011, 2012 and 2013

All maintained mainstream LA maintained mainstream Sponsored academies Converter academies Free schools, UTCs and studio schools
2013 32.8 30.6 20.5 39.3 31.4
2012 33.6 32.0 20.9 42.5 42.9
2011 33.5 20.6 47.5


Table 1B: Percentage of high attainers by admissions practice 2011, 2012 and 2013

Selective Comprehensive Modern
2013 88.9 30.9 20.5
2012 89.8 31.7 20.9
2011 90.3 31.6 20.4


Table 1C: Percentage of high attainers by gender, all state-funded mainstream schools 2011, 2012, 2013

  Boys Girls
2013 32.3 33.3
2012 33.4 33.8
2011 32.6 34.4


The 2013 Performance Tables list 10 schools where 100% of pupils are deemed high attainers, all of which are selective. Thirteen selective schools were in this position in 2012.

But there is also a fairly wide spread amongst selective schools, with some recording as few as 70% high attainers, broadly comparable with some prominent non-selective schools.

For example, Dame Alice Owen’s School and The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial RC School – both comprehensive – have high attainer populations of 79% and 77% respectively, while Fort Pitt Grammar School in Chatham, Kent and Skegness Grammar School are at 65% and 66% respectively.

This raises intriguing questions about the nature of selective education and the dividing line between selective and non-selective schools

At the other extreme there are no schools recording zero high attainers, but 99 record 10% or fewer, several of them prominent academies. This is an improvement on 2012 when 110 schools fell into this category.

The two schools with the fewest high attainers (3%) are Barnfield Business and Enterprise Studio (which opened in 2013) and St Aldhelm’s Academy in Poole.

Academies based in coastal towns are well represented amongst the 99.

It is interesting to speculate whether very small high attainer cohorts generally perform better than slightly larger cohorts that perhaps constitute a ‘critical mass’.

Certainly there are huge variations in performance on the key measures amongst those schools with few high attainers (where results have not been suppressed). This is particularly true of EBacc entry and success rates.

For example, amongst the 50 schools with the fewest high attainers:

  • the EBacc success rate varies from 73% at Aston Manor Academy to zero, returned by 12 of the 50.
  • The percentage of high attaining pupils making the expected progress in English varies from 50% to 100% while the corresponding range in maths is from 47% to 100%.

Many of these figures are derived from very small cohorts (all are between 1 and 20), but the point stands nevertheless.


The Performance of High Attainers

As noted above, there are no true high attainment measures relating to the achievement of GCSE A*/A grades within the Secondary Tables, so this section is necessarily reliant on the universal measures they contain.


5+ GCSEs at Grades A*-C including English and maths

The 2013 Secondary Performance Tables reveal that:

  • 53.6% of students at state-funded schools achieved 5+ GCSEs at Grades A*-C including English and maths, up 1.7% from 51.9% in 2012.
  • But the Tables pay more attention to the percentage achieving 5+ GCSEs at Grades A*-C (or equivalent) including GCSEs in English and maths: 60.6% of students attending state-funded schools achieved that measure in 2013, compared, up 1.8% from 58.8% in 2012.
  • 94.7% of high attainers in state-funded schools secured this outcome, up an improvement on 94.0% in 2012. The comparable figures for middle attainers and low attainers (with 2012 figures in brackets) are 57.4% (55.1%) and 6.9% (7.1%) respectively. Hence the overall increase of 1.8% masks a slight fall amongst low attainers and a significantly smaller increase amongst high attainers. Although there has been improvement, one in every 20 high attainers continues to fall short.
  • But it is notable that around 530 schools achieved 100% amongst their high attainers on this measure, compared with some 480 in 2012. Moreover, only 14 schools are at or below 67%, compared with 19 in 2012, and 47 are at or below 75% compared with 66 in 2012. This is positive news and suggests that the inclusion of the distinction within the Tables is beginning to bear fruit.

 Tables 2A and 2B, below show there has been an increase of 3.5% on this measure since 2011 across all pupils in state-funded mainstream schools. Meanwhile the proportion of high attainers securing this outcome has fallen by 0.4% (after rising slightly in 2012).

It may well be harder for schools to eradicate the last vestiges of underachievement at the top end than to strengthen performance amongst middle attainers, where there is significantly more scope for improvement. But some may also be concentrating disproportionately on those middle attainers.

This overall picture masks very different trends in different types of school.

In sponsored academies an overall improvement of 4.8% coincides with a slight 0.1% fall amongst high attainers, who have recovered following a substantial dip in 2012.

But in converter academies the overall success rate has fallen by almost 9% since 2011, while the rate for high attainers has fallen by only 2.7%.

And in free schools, UTCs and studios a slight overall fall since 2012 (there are no figures for 2011) is accompanied by an improvement for high attainers of over 4%.

Comprehensive schools have improved by 2.6% overall since 2011, yet their high attainers have fallen back by 0.3%. In selective schools the overall rate has fallen back by 2.3% while the high attainer rate has dropped by a similar 2.0%. This is concerning.

It is not straightforward to work out what is happening here, though the changing size of different sectors must be having a significant impact. 2012 GCSE results in English will certainly have influenced the dip in last year’s figures.

High attainers in free schools, UTCs and studios still have some ground to make up on other sectors and it will be interesting to see whether their improving trend will continue in 2014


Table 2A: Percentage achieving 5+ A*-C grades (or equivalent) including English and maths by sector

All state-funded mainstream LA maintained mainstream Sponsored academies Converter academies Free schools, UTCs and studio schools
All HA All HA All HA All HA All HA
2013 61.7 94.7 59.2 94.1 51.2 93.0 68.2 95.7 54.6 91.7
2012 59.8 94.0 58.2 93.5 49.3 91.5 68.4 95.5 55.7 87.5
2011 58.2 95.1 N/A N/A 46.8 93.1 77.1 98.4 N/A N/A


Table 2B: Percentage achieving 5+ A*-C grades (or equivalent) including English and maths by admissions practice

Selective Comprehensive Modern
All HA All HA All HA
2013 96.4 97.3 60.4 94.5 55.3 92.5
2012 97.4 98.2 58.5 93.5 53.1 92.2
2011 98.7 99.3 57.8 94.8 50.8 91.8


A*-C grades in GCSE English and maths

According to the 2013 Secondary Tables:

  • 61.3% of all students in state-funded schools achieved GCSE grades A*-C in English and maths, compared with 59.5% in 2012, an improvement of 1.8%.
  • However, 95.1% of high attainers in state-funded schools achieved this measure compared with 94.3% in 2012, an increase of only 0.8%. The comparable figures for middle and low attainers (with 2012 figures in brackets) were 58.5% (55.8%) and 7.1% (7.3%) respectively. The pattern is therefore similar to the 5A*-C measure, with limited improvement at the top, significant improvement in the middle and a slight decline at the bottom.
  • Some 610 state-funded schools had 100% of their high attainers achieve this outcome, a significant improvement on the 530 recorded in 2012. There were 12 schools where the percentage was 67% or lower, compared with 18 in 2012, and 38 where the percentage was 75% or lower, compared with almost 60 in 2012.
  • These latter figures include Pate’s, King Edward VI Camp Hill and Bishop Wordsworth’s, all presumably tripped up again by their choice of IGCSE. Other poor performers were Gloucester Academy (again) at 44% and St Antony’s Catholic College in Trafford (59%). The worst performers were relatively stronger than their predecessors from 2012.

The trend data derived from the associated statistical publications shows that the overall figure for high attainers in state-funded schools has increased by 0.9% compared with 2012, recovering most of the 1.2% dip that year compared with 2011.

Sponsored academies have improved significantly with their high attainers back to 93.5% (their 2011 percentage) following a 1.7% dip in 2012. On the other hand, high attainers in converter academies have made little improvement compared with 2012, while free schools, studio schools and UTCs have improved by 3.9%.

Once again these patterns are probably influenced strongly by change in the size of some sectors and the impact of 2012 GCSE English results.

Interestingly though, selective school high attainers – having managed 99.5% on this measure in 2011 – are continuing to fall back, recording 98.3% in 2012 and now 97.5%. This may have something to do with the increasing attraction of IGCSE.


Entry to and achievement of the EBacc

The 2013 Secondary Tables show that:

  • 35.5% of all students at state-funded schools were entered for all English Baccalaureate subjects, compared with 23.1% in 2012, and 22.8% achieved all EBacc subjects, up 6.6% from 16.2% in 2012.
  • Both entry (65.0%) and success (52.1%) rates continue to be much higher for high attainers than for middle attainers (27.8% entered and 11.8% successful) and low attainers (3.4% entered and 0.5% successful)
  • In 2012, the entry rate for high attainers was 46.3%, so there has been a substantial improvement of almost 19%. The 2012 success rate was 38.5%, so that has improved by 13.6%.
  • One could reasonably argue that a 52.1% success rate is lower than might be expected and relatively disappointing given that almost two-thirds of high attainers now enter all EBacc subjects. But, compared with the two previous measures, schools are much further away from the 100% ceiling with the EBacc, so further significant improvement amongst high attainers is likely over the next few years. However, the forthcoming shift to ‘Progress 8’ measure is likely to impact significantly.
  • 55 schools entered no high attainers for the EBacc, down considerably from 186 in 2012. Zero high attainers achieved the EBacc at 79 schools compared with 235 in 2012. Several grammar schools were of this number.

Tables 3A and B below indicate that, despite rapid improvement since 2012, only a third of high attainers in sponsored academies achieve the EBacc, compared with almost 6 in 10 attending converter academies.

The success rate for high attainers at free schools, UTCs and studios is only slightly higher than that for sponsored academies and both are improving at a similar rate.

Amost exactly half of high attainers at comprehensive schools are successful, as are almost exactly three quarters of high attainers at selective schools, but the rate of improvement is much faster in comprehensive schools – and indeed in modern schools too.


Table 3A: Percentages achieving the EBacc by sector

All state-funded mainstream LA maintained mainstream Sponsored academies Converter academies Free schools, UTCs and studio schools
All HA All HA All HA All HA All HA
2013 23.2 52.1 20.9 49.1 11.0 34.7 30.1 58.1 16.1 35.6
2012 16.4 38.5 14.5 35.0 6.3 21.1 25.7 49.1 12.2 23.6
2011 15.6 37.2 5.2 17.7 31.5 55.4


Table 3B: Percentages achieving the EBacc by admissions practice

Selective Comprehensive Modern
All HA All HA All HA
2013 71.6 74.6 21.5 49.9 12.1 33.3
2012 68.2 70.7 14.5 35.0 7.2 20.7
2011 68.1 70.5 13.7 33.6 6.7 20.3


Three Levels of Progress in English and maths

The Tables inform us that:

  • 70.4% of all pupils in state-funded secondary schools made at least three levels of progress in English (up 2.4% from 68% in 2012) and 70.7% did so in maths (up 2.0% from 68.7% in 2012).
  • In both subjects more high attainers made the requisite progress than middle and low attainers: 86.2% in English (2.8% up on 2012) and 87.8% in maths (up 2.0%). Despite these improvements, it remains the case that approximately one in seven high attainers fail to make the expected progress in English and one in eight fail to do so in maths. This is extremely disappointing.
  • There were 108 schools in which every high attainer made the requisite progress in English, up from 93 in 2012. In maths, 120 schools ensured every high attainer made the expected progress, compared with 100 in 2012. A total of 36 schools managed this feat in both English and maths, whereas only 26 did so in 2012.
  • At the three grammar schools we have already encountered, no high attainers made the expected progress in English. Forty-four schools were at or below 50% on this measure, down markedly from 75 in 2012. The worst performer apart from the grammar schools was Gloucester Academy at 28%.
  • Thirty-one schools had 50% or fewer high attainers making the expected progress in maths, an improvement on the 46 registering this result last year. The poorest performer was Stafford Sports College at 29%.

Tables 4A and B below contain the trend data for the achievement of three levels of progress in English while Tables 5A and B cover maths.

The figures within these tables are not strictly comparable, since the statistics unaccountably define high attainment slightly differently for the two populations. In the case of the ‘all’ column, they use achievement of Level 5 in the relevant KS2 test (ie English or maths), rather than above Level 4 achievement across all three core subjects, while the definition for the ‘high attainers’ column is the customary one set out above.

Nevertheless, one can see that, overall, the percentage of high attainers meeting this benchmark in English is recovering following a significant fall last year. Free schools, UTCs and studios have just overtaken sponsored academies while converter academies are 3.5 percentage points ahead of LA maintained mainstream schools.

In maths converter academies have an even more substantial 4.5 percentage point lead over LA maintained mainstream schools. Sponsored academies are a full 10 percentage points behind converters and five percentage points behind free schools, UTCs and studios, but the latter category is recording a downward trend while everyone else is moving in the opposite direction.

The fact that one in five high attainers in sponsored academies, free schools, UTCs and studios is failing to make three levels of progress in English is serious cause for concern.  Worse still, the same is true of maths in sponsored academies. This state of affairs requires urgent attention.

It is noticeable that the general recovery in performance amongst high attainers in English does not extend to selective schools, which have fallen back still further since 2012 and are now a full 3.5 percentage points behind their 2011 level. Regardless of causality – and early entry policy as well as the increasing popularity of IGCSE may be involved – this too is a matter for concern. The situation is more positive in maths however.


Table 4A: Percentages achieving three levels of progress in English by sector

All state-funded mainstream LA maintained mainstream Sponsored academies Converter academies Free schools, UTCs and studio schools
All HA All HA All HA All HA All HA
2013 79.7 86.2 85.0 80.7 88.5 81.0
2012 76.9 83.4 82.5 76.0 86.7 68.1
2011 69.0 87.2 79.6 94.5


Table 4B: Percentages achieving three levels of progress in English by admissions practice

Selective Comprehensive Modern
All HA All HA All HA
2013 93.0 85.5 81.0
2012 93.4 82.3 77.1
2011 96.5 86.2 81.1


Table 5A: Percentages achieving three levels of progress in maths by sector

All state-funded mainstream LA maintained mainstream Sponsored academies Converter academies Free schools, UTCs and studio schools
All HA All HA All HA All HA All HA
2013 81.7 87.8 86.2 80.8 90.7 85.6
2012 79.7 85.8 84.4 77.8 90.2 87.5
2011 76.8 85.2 75.6 93.2


Table 5B: Percentages achieving three levels of progress in maths by admissions practice

Selective Comprehensive Modern
All HA All HA All HA
2013 96.6 86.9 84.4
2012 95.9 84.7 80.5
2011 96.6 83.9 79.3


Other measures

The Performance Tables show:

  • The average point score (APS) per pupil for the best eight subjects (GCSE only) across all state-funded schools was 280.1, up from 276.7 in 2012. Amongst high attainers this rose to 377.6, up from 375.4 in 2012. Only five schools – all selective – achieved an APS above 450 for their high attainers (eight schools managed this in 2012). The top performer was Colyton Grammar School in Devon. At the other extreme, four schools were at 200 or lower (much reduced from 16 in 2012). These were Hadden Park High School in Nottingham (160.1), Pent Valley Technology College in Kent (188.5), Aylesford School in Kent (195.7) and Bolton St Catherine’s Academy (198.2).
  • According to the value added (best 8) measure, the best results for high attainers were achieved by four schools that scored over 1050 (seven schools managed this in 2012). These were Tauheedul Islam Girls High School, Harris Girls’ Academy, East Dulwich, Sheffield Park Academy and Lordswood Girls’ School and Sixth Form Centre. Conversely there were three schools where the score was 900 or below. The lowest VA scores were recorded by Ark Kings Academy; Hadden Park High School; and Manchester Creative and Media Academy for Boys.
  • The Tables also provide an average grade per GCSE per high attainer (uncapped) but, at the time of writing, the relevant column in the Tables refuses to sort in ascending/descending order. This press article draws on another measure – average grade per pupil per qualification (capped at best 8) to identify Colyton Grammar School as the only state-funded school to achieve an average A* on this measure. It is highly likely that Colyton Grammar will top the rankings for the uncapped high attainer measure too. The article adds that a total of 195 schools (state and independent presumably) achieved an average of either A*, A*-, A+, A or A- on the capped measure, noting that the Hull Studio School posted G- (though with only seven pupils) while two further schools were at E+ and a further 82 schools averaged D grades.
  •  The average number of GCSE entries for high attainers in state-funded schools was 9.9, up slightly from 9.7 in 2012. The highest level of GCSE entries per high attainer was 15.5 at Colyton Grammar School, repeating its 2012 achievement in this respect. At three schools – Hadden Park, Aylesford and Bolton St Catherine’s – high attainers were entered for fewer than five GCSEs (15 schools were in this category last year). One school – Ormesby in Middlesbrough – entered its high attainers for 22 qualifications, which seems a little excessive.


A Level Achievement


Percentage achieving 3+ A levels at AAB+ in facilitating subjects

According to the 16-18 Performance Tables:

  • 7.5% of A level students in all state funded schools and colleges achieved three A levels, all in facilitating subjects, at AAB or higher, up slightly from 7.4% in 2012. This is another column in the Tables that – at the time of writing – will not sort results into ascending/descending order. In 2012 a handful of state-funded institutions achieved 60% on this measure and that is likely to have been repeated. There were also 574 schools and colleges that recorded zero in 2012 and there may have been a slight improvement on that this year.
  • The same problem arises with the parallel measure showing the percentage of students achieve AAB+ with at least two in facilitating subjects. We know that 12.1% of A level students in state funded schools and colleges achieved this, up very significantly from 7.8% in 2012, but there is no information about the performance of individual schools. In 2012 a handful of institutions achieved over 80% on this measure, with Queen Elizabeth’s Barnet topping the state schools at 88%. At the other extreme, there were about 440 schools and colleges which recorded zero in 2012.

Tables 6A and B below show that the success rate on the first of these measures is creeping up in LA-maintained mainstream schools, sponsored academies, sixth form colleges and FE colleges. The same is true of comprehensive schools.

On the other hand, the success rate is falling somewhat in converter academies, free schools, UTCs and studios – and also in selective and modern schools.

It is noticeable how badly sponsored academies fare on this measure, achieving exactly half the rate of LA-maintained mainstream schools.


Table 6A: Percentages of students achieving 3+ A levels at AAB+ in facilitating subjects by sector

All state-funded mainstream LA maintained mainstream Sponsored academies Converter academies Free schools, UTCs and studio schools Sixth form colleges FE
2013 8.7 7.4 3.7 10.4 5.1 6.0 3.5
2012 8.6 7.2 3.4 11.4 7.5 5.8 3.3


Table 6B: Percentages of students achieving 3+ A levels at AAB+ in facilitating subjects in schools by admissions practice

Selective Comprehensive Modern
2013 21.1 6.8 1.0
2012 21.5 6.6 1.6


The 2013 statistics also contain breakdowns for the ‘AAB+ with two in facilitating subjects’ measure, as shown in Table 6C below.


Table 6C: Percentages of students achieving 3+ A levels at AAB+ with two in facilitating subjects by sector and admissions practice, 2013 only.

State-funded mainstream schools 13.6
LA-funded mainstream schools 11.4
Sponsored academies (mainstream) 5.4
Converter academies (mainstream) 16.4
Mainstream free schools, UTCs and studios 11.3
Sixth Form Colleges 10.4
FE Colleges 5.8
Selective schools 32.4
Comprehensive schools 10.7
Modern schools 2.0


While sponsored academies are achieving unspectacular results – in that they are even further behind LA-funded schools and even below FE colleges on this measure – selective schools are managing to get almost one third of their students to this level.


Percentage achieving 3+ A levels at A*/A

The Performance Tables do not include this measure, but it is included in the statistical reports. Tables 7A and B below show the trends – downwards in all sectors and types of school except FE colleges and free schools, UTCs and studios.

It is unclear why their performance should be improving on this measure but declining on the AAB+ in three facilitating subjects measure, though it seems likely that some UTCs and studios are less likely to enter their students for facilitating subjects.


Table 7A: Percentages of all students achieving 3+ A levels at A*/A by sector

All state-funded mainstream LA maintained mainstream Sponsored academies Converter academies Free schools, UTCs and studio schools Sixth form colleges FE
2013 10.7 8.7 4.1 13.1 7.9 9.3 5.1
2012 10.9 9.1 4.2 14.8 6.0 9.7 5.0
2011 11.4 10.2 4.9


Table 7B: Percentages of students achieving 3+ A levels at A*/A in schools by admissions practice

Selective Comprehensive Modern
2013 27.0 8.1 1.7
2012 27.7 8.3 1.9
2011 27.7 8.4 2.3


Percentage achieving 3+ A levels at AAB+

Once again, this measure is not in the Tables but is in the statistical bulletin. Tables 8A and B below compare trends. The broad trend is again downwards although this is being bucked (just) by FE colleges and (more significantly) by sponsored academies. So while sponsored academies are getting slightly falling results at AAA+, their results are improving at AAB.


Table 8A: Percentages of students achieving 3+ A levels at AAB+ by sector

All state-funded mainstream LA maintained mainstream Sponsored academies Converter academies Free schools, UTCs and studio schools Sixth form colleges FE
2013 17.9 15.1 7.9 21.4 13.0 16.4 9.5
2012 17.9 15.4 7.5 23.4 16.4 16.8 9.4


Table 8B: Percentages of students achieving 3+ A levels at AAB+ in schools by admissions practice

Selective Comprehensive Modern
2013 40.0 14.5 4.4
2012 40.6 14.5 4.7
2011 40.9 14.8 5.4

It is interesting to compare 2013 performance across these different high attainment measures and Table 9 below does this, enabling one to see more clearly the differentiated response to facilitating subjects amongst high attainers.

In most parts of the schools sector, the success rate for AAB+ in any subjects is roughly twice that of AAB+ in facilitating subjects, but this is not true of FE and sixth form colleges, nor of free schools, UTCs and studios.

At the same time, every sector and school type shows a higher rate at AAA+ than at AAB+ in three facilitating subjects.


Table 9: Percentages of students by sector/school type achieving different A level high attainment measures in 2013

AAB+ in 3FS AAB+ 2in FS AAB+ AAA+
All state-funded mainstream 8.7 13.6 17.9 10.7
LA-funded mainstream 7.4 11.4 15.1 8.7
Sponsored academies 3.7 5.4 7.9 4.1
Converter academies 10.4 16.3 21.4 13.1
Free schools UTCs and studios 5.1 11.3 13.0 7.9
Sixth form colleges 6.0 10.4 16.4 9.3
FE colleges 3.5 5.8 9.5 5.1
Selective schools 21.1 32.4 40.0 27.0
Comprehensive schools 6.8 10.7 14.5 8.1
Modern schools 1.0 2.0 4.4 1.7


Other Measures

Reverting back to the Performance Tables:

  • The APS per A level student across all state-funded institutions is 782.3, up significantly from 736.2 in 2012. The highest APS was recorded by Dartford Grammar School which recorded 1650.0. At the other end of the spectrum, an APS of 252.6 was recorded by Hartsdown Technology College in Kent.
  • The APS per A level entry across all state-funded institutions was 211.3 compared with 210.2 in 2012. The strongest performer in the maintained sector was Queen Elizabeth’s School, Barnet, which achieved 271.4. The lowest score in the maintained sector is 97.7, at Appleton Academy in Bradford.
  • A new average point score per A level pupil expressed as a grade is dominated by independent schools, but the top state-funded performers – both achieving an average A grade – are Henrietta Barnet and Queen Elizabeth’s Barnet. A handful of schools record U on this measure: Appleton Academy, The Gateway Academy in Thurrock, Hartsdown Technology College and The Mirus Academy in Walsall.
  • A new A level value added measure has also been introduced for the first time. It shows Ripon Grammar School as the top performer scoring 0.61. The lowest score generated on this measure is -1.03 at Appleton Academy, which comes in comfortably below any of its competitors.
  • The Statistical Bulletin also tells us what percentage of A level entries were awarded A* and A grades. Tables 10 A and B below record this data and show the trend since 2011. It is evident that A* performance is falling back slightly in every context, with the sole exception of FE (a very slight improvement) and free schools, UTCs and studios. A*/A performance is generally holding up better, other than in converter academies.


Table 10A: Percentage of A* and A*/A grades by sector

All state-funded mainstream LA maintained mainstream Sponsored academies Converter academies Free schools, UTCs and studio schools Sixth form colleges FE
A* A*/A A* A*/A A* A*/A A* A*/A A* A*/A A* A*/A A* A*/A
2013 6.8 24.4 5.9 21.4 3.7 15.1 7.9 27.5 4.7 20.0 5.7 21.6 3.9 15.4
2012 7.2 24.3 6.3 21.8 4.0 14.4 8.9 29.1 4.3 20.3 5.8 21.8 3.8 15.6
2011 7.3 24.5 6.3 22.4 3.9 16.0


Table 10B: Percentage of A* and A*/A grades in schools by admissions practice

Selective Comprehensive Modern
A* A*/A A* A*/A A* A*/A
2013 12.7 40.6 5.6 21.1 2.5 10.6
2012 13.4 41.2 5.9 20.9 2.6 11.1
2011 13.4 41.0 6.0 21.1 3.0 11.6



What are we to make of this analysis overall?

The good news is that high attainers have registered improvements since 2012 across all the most important GCSE measures:

  • 5+ GCSEs or equivalent including English and maths GCSEs (up 0.7%)
  • GCSEs in English and maths (up 0.8%)
  • 3 levels of progress in English (up 2.8%)
  • 3 levels of progress in maths (up 2.0%)
  •  EBacc entry (up 19%) and EBacc achievement (up 13.6%).

The last of these is particularly impressive.

At A level, the underlying trend for high attainment per se is slightly downward, but significantly upward for AAB+ grades with two in facilitating subjects.

The less good news is that some of these improvements have been made from a relatively low base, so the overall levels of performance still fall short of what is acceptable.

It is not cause for congratulation that one in seven high attainers still fail to make the expected progress in English, while one in eight still fail to do so in English. Nor is it encouraging that one in twenty high attainers still fail to secure five or more GCSEs (or equivalent) including GCSEs in English and maths.

The significant improvement with the EBacc masks the fact that one fifth of high attainers who enter exams in all the requisite subjects still fail to secure the necessary grades.

Moreover, some schools are demonstrating very limited capacity to secure high achievement and – in particular – sufficient progress from their high attainers.

The fact that several schools achieve better progression in English for both their middle and their low attainers is particularly scandalous and needs urgent attention.

As noted above, the floor targets regime is too blunt an instrument to address the shortcomings in the substantial majority of schools that have been highlighted in this study for poor performance on one or more high attainers measures.

The combined impact of the secondary accountability reforms planned for 2016 is as yet unclear. For the time being at least, Ofsted inspection is the only game in town.

The school inspection guidance now demands more attention to the performance and progress made by the ‘most able students’. But will inspection bring about with sufficient rapidity the requisite improvements amongst the poorest performers highlighted here?

I have it in mind to monitor progress in this small sample of twenty-two schools – and also to look back on what has happened to a parallel group of the poorest performers in 2012.



January 2014

‘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

High Attaining Students in the 2012 Secondary School Performance Tables


This post collects and analyses data about the performance of high attaining students at Key Stages 4 and 5 in the 2012 Secondary Performance Tables and Key Stage 5 Tables respectively. It also draws on evidence from the Statistical First Reviews (SFRs) published alongside the tables.

The KS4 analysis compares 2012 outcomes with those for 2011, when a high-attaining pupil measure was first introduced into the Secondary Tables.

This is a companion piece to a parallel analysis of High Attaining Pupils in the 2012 Primary School Performance Tables published in December 2012.

The commentary below highlights results – either extraordinarily good or particularly bad – from specific schools identified in the tables. There may of course be extenuating circumstances not allowed for in the Tables to justify outcomes that, at first sight, seem unacceptably poor.

I cannot always reconcile the figures in the Performance Tables with those in the SFRs, although the differences are typically small. I apologise in advance for any transcription errors and cordially invite you to correct any that you find using the comments facility below.

For those who prefer not to read the full post, I have summarised some of the key findings in the next section, following a brief reprise of the generic points highlighted in media analysis to date



Highlights of Media Analysis

The commentary since publication of the Performance Tables has focused predominantly on the following points (the figures quoted do not always reflect those actually in the SFRs):

  • 59.4% of pupils in all state-funded mainstream schools achieved the benchmark of 5+ A*-C Grades at GCSE including English and maths.
  • This percentage increased by 3.1% in sponsored academies, while the corresponding increase in state funded schools as a whole was 0.6%; The Department for Education’s initial press notice claimed this as evidence that: ‘standards are rising in sponsored academies… more than five times as quickly than in all state-funded schools’.
  • 36.3% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved this measure compared with 62.6% of other pupils, giving an attainment gap of 26.3%, and so an improvement of 1.1% improvement compared with 2011.
  • 18.3% of pupils achieved the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), an increase of 2.7% compared with 2011. In mainstream state-funded schools however, only 16.4% achieved the EBacc, so giving an improvement of less than 1% compared with 2011.
  • 23.4% of schools and colleges produced no students with AAB+ A level grades in the facilitating subjects;
  • 195 secondary schools fell short of the current floor target, about 60 of them academies. There were 14 ‘converter academies’ in this position. The number of schools below the floor has almost doubled (from 107) as the threshold has been increased but, had the threshold been the same as in 2011, the number below the target would have fallen by 56.

One paper ran a headline claiming ‘Brightest Pupils “Going Backwards”’, supporting this primarily with evidence that fewer than half of high attainers were entered for the English Baccalaureate and over 60% failed to achieve it.

What truth is there in this statement and what additional evidence can be adduced to confirm or counter it? The section below highlights some key findings.


Highlights from This Analysis

This analysis suggests that:

  • The proportion of ‘high attainers’ varies significantly by sector: 33.6% of KS4 students in all mainstream state-funded schools are deemed ‘high attainers’. However, 36.8% of students in academies and free schools are high-attaining, including 42.5% in converter academies alone and 42.9% in free schools/UTCs/studio schools alone. Such distinctions might go some way at least towards explaining why these categories of school perform relatively well. Rather strangely, only 89.8% of students in selective schools count as high attainers, but the comparative figure for comprehensive schools is much lower at 31.7%.
  • Achievement of the 5+ GCSEs A*-C including English and maths measure is deteriorating, and relatively poor in free schools/UTCs/studio schools:  6.0% of high attainers in mainstream state-funded schools fail to achieve this measure, but that is far better than the corresponding percentages for middle attainers (44.9%) and low attainers (92.9% ). While some 480 schools achieve 100% amongst their high attainers on this measure, about 20 schools are at or below 67% and 66 are at or below 75%. This is worrying evidence of underachievement. Though converter academies score well on this measure (only 4.5% of high attainers fail to achieve the benchmark), the situation is much worse in free schools/UTCs/studio schools where 12.5% fail to do so. This is particularly surprising given the relatively high incidence of high attainers in such schools. An additional concern is that the overall percentage of high attainers achieving this measure has fallen 1.2% since last year. The fall in converter academies has been much larger at 6.9%.
  • There are big disparities in achievement of (and entry for) the EBacc: 38.5% of high attainers in mainstream state-funded schools managed the EBacc, which means of course that over 60% did not do so. The percentage was much higher in converter academies where 49.1% of high attainers achieved the EBacc. Conversely, in free schools/UTCs/studio schools just 23.6% achieve the EBacc. There are 235 schools at which no high-attaining students whatsoever managed to secure the EBacc. No high-attaining students were entered at 186 schools. The overall percentage of high attainers with the EBacc at mainstream state funded schools increased by 1.3% compared with 2011. Although there was an increase of 3.4% in sponsored academies, there was an even larger fall of 6.3% in converter academies.
  • Too many high attainers fail to make three levels of progress in English and in maths: Roughly 1 in every 6 high attainers fails to make the expected three levels of progress from KS2 to KS4 in English, and roughly 1 in 7 high attainers fails to do so in maths. This is further evidence of underachievement. There is some underachievement even amongst high attainers in selective schools. In 93 schools every single high attainer achieved the required progress in English – and the same is true of 100 schools in respect of maths. Twenty-six schools achieved this feat in both English and maths. However, there are 75 schools where 50% or fewer made the expected progress in English, and 43 schools where the same applied in maths. Middle attainers significantly outperformed high attainers at the majority of these schools. There were odd schools where even low attainers managed to outperform high attainers!  The overall percentage of high attainers in mainstream state-funded schools making the requisite progress in English fell by 3.8% compared with 2011, though it improved by 0.6% in maths. This may suggest that high attainers were adversely affected by the problems over GCSE English marking.
  • There were huge variations between schools in the percentage achieving AAB A level grades in the facilitating subjects, but there has been good progress against the associated social mobility indicator: Overall 7.4% of A level students in state-funded schools and colleges managed AAB+ Grades at A level in the facilitating subjects. This percentage reached 65% in the highest performing state-funded schools (which are predominantly selective). However, there were 574 schools and colleges where zero A level students achieved this measure. In every sector relatively more students achieve at least three A*/A grades at A level (regardless of subject) than achieve AAB in facilitating subjects. The gap between independent schools and mainstream state-funded schools on the AAB facilitating subjects measure is 15.1%, so there has been a 1% improvement on this social mobility indicator since 2011.

The full analysis is set out below, prefaced by some essential background information about the key measures and how they are defined.


The Key Measures and How They Are Defined


The 2012 Secondary Performance Tables provide breakdowns of performance against some measures for ‘high attainers’, ‘middle attainers’ and ‘low attainers’. These three groups are defined on the basis of prior attainment at the end of Key Stage 2.

  • High attainers are those who achieved above Level 4 in KS2 tests – ie their average point score in English, maths and science tests was 30 or higher.
  • Middle attainers are those who achieved at the expected Level 4 in KS2 tests – ie their average points score in English, maths and science tests was between 24 and 29.99 – and
  • Low attainers are those who achieved below Level 4 in KS2 tests – ie their average points score in English, maths and science tests was under 24.

Because these calculations are made on the basis of average points scores across three subjects, it follows that ‘high attainers’ may have a relatively spiky achievement profile, compensating for middling performance in one area through high attainment in another. Conversely, learners who are exceptional in one subject but relatively low achievers in the other two are unlikely to pass the APS 30 threshold.

The ‘high attainer’ threshold is not overly demanding. The Tables attached to SFR 02/2013: GCSE and Equivalent Results in England 2011/12 (revised) show that 33.6% of all pupils in state-funded mainstream schools were within this category (33.4% of boys and 33.8% of girls). More information about the distribution of this population is provider later in this post.

The 2012 Primary Performance Tables also show that 27% of pupils achieved Level 5 or above in both English and maths, while the average points score of all pupils nationally was 28.3.

The definition of these sub-groups makes it possible to compare performance of these three groups against each other and against the national average. This enables us to reach broad conclusions about whether schools are successfully improving the performance of all pupils across the distribution, or whether they are focused disproportionately on one group or the other, perhaps in an effort to minimise the percentage of pupils not achieving the threshold performance measures.

This is particularly critical for those schools at risk of dipping below the ‘floor targets’, which determine whether or not they are vulnerable to Government intervention. The secondary floor target is for 40% of pupils in a school to achieve 5+ GCSEs at Grades C or above including English and maths. plus 70% of pupils to make the expected three levels of progress between the end of KS2 and the end of KS4 in each of English and maths.

The guidance on the Performance Tables provides a useful diagram showing the expected levels of progress for high, middle and low attaining pupils respectively. High attainers are expected to achieve Grade B or above in GCSE English and maths.

By comparing 2012 results with those from 2011, we can judge whether or not schools seem to be adjusting their behaviour, although we cannot of course establish to what extent any adjustment is attributable to the Performance Tables.


Key Stage 5

The Statement of Intent for the 2012 Performance Tables issued in July 2012 confirmed plans to introduce for the first time:

‘Percentages of students achieving three A levels at grades AAB or higher in facilitating subjects, reflecting the subjects and grades most commonly required by Russell Group and other top universities.’

The data provided gives the percentages for KS5 students and A level students respectively, and the measure is more accurately three or more A levels excluding equivalences.

The subjects covered by the term ‘facilitating subjects’ are listed as ‘Mathematics and Further Mathematics, English (Literature), Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Geography, History, Languages (Classical and Modern). A full list of the examinations that count as facilitating subjects is published amongst the technical papers supporting the tables.

Following publication of the Tables, significant reservations have been expressed about the design of this measure. The Russell Group – the organisation largely responsible for promulgating it – pointed out that:

‘It would be wrong to use this simple indicator as a measure of the number of pupils in a school who are qualified to apply successfully to a Russell Group university.

The Russell Group has published a guide called Informed Choices which lists ‘facilitating subjects’ which are those most commonly required for entry to our leading universities.

However, it’s important that students make decisions based on their individual circumstances. We encourage all prospective students to check the entry requirements for their chosen course before applying to a particular university.’

The AAB+ in facilitating subjects measure supports one of the Government’s preferred Social Mobility Indicators which compares the percentage of students attending state and independent schools respectively who achieve this measure. (In 2011 the gap was 16.1%, with 7.0% of state school students and 23.1% of independent school students achieving this measure.)

In addition there are also new other measures included in the 2012 KS5 Performance Tables for the first time:

  • Average point score per student (A level, IB, pre-U and AQA Bacc) – the total number of points achieved by a student divided by the total number of students taking the relevant qualifications
  • Average point score per entry (A level, IB, pre-U and AQA Bacc) – the total number of points achieved  by a student divided by the total number of entries to the relevant qualifications.
  • Value added score for each Level 3 qualification type

A technical note provides details of the point scores allocated to different grades in different qualifications.


2012 Results

Secondary Performance Tables

The Tables show that:

  • 59.8% (or is it 59.4%) of students in mainstream state-funded schools achieved five or more GCSEs (or equivalent) at grades A*-C including English and maths. This was achieved by 94.0% of high attainers (compared with 55.1% of middle attainers and just 7.1% of low attainers.
  • One school (Pate’s Grammar School, Cheltenham) is registered as having no high attaining students achieving this benchmark, but this is because it adopted an IGCSE English qualification which is not accepted for inclusion in the Performance tables. The next lowest was 3% (The Rushden Community College specialising in Mathematics and Computing) which includes 35 pupils in its high attainer cohort. Rushden is also reported to have made an idiosyncratic choice of English syllabus. (Two more schools – Culverhay and Raincliffe – are below 50%. A further 15 schools are at 67% or below and, altogether, 66 schools are at 75% or below, including several academies. Some 480 schools achieved 100% on this measure.
  • In English state-funded schools, 94.3% of high attainers achieved Grades A*-C in GCSE English and maths. This compared with 55.8% of middle attainers and 7.3% of low attainers. The average figure for all pupils was 59.3%. Slightly more schools – almost 530 – managed 100% on this measure but, excluding Pate’s, Rushden was again the worst performing on 3%, followed by Culverhay on 40%. Altogether (excluding Pate’s) 17 schools were at or below 67% and almost 60 below 75%, once again including some prominent academies;
  • The average point score per pupil for the best eight subjects entered (all qualifications) was 343.3 for all pupils in state-funded schools. The average for high attainers was 398.4, compared with 338.9 for middle attainers and 263.7 for low attainers. Several schools, almost all selective, achieved an APS of over 450. At the other end of the table, Culverhay came in at 273.4 and a further 40 schools were at 350 or lower. The results were similar when GCSEs only were counted, but with lower APS at the bottom of the scale. The APS for high attainers across all state-funded schools was 375.4, but 16 schools recorded an APS of 200 or lower, around half of the academies.
  • The average grade per qualification was A+ in 24 mostly selective schools, yet it was below C at 10 schools. It was D at City Academy Norwich and Culverhay and D+ at the Milton Keynes Academy. If only GCSEs are counted, the average grade was E+ at Culverhay and D in three more schools. Thirty-two selective schools recorded A+.
  • The average number of entries per pupil for high attainers across all state-funded schools was 12.4 for all qualifications and 9.7 for GCSEs. Colyton Grammar School entered high attaining pupils for an average 14.5 GCSEs, significantly higher than any other school, while 15 schools entered their high attainers for fewer than 5 GCSEs. When all qualifications are counted, The James Hornsby High School managed an astonishing 22.0 average entries amongst its 17 high attainers.
  • Turning to the English Baccalaureate, 16.2% of all KS4 pupils in state-funded schools achieved it, but 38.5% of high attainers did so, compared with 7.1% of middle attainers and fewer than 1% of low attainers. All twenty high attainers at Tauheedul Islam Girls High School achieved the EBacc. On the other hand, no high attainers did so at 235 schools. On average across English state-funded schools, 46.3% of high attaining students were entered for all the EBacc subjects. In 186 schools no high attaining pupils were entered.
  • In English state funded schools, 68% of pupils made the expected three levels of progress in English while 68.7% did so in maths. In English, more high attainers than middle and low attainers – 83.4% – made such progress and the same was true of maths where the comparable percentage was 85.8%. However, this means that 1 in every 6 high attainers failed to make the expected progress in English and 1 in 7 failed to do so in maths. There were 93 schools where 100% of high attainers made the requisite progress in English and 100 schools where the same was achieved in maths. Twenty-six schools achieved this in both English and maths.
  • At Pate’s (see above) and Rushden, no high attaining pupils made the expected progress in English and 50% or fewer managed this at 75 schools. At Parklands High School just 8% of high attainers made three levels of progress in maths and there were 43 schools where 50% or fewer managed this. In both English and maths, the vast majority of schools where less than 50% of high achievers managed three levels of progress realised significantly higher percentages for their middle attainers. A few did so for their low attainers as well. At Milton Keynes Academy, the percentages for low attainers and middle attainers in English were 76% and 79% respectively – for high attainers it was 20%. The disparities were relatively less stark in maths.
  • When it came to the value added (best eight) measure, Beis Yaakov High School scored 1065.0 for its high attainers and six more schools were over 1050 including Tauheedul and Mossbourne Academy. At Culverhay the figure was 853.7 and in 35 schools it was 950.0 or below.


Key Stage 5 Performance Tables

The KS5 Tables reveal that:

  • In all English state-funded schools and colleges, 4.8% of KS5 students achieved at least AAB grades in A level facilitating subjects, and 7.4% of A level students did so. The percentage reached 65% in the top-performing state-funded schools against the each of these measures. Queen Elizabeth’s Barnet was the best-performing state-funded school in this respect. At the other end of the spectrum, 610 schools and colleges – both state-funded and independent – managed zero KS5 students on this measure. The comparable number where no A level students achieved this measure was 574. Both totals are surprisingly high.
  • The average point score per A level student in state-funded schools and colleges was 736.2 and the average point score per entry was 210.2. Colchester Royal Grammar School managed an APS of 1393.0 per student while The Henrietta Barnet School managed 275.2 per entry. Six institutions managed an APS per student of less than 200, four of them academies. The APS per A level entry was below 100 at two institutions, one of them an Academy.


Statistical First Releases

Alongside the Performance Tables, several associated statistical publications were released. These included:

These provide some further detail about the achievement of high-attaining students.


Key Stage 4

SFR02/13 (Table 1D) shows the proportion of students in state-funded schools making the expected 3 levels of progress towards GCSE English and Maths having achieved a Level 5 in their KS2 tests in those subjects (so this is different to the ‘high attainers’ progression measure in the Secondary Performance Tables).

Although 76.9% of pupils made the expected progress in English and 79.7% did so in maths, that means 1 in 4 students did not make the expected progress in English and 1 in 5 did not do so in science. Although progression rates are higher for those with Level 5 than for those with lower levels, this outcome still leaves something to be desired (especially since a minority of these students did not even manage a C grade at GCSE).

Tables 6A and 6B show performance by types of school and the admissions basis of schools for different ‘attainment bands’ which do coincide with the definitions of high, middle and low attainers employed in the Performance Tables.

  • Whereas 33.6% of students in mainstream state-funded schools (31.1% in all state-funded schools) meet the ‘high attainer’ criterion, fewer (32.0%)  students in local authority maintained schools are high attainers, while the percentage in academies and free schools is 36.8%, quite a significant difference in favour of the latter. The figure for sponsored academies is just 20.9%; conversely, it is 42.5% for converter academies and for free schools, UTCs and studio schools 42.9%. These advantages in favour of free schools and convertor academies might be expected to have a significant impact on the overall performance of those schools.
  • The high attaining band (described here as ‘above level 4’) registers 94% achieving 5+ GCSEs at grades A*-C including English and maths, whereas the comparable figures for types of school are local authority maintained – 93.5%, sponsored academy – 91.5%, converter academy – 95.5% and free schools/UTC/studio schools – 87.5%, This would suggest that, while converter academies are reaping the benefits of a larger cohort of high attainers, the same cannot be said of free schools, not yet at least. The differences are broadly similar on the GCSE Grades A*-C in English and maths measure.
  • The overall percentage of high attainers achieving the EBacc in state-funded mainstream schools is 38.5%. This drops to 35% in local authority schools, but is as low as 21.1% in sponsored academies and as high as 49.1% in converter academies. In free schools, UTCs and studio schools it is only 23.6%. So, whereas converter academies have a sizeable lead over schools remaining with the local authority, sponsored academies and free schools are a long way behind.
  • Turning to the progress measures in English and maths, we find the figures for ‘above Level 4’ in mainstream state-funded schools are 83.4% and 85.8% respectively. This drops to 82.5% and 84.4% in local authority maintained schools. Converter academies are at 86.7% and 90.2% respectively, but sponsored academies manage only 76.0% and 77.8% respectively. Free schools, UTCs and studio schools are way behind on English, at 68.1%, but much more competitive in maths at 87.5%. This might suggest that UTCs are over-focused on maths, or that their intakes are heavily skewed towards those with spiky prior attainment profiles that favour maths and science over English. It would be helpful to see disaggregated figures for free schools.
  • These tables also provide breakdowns for all these measures for comprehensive and selective schools.  Not surprisingly (albeit rather oddly), 89.8% of students in selective schools are classified as ‘above Level 4’, whereas the percentage for comprehensive schools is 31.7%. Selective schools do substantially better on all the measures, especially the EBacc where the percentage of ‘above Level 4’ students achieving this benchmark is double the comprehensive school figure (70.7% against 35.0%). More worryingly, 6.6% of these high-attaining pupils in selective schools are not making the expected progress in English and 4.1% are not doing so in maths. In comprehensive school there is even more cause for concern, with 17.7% falling short of three levels of progress in English and 15.3% doing so in maths.

We can compare some of the key statistics above with the comparable figures for the previous year, 2010/11:

  • The percentage of students within the ‘high attainer’ category in all maintained mainstream schools was 33.6% in 2011/12 and almost identical at 33.5% the previous year.
  • In 2010/11, the percentage of high attainers achieving the 5+ A*-C GCSE including English and maths measure in maintained mainstream schools was 95.2%, so has fallen by 1.2% in 2011/12. The figures for sponsored academies and converter academies in 2010-11 were 93.1% and 98.4% respectively. Assuming these are strictly comparable, it means that, whereas the percentage in sponsored academies has increased by 0.4%, the percentage in converter academies has fallen by 6.9%, no doubt as a consequence of the large increase in the number of converter academies.
  • The overall percentage of high attainers achieving the E Bacc in state-funded mainstream schools was 37.2% in 2010/11, so in 2011/12 there was an increase of 1.3%. In sponsored academies the percentage of high attainers achieving the E Bacc increased by 3.4%. In converter academies, the percentage fell by 6.3%, again presumably attributable to the significant increase in the number of such schools.
  • For the progress measures in English and maths we find that, in 2010/11, 87.2% of high attainers in maintained mainstream schools made the expected progress in English, and 85.2% did so in maths. This means that, in 2011/12, the percentage of high attainers making the expected progress in English fell by a worrying 3.8% but in maths it increased by 0.6%. GCSE English marking is once more most likely to blame.
  • Interestingly, in 2010/11, the percentage of high attainers in selective schools sat at 90.3% while in comprehensive schools it was 31.6%. So, in 2011/12, the percentage in selective schools has fallen by 0.5% and the percentage in comprehensive schools has only fallen by 0.1%. On the EBacc measure, the percentage of successful selective school high attainers has fallen by 0.2%, whereas the percentage of successful comprehensive school high attainers has increased by 1.4%, so comprehensive schools are just beginning to close the gap. The percentage of high-attaining students failing to make the requisite progress in English has increased dramatically from 3.5% in 2010/11 to 6.6% in 2011/12. In maths the proportion of those failing to make such progress has also increased, from 3.4% to 4.1%. In comprehensive schools the percentage failing to make the required progress in English has also increased by 3.9%, while in maths there has been a fall of 0.8% in the percentage failing to make such progress. This would again suggest a problem with English in 2011/12.

Unfortunately SFR04/2013, containing information about GCSE and equivalent attainment by pupil characteristics, provides no breakdowns whatsoever to help establish how the performance of high attainers varies according to gender, ethnic and socio-economic background.

This remains a significant lacuna in the Performance Tables as well. It would be particularly helpful to see data for high attainers eligible for free school meals and/or the Pupil Premium, so that we can establish whether attainment gaps are being narrowed regardless of prior attainment, or whether improvements disproportionately favour one group over the others.


Key Stage 5

The remaining SFR05/2013 on A level results in England contains information about the proportion of students achieving 3 or more A levels with A*/A Grades as well as AAB+ in the facilitating subjects. Key points include:

  • Across all schools and FE sector colleges, the percentage of students achieving 3 or more A*/A Grades at A Level (including Applied and Double Award A levels) is 12.8%. This is a fall of 0.3% compared with 2010/11. Slightly more male students than female achieved this (13.1% against 12.6%).
  • Across all schools and FE sector colleges, the percentage of students achieving AAB grades or better is 20.5% (so 1 in 5 of all students). Slightly more female students than male achieved this (20.9% against 20.0%).
  • The comparable percentage of all students achieving at least AAB in the facilitating subjects is much lower at 9.5% and male students were again in the ascendancy: 11.5% compared with 8.2% of females. Hence more students achieved the 3+ A*/A measure than achieved the AAB+ in facilitating subjects measure.
  • 31.6% of students in independent schools achieve 3 or more A*/A Grades – so almost one-third of all students – whereas the comparable figure in state-funded schools is much lower at 10.9%. This is a gap of 20.7%.
  • Students in academies and free schools perform significantly better on this measure (13.5%) than students at local authority maintained mainstream schools (9.1%), students in sixth form colleges (9.7%) and students in all FE sector colleges (8.2%).
  • Turning to the AAB+ measure, 45.3% of students in independent schools achieve this, whereas in state-funded schools the percentage is 17.9%, giving a gap of 27.4%.
  • Students in academies and free schools manage 21.5% on this measure, while the figure for local authority maintained mainstream schools is 15.4%, for sixth form colleges 16.8% and for all FE colleges 14.5%.
  • Thirdly, with respect to the AAB+ measure in facilitating subjects, independent schools achieve 23.7% compared with 8.6% in state-funded mainstream schools. This is a gap of 15.1%. As we have noted above, this is one of the Government’s preferred social mobility indicators. In 2011, the gap was 16.1% – independent schools scoring 23.1% and state schools 7.0%. Compared with 2011, independent schools have improved by 0.6% and state schools by 1.6%, so narrowing the gap by a full percentage point.
  • The percentage achieving the facilitating subjects measure in local authority maintained mainstream schools is 7.2%, whereas in academies and free schools it is 10.5%, in sixth form colleges 5.8% and in all FE colleges 5.0%. The tendency for fewer students to achieve the facilitating subjects measure than the 3+ A*/A measure is consistent across all sectors.
  • Within the state-funded school sector, the gaps between selective and comprehensive schools on all three measures are large: 27.7% versus 8.3% on the 3+ A*/A measure, 40.6% versus 14.5% on the AAB measure and 21.5% versus 6.6% on the AAB in facilitating subjects measure.
  • Altogether, 8.1% of A level entries were awarded an A* grade and 27.5% an A*/A grade. (The 2011 figures were 8.4% and 27.2% respectively.)
  • For independent schools, the percentages were 17.2% and 49% respectively, while for state-funded schools they were 7.2% and 23.5%. In academies and free schools 8.4% of entries were awarded A* grades and 27.6% were awarded A*/A. In local authority maintained schools the comparable percentages were 6.2% and 20.8% respectively; in sixth form colleges they were 5.7% and 20.4% respectively and in all FE sector colleges 5.2% and 19.1% respectively.
  • At state-funded selective schools, 13.4% of entries received an A* grade and 41.2% received an A* or A grade. At state-funded comprehensive schools the figures were 5.9% and 20.9% respectively.
  • The highest percentages of A* grades were awarded in further maths, at 28.5%, and maths at 18%. The fewest A* grades were awarded in home economics (1.3%) and film/media/television studies (1.4%). The percentages for other facilitating subjects included: English – 6.8%; physics 10.4%; chemistry – 9.0%; biological sciences – 8.1%; geography – 6.8%; history – 7.3%; French, German, Spanish – from 7.0-7.7%.
  • The highest percentages of A*/A grades were again awarded in further maths (58.3%) and maths (44.6%). The fewest A*/A grades were awarded in ICT (10.4%) and film/media/television studies (10.6%). The percentages for other facilitating subjects included: English – 21.4%; physics – 32.8%; chemistry – 34.8%; biological sciences – 29.0%; geography – 29.9%; history – 27.1%; French, German, Spanish – 37.7% to 41.1%.
  • 16.9% of all AS level entries were awarded an A grade. The highest percentages were in ‘other modern languages. (50.9%) and further maths (41.2%). The lowest percentages were in ICT (6.3%) and accounting and finance (6.9%).


Closing Remarks

The overall assessment of high attainers’ performance can best be described as a mixed picture. There are huge variations between schools, some performing outstandingly well and others outstandingly badly. There are significant issues to address in the academies and free schools sectors – they cannot be regarded as exemplary performers across the board.

There is continuing evidence of underachievement at national level. We do not know anything about the proportion of high attainers from disadvantaged backgrounds, so it is not as straightforward as it might be to establish whether such underachievement is disproportionately concentrated in that group. In the absence of published data to the contrary, one inevitably fears the worst.



Perhaps it was coincidence but, just a few hours after I published this post, HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw let it be known that Ofsted would be undertaking a Rapid Response Survey on Gifted and Talented Education.

Indeed this would be:

‘The most extensive investigation of gifted and talented provision undertaken by the watchdog’.

The rapid response methodology is typically deployed when ministers raise an urgent issue that they want Ofsted to investigate which is not addressed by the planned inspection programme. The story says that HMCI himself has ordered the survey: this may or may not have been at the instigation of ministers.

Taken together, this and another article about sport inform us that:

  • A Report will be published ‘in the spring’ (so most likely April or May).
  • A representative sample of over 50 schools will be visited and inspectors will also analyse existing inspection data.
  • Issues to be investigated include: progression between KS2 and KS4; whether mixed ability classes provide sufficient stretch and challenge; early examination entry; progression to competitive universities; and support for disadvantaged gifted learners.
  • This report – or possibly the one due in February on PE and School Sport – will also examine whether talented young sportspeople are able to access comparable opportunities and enrichment to that which is available to those attending independent schools.

This example shows the typical format of a rapid response survey. There is a set of Key Findings presented as bullet points, followed by series of recommendations, typically aimed at central Government, the ‘middle tier’ and schools respectively. The main text is brief and to the point.

But HMCI has said that this survey will be the most extensive on the topic that HMI have ever undertaken. On the face of it, this is not easy to reconcile with the rapid response methodology.

Ofsted last considered gifted and talented education in December 2009, also deploying the rapid response approach.

But back in 2001 they published a more substantive document ‘Providing for Gifted and Talented Pupils: An Evaluation of Excellence in Cities and Other Grant-Funded Programmes’. It will be interesting to compare the 2013 report with this.

An even earlier publication from 1992: ‘The Education of Very Able Children in Maintained Schools’ does not seem to be available online (though one can still access the research review conducted for Ofsted by Joan Freeman in 1998).

A further concern is the limited availability of gifted education expertise within Ofsted. Though there at least two current HMI with such expertise, my understanding is that there is no longer a designated specialist lead for the topic, and so no guarantee that the individuals with the expertise can and will be released at short notice to undertake this task.

That said, if the Report helps to set a contemporary improvement agenda for gifted and talented education, that will be a huge fillip to those who work in the field.


Postcript 2

Post-publication of Ofsted’s Report, ASCL has referred in its press release to the KS2-4 Transition Matrices published on Raise Online.

I thought it might be useful to reproduce those here.

TM English CaptureTM Maths Capture.

These show that:

  • 98% of KS2 learners achieving 5A in English achieved 3 levels of progress from KS2 to KS4, compared with 92% of those achieving 5B and 70% of those achieving 5C
  • 87% of KS2 learners achieving 5A in English achieved 4 levels of progress from KS2 to KS4, compared with 64% of those achieving 5B and 29% of those achieving 5C
  • The percentage of learners achieving 4A in English at KS2 who went on to achieve three levels of progress and four levels of progress – 85% and 41% respectively – were significantly higher than the comparable percentages for learners achieving 5C
  • 47% of those achieving 5A in English at KS2 when on to achieve A* at GCSE, compared with 20% of those achieving 5B and 4% of those achieving 5C
  • 87% of those achieving 5A in English at KS2 went on to achieve A* or A at GCSE, compared with 64% of those achieving 5B and 29% of those achieving 5C
  • 96% of KS2 learners achieving 5A in Maths achieved 3 levels of progress from KS2 to KS4, compared with 86% of those achieving 5B and 67% of those achieving 5C
  • 84% of KS2 learners achieving 5A in Maths achieved 4 levels of progress from KS2 to KS4, compared with 57% of those achieving 5B and 30% of those achieving 5C
  • The percentage of learners achieving 4A in Maths at KS2 who went on to achieve three levels of progress and 4 levels of progress – 89% and 39% respectively – were significantly higher than the comparable percentages for learners achieving 5C.  The percentage achieving three levels of progress even exceeded the percentage of those with 5B who managed this.
  • 50% of those achieving 5A in Maths at KS2 went on to achieve A* at GCSE, compared with 20% of those achieving 5B and 6% of those achieving 5C
  • 84% of those achieving 5A in Maths at KS2 went on to achieve A* or A at GCSE, compared with 57% of those achieving 5B and 30% of those achieving 5C

I have highlighted in bold the statistics that make most uncomfortable reading. It is especially concerning that half or fewer of those achieving 5A in either maths or English were able to translate that into an A* grade at the end of KS4. That rather undermines the suggestion that limited progression is entirely attributable to the lower end of the distribution of those achieving  L5 at KS2.








January 2013

High Attaining Pupils in the 2012 Primary School Performance Tables


This short post examines data about the performance of high-attaining pupils at Key Stage 2 in the 2012 Primary School Performance Tables.

It compares this year’s outcomes with those for 2011 when the high-attaining pupil measure was first introduced.



The 2011 Tables included performance measures for low, medium and high attainers, to encourage schools to improve the performance of all their pupils, rather than concentrating disproportionately on those at risk of not achieving the threshold measures.

The Key Stage 2 threshold measure is achievement of Level 4 in English and maths. Level 4 achievement has always received most attention in the public interpretation of school performance.

More recently, measures of progress have been added alongside those relating to achievement. All pupils are expected to demonstrate at least two levels of progress during Key Stage 2.

These two measures of achievement and progress are enshrined in the Government’s primary school ‘floor targets’, which determine whether school improvement intervention is required.

Comparison between the 2012 and 2011 Performance Tables provides the first opportunity to assess whether the introduction of these three categories of prior attainment have encouraged schools to adjust their behaviour – and whether this is to the relative advantage of higher attaining learners.



The definition of a high-attaining pupil in the 2012 Primary Performance Tables is based on the average points scores they achieved in Key Stage 1 teacher assessment four years earlier.

High-attaining pupils are deemed to be all those achieving above Level 2 at Key Stage 1, with the precise borderline marked by the achievement of an average points score of 18 or higher. The definition is unchanged since 2011.

It is not clear from the Performance Tables User Guide whether this average points score is based on achievement across reading, writing, speaking and listening, maths and science (the full spectrum of KS1 assessment) or a subset of these (to ensure agreement with the KS2 measure which is confined to English and maths only).

Regardless of which methodology is selected, this measure will not include learners who are particularly strong in one area while particularly weak in another, unless their performance in one field (or more) is high enough to compensate for underperformance in another. The scope for compensation is clearly higher if science is included in the calculation.

That said, the measure is more likely to be criticised on grounds of over-inclusiveness rather than the reverse. But it is hard to source concrete figures.

National data about the percentage of pupils achieving Level 3 at KS1 across reading, writing, maths (and science) is not included in the official KS1 assessment statistical tables, nor are KS1 average points scores across these subjects. This seems something of an oversight given their significance for the Key Stage 2 Performance Tables.

We do know that, in 2011, the average points score across all pupils was 15.5, just 2.5 points short of the high attainer borderline. We also know that the average points score measure will include some pupils who achieve the average score while not achieving Level 3 in at least one area, making it relatively more generous than a requirement for Level 3s across the board.

In 2012, the proportions of learners achieving Level 3 in individual assessments across all schools were: 27% (maths); 14% (writing); 22% (speaking and listening); 22% (maths); 21% (science). The overall percentage of pupils within the high attainer category will obviously depend on the subjects used to derive the calculation but will almost certainly lie somewhere above 20%.

It is also important to note that, since this is an attainment measure, not an ability measure, it will disproportionately include pupils from relatively advantaged backgrounds. In 2011, the average points score across all FSM pupils was 13.5, compared with an average non-FSM figure of 15.7.

It follows that schools with a relatively advantaged intake will tend to perform better on this measure than schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged learners, though there will be some that ‘buck the trend’.


2012 results

The 2012 Primary School Performance Tables show that:

  • 27% of pupils nationally achieved Level 5 or above in KS2 English and maths tests. (The corresponding figure for reading and maths tests and teacher assessment in writing combined is 20% – a writing test was not administered in 2012, so creating comparability issues between results in 2011 and 2012.)
  • In individual subject areas, the percentage of learners achieving Level 5 or above in English overall is 38%, in reading only it is 48% and in maths it is 39%;
  • The proportion of pupils achieving Level 6 through the new KS2 level 6 tests is not given in the Performance Tables but we know from other published data that 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;
  • But, reverting to the average point score methodology deployed in the Primary Tables, no high attaining pupils achieved Level 3 or below in English and maths at KS2, hence 100% of high attainers achieved Level 4 or above on that measure;
  • Only 72% achieved the expected two or more levels of progress between the end of KS1 and the end of KS2, by achieving Level 5 or above in both English and maths. This means that over a quarter of high attaining pupils are underachieving on this measure;
  • The separate figures for English and maths look better. Some 87% of high attainers made the expected progress in English, while 92% did so in maths. This may suggest that the degree of overlap between high attaining pupils in English and maths respectively may be relatively low;
  • In maths, the percentage of high attainers making expected progress is slightly above the percentage of middle attainers making expected progress (90%) and significantly higher than the corresponding percentage for low attainers (71%);
  • But in English there is a more worrying situation. Some 93% of middle attainers make expected progress and 83% of low attainers do so. High attainers surpass the latter, with 87% making the expected level of progress, but that is markedly short of the middle attainers, suggesting that – in English at least – there is still a bias towards the middle of the achievement spectrum, at the expense of outliers at both ends. Why that should be is largely unexplained.


Change Since 2011

Compared with 2011:

  • The percentage of pupils achieving Level 5 or above in KS2 English and maths tests has increased by 6% from 21% to 27%, but the removal of the writing test has had a significant impact here. There is some evidence from teacher assessment results that there has been an improvement, but this cannot be reliably confirmed;
  • The removal of the writing test also impacts on the percentage achieving Level 5 or above in English which has improved from 29% to 38%. In reading and maths, where there are no such comparability problems, the percentage achieving Level 5 or above has also increased significantly, by 5% and 4% respectively. Achievement at Level 6 cannot be compared with 2011 when tests were not available;
  • In 2011, 1% of high attainers failed to achieve Level 4 in KS2 English and maths and only 61% achieved Level 5 in both subjects, so there has been significant improvement in that the proportion not achieving this key benchmark has fallen from about four in ten to less than three in ten. This proportion remains unacceptably high and the impact of the removal of the writing test can only be guessed at, but the headline figure suggests that the introduction of the high attainer measure in the Tables may be having a positive impact;
  • Turning to the individual subjects, the percentage of high attainers making the expected progress in maths has increased from 89% to 92% and the comparable figure in English has increased substantially from 77% to 87%. Interestingly, in English the high attainers have overtaken the low attainers, though they continue to trail the middle attainers (see table below).


                  Maths                   English
High Middle Low High Middle Low
2011 89 85 65 77 89 80
2012 92 90 71 87 93 83
Change +3 +5 +6 +10 +4 +3

Percentage of high, middle and low attainers achieving 2+ Levels of progress from KS1 to KS2


One can see that the rate of improvement is slowest for high attainers in maths and fastest in English, though this may imply that the removal of the writing test has enabled many more high attainers than low attainers to make the expected progress. The fact that one in seven high attaining pupils are still not making the expected progress in English is, however, a cause for concern.


Additional analysis

Back in 2011, the Daily Mail published some further detail. It put the number of high attaining pupils not making the expected progress in English and maths at ‘up to 51,000’.


  • 2,160 primary schools returned a gap of 20% or more between the proportion of middle and high attainers making the expected 2+ levels of progress in English (presumably in favour of the former);
  • About half of all primary schools had some high attainers who failed to make  2+ levels of progress in both English and maths (so they did not have a 100% record on this measure);
  • Incredibly, about 800 schools had high attainers who failed even to achieve Level 4 at KS2, meaning they remained stuck at Level 3 after four years of KS2 education.
  • 15 schools had over 20% of their pupils in this position – some 1,300 pupils in all.

The 2012 Tables suggest that just 11 schools had high attaining pupils who were stuck at Level 3 in English and maths combined, with the highest recorded percentage for an individual school reaching 9%. It seems that only a few tens of pupils were in this invidious position.

But, more worryingly, in about 125 schools, 25% or fewer high attaining pupils failed to achieve Level 5 in both English and maths. Some 1,130 schools had 50% or fewer high attaining pupils achieving the expected progress.

Fewer than 870 schools had a perfect record in this respect, a significant improvement on 2011 but still not good enough.



Overall there is some positive evidence that underachievement by high attainers is being significantly reduced – although the extent of the improvement is confused by the incomparability of 2011 and 2012 results as a consequence of the removal of the writing test.

Nevertheless, the extent of this underachievement remains unacceptably high, with well over a quarter still not securing Level 5 in English and maths combined.

The 2+ levels of progress required under existing arrangements is arguably insufficiently challenging for the majority of high attainers anyway – as evidenced by the increasing numbers achieving Level 6 – so there is a hidden underachievement factor to superimpose on top of the published figures.

There are improvements in progression in English and maths when considered separately. Although the improvement in progression is about three times as fast in English as in maths, the percentage failing to secure Level 5 in English remains higher.

Moreover, the progression rate for high attainers continues to lag behind middle achievers in English, which would suggest that many are continuing to receive inadequately differentiated challenge and support.

Issues with the structure of the Performance Tables remain. The high attainers measure is insufficiently differentiated, especially since Level 6 test results do not feature as a separate measure in the Performance Tables.

And, since the existing measure is not applied to the Narrowing the Gap indicators, we have no way of knowing whether schools are neglecting high attainers from disadvantaged backgrounds relatively more or less than their more advantaged peers.

Finally, it has been confirmed that National Curriculum levels are shortly to disappear, but no information has yet been published about the means of recording achievement and progression in future – and how that will be reflected in Performance Tables, assuming they continue to exist.

So, although there is scope for some optimism in the short term, the medium term prospect remains decidedly uncertain.



December 2012