PISA 2012: International Comparison of High Achievers’ Performance


This post examines what PISA 2012 can tell us about the comparative performance of high achievers in England, other English-speaking countries and those that top the PISA rankings.

Introductory Brochure for PISA 2012 by Kristjan Paur

Introductory Brochure for PISA 2012 by Kristjan Paur

It draws on a similar range of evidence to that deployed in my post on the PISA 2009 results (December 2010).

A more recent piece, ‘The Performance of Gifted High Achievers in TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA’ (January 2013) is also relevant.

The post reviews:

  • How the PISA 2012 Assessment Framework defines reading, mathematical and scientific literacy and its definitions of high achievement in each of the three core domains.
  • How average (headline) performance on the three core measures has changed in each jurisdiction compared with PISA 2006 and PISA 2009.
  • By comparison, how high achievers’ performance – and the balance between high and low achievers’ performance – has changed in each jurisdiction over the same period.
  • How jurisdictions compare on the ‘all-rounder’ measure, derived from achievement of a high performance threshold on all three assessments.

The twelve jurisdictions included in the main analysis are: Australia, Canada, England, Finland, Hong Kong (China), Ireland, New Zealand, Shanghai (China), Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and the USA.

The post also compares the performance of the five home countries against the high achievement thresholds. I have foregrounded this analysis, which appears immediately below, save only for the headline (but potentially misleading) ‘top 10’ high achiever rankings for 2012.




World Leaders against PISA’s High Achievement Benchmarks

The top 10 performers in PISA 2012 against the high achievement benchmarks (Level 5 and above), in reading, maths and science respectively, are set out in Table 1 below.

The 2009 rankings are shown in brackets and the 2012 overall average rankings in bold, square brackets. I have also included England’s rankings.


Table 1

Rank Reading Maths Science
1 Shanghai (1) [1] Shanghai (1) [1] Shanghai (1) [1]
2 Singapore (3) [3] Singapore (2) [2] Singapore (2) [3]
3 Japan (5) [4] Taiwan (4) [4] Japan (5) [4]
4 Hong Kong (9) [2] Hong Kong (3) [3] Finland (3) [5]
5 S. Korea (6) [5] S Korea (5) [5] Hong Kong (6) [2]
6 N Zealand (2) [13] Liechtenstein (13) [8] Australia (7) [16]
7 Finland (4) [6] Macao (15) [6] N Zealand (4) [18]
8 Canada (7=) [8] Japan (8) [7] Estonia (17) [6]
9 France (13) [21] Switzerland (6) [9] Germany (8) [12]
10 Belgium (10) [16] Belgium (9) [15] [15] Netherlands (9) [14]
England 19th (19) [23] England 24th (32) [25] England 11th  (12) [18]


On the basis of these crude rankings alone, it is evident that Shanghai has maintained its ascendancy across all three domains.

Singapore has reinforced its runner-up position by overtaking New Zealand in reading. Hong Kong and Japan also make it into the top ten in all three domains.

Notable improvements in the rankings have been made by:

  • Japan, Hong Kong and France in reading
  • Liechtenstein and Macao in maths
  • Japan and Estonia in science



Jurisdictions falling down the rankings include:

  • Australia, New Zealand and Finland in reading
  • Finland and Switzerland in maths
  • Canada and New Zealand in science.

Those whose high achiever rankings significantly exceed their average rankings include:

  • New Zealand, France and Belgium in reading
  • Belgium in maths
  • Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the Netherlands in science

The only one of the top ten jurisdictions exhibiting the reverse pattern with any degree of significance is Hong Kong, in science.

On this evidence, England has maintained its relatively strong showing in science and a mid-table position in reading, but it has slipped several places in maths.

Comparing England’s rankings for high achievers with its rankings for average performance:

  • Reading 19th versus 23rd
  • Maths 24th versus 25th
  • Science 11th versus 18th

This suggests that England is substantively stronger at the top end of the achievement spectrum in science, slightly stronger in reading and almost identical in maths. (The analysis below explores whether this is borne out by the proportions of learners achieving the relevant PISA thresholds.)

Overall, these rankings suggest that England is a respectable performer at the top end, but nothing to write home about. It is not deteriorating, relatively speaking – with the possible exception of mathematics – but it is not improving significantly either. The imbalance is not atypical and it requires attention, but only as part of a determined effort to build performance at both ends.


Comparing the Home Countries’ Performance

Table 2 below shows how each home country has performed at Level 5 and above in each of the three core PISA assessments since 2006.


Table 2

  2012 Level 5+ 2009 Level 5+ 2006 Level 5+
  Read Maths Sci Read Maths Sci Read Maths Sci
England 9.1 12.4 11.7 8.1 9.9 11.6 9.2 11.2 14.0
N Ireland 8.3 10.3 10.3 9.3 10.3 11.8 10.4 12.2 13.9
Scotland 7.8 10.9 8.8 9.2 12.3 11.0 8.5 12.1 12.5
Wales 4.7 5.3 5.7 5.0 5.0 7.8 6.4 7.2 10.9
UK 8.8 11.9 11.1 8.0 9.9 11.4 9.0 11.2 13.8
OECD average 8.4 12.6 8.4 7.6 12.7 8.5 8.6 13.3 9.0


In 2012, England is ahead of the other home countries in all three domains. Northern Ireland is runner-up in reading and science, Scotland in maths. Wales is a long way behind the other four in all three assessments.

Only England tops the OECD average in reading. All the home countries fall below the OECD average in maths, though all but Wales are above it in science.

Compared with 2006, England’s performance has changed little in reading, increased somewhat in maths (having fallen back betweentimes) and fallen quite significantly in science.

In comparison, Northern Ireland is on a downward trend in all three domains, as is Scotland (though it produced small improvements in maths and reading in 2009). Wales has fallen back significantly in science, though somewhat less so in reading and maths.

It seems that none of the home countries is particularly outstanding when it comes to the performance of their high achievers, but England is the strongest of the four, while Wales is clearly the weakest.

A slightly different perspective can be gained by comparing high and low performance in 2012.

Table 3 below shows that the proportion of low achievers is comfortably larger than the proportion of high achievers. This is true of all the home countries and all subjects, though the difference is less pronounced in science across the board and also in Scotland. Conversely, the imbalance is much more significant in Wales.


Table 3

2012 Reading Maths Science
  L5+6 L1+below L5+6 L1+below L5+6 L1+below
England 9.1 16.7 12.4 21.7 11.7 14.9
N Ireland 8.3 16.7 10.3 24.1 10.3 16.8
Scotland 7.8 12.5 10.9 18.2 8.8 12.1
Wales 4.7 20.6 5.3 29.0 5.7 19.4
UK 8.8 16.7 11.9 21.8 11.1 15.0
OECD average 8.4 8.4 12.6 23.0 8.4 17.8


The ‘tail’ in reading is significantly higher than the OECD average in all four countries but – with the exception of Wales – somewhat lower in science.

In maths, the ‘tail’ is higher than the OECD average in Wales and Northern Ireland, but below average in England and Scotland.

The average figures suggest that, across the OECD as a whole, the top and bottom are broadly balanced in reading, there is a small imbalance in science towards the bottom end and a more significant imbalance in maths, again towards the bottom end.

By comparison, the home countries have a major issue at the bottom in reading, but are less significantly out of line in maths and science.

Overall, there is some evidence here of a longish tail of low achievement, but with considerable variation according to country and domain.

The bottom line is that all of the home countries have significant issues to address at both the top and the bottom of the achievement distribution. Any suggestion that they need to concentrate exclusively on low achievers is not supported by this evidence.


Francois Peron National Park by Gifted Phoenix 2013

Francois Peron National Park by Gifted Phoenix 2013


Background to PISA


What is PISA?

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial OECD survey of the performance of 15 year-old students which typically covers maths, science and reading. Science was the main focus in 2006, reading in 2009 and maths in 2012.

PISA 2012 also included a computer-based assessment of problem-solving and a financial literacy assessment. However, some jurisdictions did not participate in the problem-solving exercise owing to ‘technical issues’ and financial literacy was undertaken by some countries only, as an optional extra.

Fifty-eight jurisdictions took part in PISA 2006 and 74 in PISA 2009 (65 undertook the assessment in 2009 and a further nine did so in 2010).

To date, a total of 65 jurisdictions have also taken part in PISA 2012.

According to the OECD’s own FAQ:

  • PISA tests reading, mathematical and scientific literacy ‘in terms of general competencies, that is, how well students can apply the knowledge and skills they have learned at school to real-life challenges. PISA does not test how well a student has mastered a school’s specific curriculum.’
  • Student performance in each field is comparable between assessments – one cannot reasonably argue therefore that a drop in performance is attributable to a more difficult assessment.
  • Each participating jurisdiction receives an overall score in each subject area – the average of all its students’ scores. The average score among OECD countries is set at 500 points (with a standard deviation of 100 points).
  • Participating jurisdictions are ranked in each subject area according to their mean scores, but:

‘is not possible to assign a single exact rank in each subject to each country…because PISA tests only a sample of students from each country and this result is then adjusted to reflect the whole population of 15-year-old students in that country. The scores thus reflect a small measure of statistical uncertainty and it is therefore only possible to report the range of positions (upper rank and lower rank) within which a country can be placed.’

Outside the confines of reports by the OECD and its national contractors, this is honoured more in the breach than the observance.

  • Scores are derived from scales applied to each subject area. Each scale is divided into levels, Level 1 being the lowest and Level 6 typically the highest

Further background detail on the 2012 assessments is set out in the ‘PISA 2012 Assessment and Analytical Framework’ (2013).

This explains that the framework for assessing maths was completely revised ahead of the 2012 cycle and ‘introduces three new mathematical processes that form the basis of developments in the reporting of PISA mathematics outcomes’, whereas those for science and reading were unchanged (the science framework was revised when it was the main focus in 2006 and ditto for reading in 2009).

The Framework clarifies the competency-based approach summarised in the FAQ:

‘ISA focuses on competencies that 15-year-old students will need in the future and seeks to assess what they can do with what they have learnt – reflecting the ability of students to continue learning throughout their lives by applying what they learn in school to non-school environments, evaluating their choices and making decisions. The assessment is informed, but not constrained, by the common denominator of national curricula. Thus, while it does assess students’ knowledge, PISA also examines their ability to reflect, and to apply their knowledge and experience to real-life issues in a reflective way. For example, in order to understand and evaluate scientific advice on food safety, an adult would need not only to know some basic facts about the composition of nutrients, but also to be able to apply that information.’

It explains that between 4,500 and 10,000 students drawn from 150 schools are typically tested in each jurisdiction.

Initial reports suggested that England would not take part in the 2012 assessments of problem-solving and financial literacy, but it subsequently emerged that this decision had been reversed in respect of problem-solving.


Setting PISA Outcomes in Context

There are plenty of reasons why one should not place excessive weight on PISA outcomes:

  • The headline rankings carry a significant health warning, which remains important, even though it is commonly ignored.

‘As the PISA 2000 and PISA 2003 samples for the United Kingdom did not meet the PISA response-rate standards, no trend comparisons are possible for these years.’ (p.1)

Hence, for the UK at least, reliable comparisons with pre-2006 results are off the table.

‘The pressure from policymakers for advice based on PISA interacts with this unhealthy mix of policy and technical people. The technical experts make sure that the appropriate caveats are noted, but the warnings are all too often ignored by the needs of the policy arm of PISA. As a result, PISA reports often list the known problems with the data, but then the policy advice flows as though those problems didn’t exist. Consequently, some have argued that PISA has become a vehicle for policy advocacy in which advice is built on flimsy data and flawed analysis.’

  • PISA is not the only game in town. TIMSS and PIRLS are equally significant, though relatively more focused on content knowledge, whereas PISA is primarily concerned with the application of skills in real life scenarios.
  • There are big political risks associated with worshipping at the PISA altar for, if the next set of outcomes is disappointing, the only possible escape route is to blame the previous administration, a strategy that wears increasingly thin with the electorate the longer the current administration has been in power.



It would be quite wrong to dismiss PISA results out of hand, however. They are a significant indicator of the comparative performance of national (and regional) education systems. But they are solely an indicator, rather than a statement of fact.


What is assessed – and what constitutes high achievement – in each domain

The Assessment and Analytical Framework provides definitions of each domain and level descriptors for each level within the assessments.


Mathematical Literacy

The PISA 2012 mathematics framework defines mathematical literacy as:

‘An individual’s capacity to formulate, employ and interpret mathematics in a variety of contexts. It includes reasoning mathematically and using mathematical concepts, procedures, facts and tools to describe, explain and predict phenomena. It assists individuals to recognise the role that mathematics plays in the world and to make the well-founded judgments and decisions needed by constructive, engaged and reflective citizens.’

Three aspects of maths are identified:

  • Mathematical processes and the fundamental capabilities underlying them. Three processes are itemised: formulating situations mathematically; employing mathematical concepts, facts, procedures and reasoning; and interpreting, applying and evaluating mathematical outcomes. The capabilities are: communication; mathematizing (transforming a real life problem to a mathematical form); representation; reasoning and argument; devising problem-solving strategies; using symbolic, formal and technical language and operations; and using mathematical tools.
  • Content knowledge, comprising four elements: change and relationships; space and shape; quantity; and uncertainty and data.
  • The contexts in which mathematical challenges are presented: personal; occupational; societal and scientific.

Six levels are identified within the PISA 2012 mathematics scale’. The top two are described thus:

  • ‘At Level 6 students can conceptualise, generalise and utilise information based on their investigations and modelling of complex problem situations. They can link different information sources and representations and flexibly translate among them. Students at this level are capable of advanced mathematical thinking and reasoning. These students can apply their insight and understandings along with a mastery of symbolic and formal mathematical operations and relationships to develop new approaches and strategies for attacking novel situations. Students at this level can formulate and precisely communicate their actions and reflections regarding their findings, interpretations, arguments and the appropriateness of these to the original situations.’
  • ‘At Level 5 students can develop and work with models for complex situations, identifying constraints and specifying assumptions. They can select, compare and evaluate appropriate problem-solving strategies for dealing with complex problems related to these models. Students at this level can work strategically using broad, well-developed thinking and reasoning skills, appropriate linked representations, symbolic and formal characterisations and insight pertaining to these situations. They can reflect on their actions and formulate and communicate their interpretations and reasoning.’


Reading literacy

Reading Literacy is defined as:

‘An individual’s capacity to understand, use, reflect on and engage with written texts, in order to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate in society.’

The assessment ‘is built on three major task characteristics’:

  • Situation – the context or purpose for which reading takes place, which may be personal (practical and intellectual interests), public (activities and concerns of society), educational (for learning purposes) or occupational (accomplishment of a task).
  • Text – the range of material that is read, which may be print or digital. In the case of digital text, the environment may be authored (the reader is receptive), message based, or mixed. In the case of both print and digital text, the format may be continuous (sentences and paragraphs), non-continuous (eg graphs, lists), mixed or multiple, while the text type may be description, narration, exposition, argumentation, instruction or transaction.
  • Aspect – how readers engage with the text, which includes accessing and retrieving; integrating and interpreting; and reflecting and evaluating.

Separate proficiency scales are provided for print and digital reading respectively. Both describe achievement in terms of the task rather than the student.

The print reading scale has six levels (Level One is subdivided into two). The top levels are described as follows:

  • Level 6: Tasks at this level typically require the reader to make multiple inferences, comparisons and contrasts that are both detailed and precise. They require demonstration of a full and detailed understanding of one or more texts and may involve integrating information from more than one text. Tasks may require the reader to deal with unfamiliar ideas, in the presence of prominent competing information, and to generate abstract categories for interpretations. Reflect and evaluate tasks may require the reader to hypothesise about or critically evaluate a complex text on an unfamiliar topic, taking into account multiple criteria or perspectives, and applying sophisticated understandings from beyond the text. A salient condition for access and retrieve tasks at this level is precision of analysis and fine attention to detail that is inconspicuous in the texts.
  • Level 5: Tasks at this level that involve retrieving information require the reader to locate and organise several pieces of deeply embedded information, inferring which information in the text is relevant. Reflective tasks require critical evaluation or hypothesis, drawing on specialised knowledge. Both interpretative and reflective tasks require a full and detailed understanding of a text whose content or form is unfamiliar. For all aspects of reading, tasks at this level typically involve dealing with concepts that are contrary to expectations.

For digital reading there are only four levels, categorised as 2-5. Level 5 is described thus:

‘Tasks at this level typically require the reader to locate, analyse and critically evaluate information, related to an unfamiliar context, in the presence of ambiguity. They require generating criteria to evaluate the text. Tasks may require navigation across multiple sites without explicit direction, and detailed interrogation of texts in a variety of formats.’


Scientific literacy

Scientific literacy is defined as:

‘An individual’s scientific knowledge and use of that knowledge to identify questions, to acquire new knowledge, to explain scientific phenomena, and to draw evidence-based conclusions about science-related issues, understanding of the characteristic features of science as a form of human knowledge and enquiry, awareness of how science and technology shape our material, intellectual, and cultural environments, and willingness to engage in science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen.’

The domain consists of four interrelated aspects:

  • Context – life situations involving science and technology. Contexts are personal, social or global and may relate to health, natural resources, environment, hazard or the frontiers of science and technology.
  • Knowledge – knowledge of the natural world (covering physical systems, living systems, earth and space systems and technology systems) and knowledge about science itself (scientific enquiry and scientific explanations).
  • Competencies , of which  three are identified: identify scientific issues, explain phenomena scientifically and use scientific evidence.
  • Attitudes, including an interest in science, support for scientific enquiry and a motivation to act responsibly towards the natural world.

A 6-level proficiency scale is defined with the top levels explained as follows:

  • At Level 6, students can consistently identify, explain and apply scientific knowledge and knowledge about science in a variety of complex life situations. They can link different information sources and explanations and use evidence from those sources to justify decisions. They clearly and consistently demonstrate advanced scientific thinking and reasoning, and they use their scientific understanding in support of solutions to unfamiliar scientific and technological situations. Students at this level can use scientific knowledge and develop arguments in support of recommendations and decisions that centre on personal, social or global situations.
  • At Level 5, students can identify the scientific components of many complex life situations, apply both scientific concepts and knowledge about science to these situations, and can compare, select and evaluate appropriate scientific evidence for responding to life situations. Students at this level can use well-developed inquiry abilities, link knowledge appropriately and bring critical insights to situations. They can construct explanations based on evidence and arguments based on their critical analysis.


Denham Sunset by Gifted Phoenix

Denham Sunset by Gifted Phoenix


 Changes in Average Performance in Reading, Maths and Science

The OECD published PISA outcomes for maths, science and reading on 3 December 2013.

Similarly, the PISA National Report on England, published simultaneously, covers the three core assessments.

This section looks briefly at the headline average scores and rankings across the selected sample of twelve jurisdictions, principally to enable comparisons to be drawn with the subsequent analysis of high achievers’ performance.

I apologise in advance for any transcription errors. Please let me know if you spot any and I will correct the tables accordingly.



Table 4 below gives the headline average numerical scores and ranks in reading from PISA 2006, 2009 and 2012 respectively.


Table 4

Country 2012 2009 2006
score rank score rank score rank
Australia 512↓ 13↓ 515↑ 9↓ 513 7
Canada 523↓ 8↓ 524↓ 6↓ 527 4
Finland 524↓ 6↓ 536↓ 3↓ 547 2
Hong Kong 545↑ 2↑ 533↓ 4↓ 536 3
Ireland 523↑ 7↑ 496↓ 21↓ 517 6
S Korea 536↓ 5↓ 539↓ 2↓ 556 1
New Zealand 512↓ 13↓ 521 7↓ 521 5
Shanghai 570↑ 1= 556 1 N/A N/A
Singapore 542↑ 3↑ 526 5 N/A N/A
Taiwan 523↑ 8↑ 495↓ 23↓ 496 16
UK (England) 500↑ 23↑ 495↓ 25↓ 496 17
US 498↓ 24↓ 500 17 N/A N/A
OECD Average 496↑ 493↓ 495


Shanghai has retained the ascendancy it established in 2009, adding a further 14 points to its average 2009 score. Whereas it was only 17 points beyond its nearest competitor in 2009, that lead has now been extended to 25 points.

South Korea’s performance has fallen slightly and it has been leapfrogged in the rankings by Hong Kong (up 12 points), Singapore (up 16 points), and Japan (not included in the table).

Two countries making even more significant improvements are Taiwan (up 28 points) and Ireland (up 27 points). Conversely, the performance of Finland (down 12 points) and New Zealand (down 9 points) has noticeably declined. Finland’s performance has been declining since 2006.

Results remain broadly unchanged in Australia, Canada, England, South Korea and the USA. South Korea has been unable to make up the ground it lost in 2009.

Ireland’s huge improvement from a very similar starting point in 2009 throws England’s lack of progress into sharper relief, although it is largely catching up lost ground in 2009, having performed relatively well in 2006.

England, like the US, continues to perform slightly above the OECD average, but has fallen further behind the Asian Tigers. The gap with the world’s leader in each assessment is now 70 points (up from 60 in 2006),



Table 5 below sets out scores and rankings in maths since PISA 2006


Table 5

Country 2012 2009 2006
  score rank score rank score rank
Australia 504↓ 19↓ 514↓ 15↓ 520 13
Canada 518↓ 13↓ 527= 10↓ 527 7
Finland 519↓ 12↓ 541↓ 6↓ 548 2
Hong Kong 561↑ 3= 555↑ 3 547 3
Ireland 501↑ 20↑ 487↓ 32↓ 501 22
S Korea 554↑ 5↓ 546↓ 4 547 4
New Zealand 500↓ 23↓ 519↓ 13↓ 522 11
Shanghai 613↑ 1= 600 1 N/A N/A
Singapore 573↑ 2= 562 2 N/A N?A
Taiwan 560↑ 4↑ 543↓ 5↓ 549 1
UK (England) 495↑ 25↑ 493↓ 27↓ 495 24
US 481↓ 36↓ 487↑ 31↑ 474 35
OECD Average 494↓   496↓   497  


The overall picture is rather similar to that for reading.

Shanghai (up 13 points) and Singapore (up 11 points) continue to stretch away at the head of the field. Taiwan (up 17 points) has also made significant improvement and is now close behind Hong Kong.

There has been relatively more modest improvement in Hong Kong and South Korea (which has been overtaken by Taiwan).

Elsewhere, Ireland has again made significant headway and is back to the level it achieved in 2006. But Finland’s score has plummeted 22 points. New Zealand is not far behind (down 19). There have also been significant falls in the performance of Australia (down 10) Canada (down 9) and the US (down 6).

The US is now trailing 13 points below the OECD average, having failed to sustain the substantial improvement it made in 2009.

In England meanwhile, results are largely unchanged, though now just above the OECD average rather than just below it.

The gap between England and world leader Shanghai has reached 118 points, compared with a gap in 2006 between England and world leader Taiwan of 54 points. The gap between England and its main Commonwealth competitors has narrowed, but only as a consequence of the significant declines in the latter.



Table 6 below provides the same data in respect of science.


Table 6

Country 2012 2009 2006
  score rank score rank score rank
Australia 521↓ 16↓ 527= 10↓ 527 8
Canada 525↓ 10↓ 529↓ 8↓ 534 3
Finland 545↓ 5↓ 554↓ 2↓ 563 1
Hong Kong 555↑ 2↑ 549↑ 3↓ 542 2
Ireland 522↑ 15↑ 508 20 508 20
S Korea 538= 7↓ 538↑ 6↑ 522 11
New Zealand 516↓ 18↓ 532↑ 7 530 7
Shanghai 580↑ 1= 575 1 N/A N/A
Singapore 551↑ 3↑ 542 4 N/A N/A
Taiwan 523↑ 13↓ 520↓ 12↓ 532 4
UK (England) 516↑ 18↓ 515↓ 16↓ 516 14
US 497↓ 28↓ 502↑ 23↑ 489 29
OECD Average 501=   501↑   498  


Shanghai is again out in front, having repeated the clean sweep it achieved in 2009.

However, it has managed only a 5-point improvement, while Taiwan has improved by 13 points and Singapore by 9 points. Hong Kong has moved up by 6 points and Taiwan by 3 points, but South Korea’s score is unchanged from 2009.

New Zealand has dropped by 16 points and Finland by 9 points compared with 2009. There have been comparatively smaller declines in Australia and Canada, while Ireland has once again improved dramatically, by 14 points, and – in this case – the improvement is not simply clawing back ground lost in 2009.

England remains comfortably above the OECD average, but has made negligible improvement since 2006. US performance has dropped back below the OECD average as it has lost some of the ground it made up in 2009.

The gap between England and the world leaders is comparable with that in maths and significantly lower than in reading. The gap is now 64 points, compared with just 47 points in 2006.



Overall, the Asian Tigers have consolidated their positions by maintaining improvement in all three domains, though South Korea appears to be struggling to maintain the success of earlier years.

Finland and New Zealand are in worrying decline while Ireland is making rapid progress in the opposite direction.



The US results are stagnant, remaining comparatively poor, particularly in maths.

England has broadly maintained its existing performance profile, neither improving nor declining significantly. But, it is conspicuously losing ground on the world leaders, especially in maths. Other than in science it is close to the OECD average.

There is nothing here to give comfort to either the previous Government or the present incumbents. There might be some limited relief – even a degree of shadenfreude – in the fact that several better-placed nations are falling back more severely. But of course one cannot win the ‘global race’ by simply standing still.


Floral by Gifted Phoenix

Floral by Gifted Phoenix


Changes in High Achievers’ Performance

So much for the average headline figures.

The remainder of this post is focused on  high achievement data. The ensuing sections once more examine reading, maths and science in that order, followed by a section on all-rounders.



Table 7 shows how the percentage achieving higher levels in reading has changed since PISA 2006, providing separate columns for Level 6 and above level 5 respectively (there was no Level 6 in 2006)..


Table 7

Country 2012 2009 2006
Level 6 Levels 5 and 6 Level 6 Levels 5+6 Level 5
Australia 1.9 11.7 2.1 12.8 10.6
Canada 2.1 12.9 1.8 12.8 14.5
Finland 2.2 13.5 1.6 14.5 16.7
Hong Kong 1.9 16.8 1.2 12.4 12.8
Ireland 1.3 11.4 0.7 7.0 11.7
S Korea 1.6 14.2 1.0 12.9 21.7
New Zealand 3.0 13.9 2.9 15.8 15.9
Shanghai 3.8 25.1 2.4 19.4 N/A
Singapore 5.0 21.2 2.6 15.7 N/A
Taiwan 1.4 11.8 0.4 5.2 4.7
UK (England) 1.3 9.1 1.0 8.1 9.2
US 1.0 7.9 1.5 9.9 N/A
OECD Average 1.1 8.4 1.0 7.0 8.6


This reveals that:

  • In 2012, Singapore has a clear lead on its competitors at Level 6, but it is overtaken by Shanghai at Level 5 and above. New Zealand also remains comparatively strong at Level 6, but falls back significantly when Levels 5 and 6 are combined.
  • The other Asian Tigers do not perform outstandingly well at Level 6: Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan are all below 2.0%, behind Canada and Finland. However, all but Taiwan outscore their competitors when Levels 5 and 6 are combined.
  • Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and Taiwan are all making fairly strong progress over time. Patterns are rather less discernible for other countries, though there is a downward trend in the US.
  • In Finland, New Zealand and Canada – countries that seem to be falling back overall – the percentage of Level 6 readers continues to improve. This might suggest that the proportion of the highest performers in reading is not significantly affected when national performance begins to slide.
  • When judged against these world leaders, England’s comparative performance is brought into much clearer perspective. At Level 6 it is not far behind Taiwan, South Korea and even Hong Kong. But, at Level 5 and above, the gap is somewhat more pronounced. England is improving, but very slowly.
  • The comparison with Taiwan is particularly stark. In 2006, England had roughly twice as many students performing at Level 5. By 2009 Taiwan had caught up some of this ground and, by 2012, it had overtaken.

Table 8 compares changes since PISA 2006 in national performance at Level 5 and above with changes at Level 1 and below.

This is intended to reveal the balance between top and bottom – and whether this sample of world-leading and other English-speaking jurisdictions is making consistent progress at either end of the spectrum.


 Table 8

Country Levels 5 (and 6 from 2009) Level 1 (or equivalent) and below
2006 2009 2012 2006 2009 2012
Australia 10.6 12.8 11.7 13.4 14.3 14.2
Canada 14.5 12.8 12.9 11.0 10.3 10.9
Finland 16.7 14.5 13.5 4.8 8.1 11.3
Hong Kong 12.8 12.4 16.8 7.2 8.3 6.8
Ireland 11.7 7.0 11.4 12.2 17.2 9.7
S Korea 21.7 12.9 14.2 5.7 5.8 7.6
New Zealand 15.9 15.8 13.9 14.6 14.3 16.3
Shanghai N/A 19.4 25.1 N/A 4.1 2.9
Singapore N/A 15.7 21.2 N/A 12.4 9.9
Taiwan 4.7 5.2 11.8 14.3 15.6 11.5
UK (England) 9.2 8.1 9.1 18.9 18.4 16.7
US N/A 9.9 7.9 N/A 17.7 16.7
OECD Average 8.6 7.0 8.4 20.1 18.8 18


We can see that:

  • The countries with the highest proportion of students at Level 5 and above tend to have the lowest proportion at Level 1 and below. In Shanghai in 2012, there is a 22% percentage point gap between these two populations and fewer than 3 in every hundred fall into the lower attaining group.
  • Singapore is much closer to Shanghai at the top end than it is at the bottom. But even Shanghai seems to be making faster progress at the top than at the bottom, which might suggest that it is approaching the point at which the proportion of low achievers cannot be further reduced.
  • Compared with Hong Kong and South Korea, Singapore has a higher proportion of both high achievers and low achievers.
  • Whereas Taiwan had three times as many low achievers as high achievers in 2006, by 2012 the proportions were broadly similar, but progress at the top end is much faster than at the bottom.
  • The decline in Finland has less to do with performance at the top end (which has fallen by three percentage points) than with performance at the bottom (which has increased by more than six percentage points).
  • Canada has consistently maintained a higher percentage of high achievers than low achievers, but the reverse is true in Australia. In New Zealand the percentage at the top is declining and the percentage at the bottom is increasing. The gap between the two has narrowed slightly in England, but not significantly so.
  • To catch up with Shanghai, England has to close a gap of some 16 percentage points at the top end, compared with one of around 14 percentage points at the bottom.

The PISA National Report on England offers some additional analysis, noting that 18 jurisdictions had a higher proportion of pupils than England at Level 5 or above in 2012, including all those that outperformed England overall (with the exception of Estonia and Macao), and also France and Norway.

The National Report relies more heavily on comparing the performance of learners at the 5th and 95th percentiles in each country, arguing that:

‘This is a better measure for comparing countries than using the lowest and highest scoring pupils, as such a comparison may be affected by a small number of pupils in a country with unusually high or low scores.’

This is true in the sense that a minimum sample of 4,500 PISA participants would result in fewer than 100 at Level 6 in many jurisdictions.

On the other hand, the National Report fails to point out that analysis on this basis is not particularly informative about comparative achievement of the criterion-referenced standards denoted by the PISA thresholds.

It says rather more about the spread of performance in each country and rather less about direct international comparisons.

Key points include:

  • In England the score of learners at the 5th percentile was 328, compared with 652 at the 95th percentile. This difference of 324 points is slightly larger than the OECD average difference of 310 points. More than two-thirds of OECD countries had a smaller difference between these percentiles.
  • Compared with PISA 2012, the score of high achievers at the 95th percentile in PISA 2009 increased by six points to 652, while the score of low achievers at the 5th percentile fell by six points to 328. This increase in the attainment gap is higher than in 2009 (312) but lower than in 2006 (337). Thirteen OECD countries reported a wider spread of attainment than England.
  • Of countries outperforming England, only Japan (325 points), Singapore (329 points) Belgium (339 points) and New Zealand (347 points) demonstrated a similar or wider spread of attainment. Shanghai had the lowest difference (259 points) followed by Estonia (263).
  • The strongest performing jurisdictions at the 95th percentile were Singapore (698), Shanghai (690) and Japan (689), compared with 652 for England.
  • Amongst jurisdictions ranked higher than England, only the Netherlands, Liechtenstein, Estonia and Macao secured a lower score at the 95th percentile. Only Belgium reported a lower score at the 5th percentile.



Turning to maths, Table 9 illustrates changes in the pattern of high achievement since 2006, again showing the percentages performing at Level 6 and above Level 5 respectively.


Table 9

Country 2012 2009 2006
  Level 6 Levels 5 + 6 Level 6 Levels 5+6 Level 6 Levels 5+6
Australia 4.3 14.8 4.5 16.4 4.3 16.4
Canada 4.3 16.4 4.4 18.3 4.4 18
Finland 3.5 15.2 4.9 21.6 6.3 24.4
Hong Kong 12.3 33.4 10.8 30.7 9 27.7
Ireland 2.2 10.7 0.9 6.7 1.6 10.2
S Korea 12.1 30.9 7.8 25.5 9.1 27.1
New Zealand 4.5 15.0 5.3 18.9 5.7 18.9
Shanghai 30.8 55.4 26.6 50.7 N/A N/A
Singapore 19.0 40.0 15.6 35.6 N/A N/A
Taiwan 18.0 37.2 11.3 28.5 11.8 31.9
UK (England) 3.1 12.4 1.7 9.9 2.5 11.2
US 2.2 9.0 1.9 9.9 1.3 7.7
Average 3.3 12.6 3.1 12.7 3.3 13.4


The variations between countries tend to be far more pronounced than in reading:

  • There is a huge 28 percentage point spread in performance at Level 6 within this sample – from 2% to 30% – compared with a three percentage point spread in reading. The spread at Level 5 and above is also significantly larger – 46 percentage points compared with 17 percentage points in reading.
  • Shanghai has an 11 percentage point lead over its nearest competitor at Level 6 and an even larger 15 percentage point lead for Level 5 and above. Moreover it has improved significantly on both counts since 2009. Well over half its sample is now performing at Level 5 or above and almost a third are at Level 6.
  • Singapore and Taiwan are the next best performers, both relatively close together. Both are improving but, following a small dip in 2009, Taiwan is improving at a faster rate – faster even than Shanghai.
  • Hong Kong and South Korea also have similar 2012 profiles, as they did back in 2006. South Korea also lost ground in 2009, but is now improving at a faster rate than Hong Kong.
  • Finland appears to be experiencing quite significant decline: the proportion of Level 6 performers in 2012 is not far short of half what it was in 2006 and performance above Level 5 has fallen by more than nine percentage points. This is a somewhat different pattern to reading, in that the top performers are also suffering from the overall decline.



  • Australia, Canada and New Zealand have maintained broadly the same performance over time, though all are showing a slight falling off at Level 5 and above, and in New Zealand this also applies at Level 6.
  • After a serious slump in 2006, Ireland has overtaken its 2006 position. Meanwhile, the US has been making some progress at Level 6 but is less convincing at Level 5 and above.
  • Once again, this comparison does not particularly flatter England. It is not too far behind the Commonwealth countries and declining Finland at Level 6 but the gap is slightly larger at Level 5 and above. That said, England has consistently performed below the OECD average and remains in that position.
  • There are, however, some grounds for domestic celebration, in that England has improved by 2.5% at Level 5 and above, and by 1.4% at Level 6. This rate of improvement bears comparison with Hong Kong, albeit from a much lower base. It suggests a narrowing gap between England and its Commonwealth counterparts.

Table 10 gives the comparison with achievement at the bottom end of the distribution, setting out the percentages performing at different levels.


Table 10

Country Levels 5 and 6 Level 1 and below
  2006 2009 2012 2006 2009 2012
Australia 16.4 16.4 14.8 13.0 15.9 18.6
Canada 18 18.3 16.4 10.8 11.4 13.8
Finland 24.4 21.6 15.2 5.9 7.8 12.2
Hong Kong 27.7 30.7 33.4 9.5 8.8 8.5
Ireland 10.2 6.7 10.7 16.4 20.9 16.9
S Korea 27.1 25.5 30.9 8.8 8.1 9.1
New Zealand 18.9 18.9 15.0 14.0 15.5 22.6
Shanghai N/A 50.7 55.4 N/A 4.8 3.7
Singapore N/A 35.6 40.0 N/A 9.8 8.3
Taiwan 31.9 28.5 37.2 11.9 12.8 12.8
UK (England) 11.2 9.9 12.4 19.9 19.8 21.7
US 7.7 9.9 9.0 28.1 23.4 25.9
Average 13.4 12.7 12.6 21.3 22.0 23.0


Key points include:

  • The same pattern is discernible amongst the strongest performers as was evident with reading: those with the highest percentages at the top end tend to have the lowest percentages at the bottom. If anything this distinction is even more pronounced. Shanghai records a 52 percentage point gap between its highest and lowest performers and the latter group is only slightly larger than the comparable group in the reading assessment.
  • Amongst the Asian Tigers, the ratio between top and bottom is at least 3:1 in favour of the top. For most of the other countries in the sample, there is never more than a 7 percentage point gap between top and bottom, but this stretches to 9 in the case of England and 13 for the USA. Needless to say, the low achievers are in the majority in both cases.
  • Although the percentages for top and bottom in Australia are broadly comparable, it has shifted since 2006 from a position where the top end was in the majority by 3 percentage points to almost a mirror image of that pattern. In New Zealand, the lower achievers have increased by almost 9 percentage points, almost double the rate of decline at the top end, as their ‘long tail’ grows significantly longer.
  • Apart from Shanghai, only Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea have fewer than 10% in the lower performing category. Despite its reputation as a meritocratic environment, Singapore gets much closer to Shanghai at the bottom of the distribution than it does at the top. The same is true of Hong Kong and South Korea.
  • It is also noticeable that none of the Tigers is making extraordinary progress at the bottom end. Hong Kong has reduced this population by 1% since 2003, Singapore by 1.5% since 2006, Shanghai by only 0.9% since 2006. The percentage has increased in South Korea and Taiwan. Improvement has been significantly stronger at the top of the distribution. Again this might suggest that the Tigers are closing in on the point where they cannot improve further at the bottom end.
  • In Finland, the percentage achieving the higher levels has fallen by over 9 percentage points since 2006, while the increase at the lower levels is over 6 percentage points. This compares with a 3 point fall at the top and a 6 point rise at the bottom in reading. The slump amongst Finland’s high achievers is clearly more pronounced in maths.
  • England’s 9.3 percentage point gap between the top and bottom groups in 2012 is lightly larger than the 8.7 point gap in 2006. It has a whopping 43 percentage point gap to make up on Shanghai at the top end, and an 18 point gap at the bottom. England is just on the right side of the OECD average at the bottom and just on the wrong side at the top.



The National Report notes that all jurisdictions ahead of England in the rankings had a higher percentage of learners at Level 5 or above.

As for percentiles

  • The difference between the 5th percentile (335 points) and the 95th percentile (652 points) was 316 in England. The average difference for OECD countries was 301, only slightly lower than that.
  • Ten countries had a greater difference than this, five of them amongst those the highest overall mean scores. Others were Israel, Belgium, Slovakia, New Zealand and France.
  • Whereas the difference between the lowest and highest percentiles has increased very slightly across all OECD countries, this is more pronounced in England, increasing from 285 points in 2009 to 316 points in 2012. This is attributable to decreasing scores at the 5th percentile (350 in 2006, 349 in 2009 and 335 in 2012) compared with changes at the 95th percentile (643 in 2006, 634 in 2009 and 652 in 2012).



Table 11 compares the performance of this sample of PISA participants at the higher levels in the science assessment on the last three occasions.


Table 11

Country 2012 2009 2006
  Level 6 Levels 5 + 6 Level 6 Levels 5+6 Level 6 Levels 5+6
Australia 2.6 13.5 3.1 14.6 2.8 14.6
Canada 1.8 11.3 1.6 12.1 2.4 14.4
Finland 3.2 17.1 3.3 18.7 3.9 20.9
Hong Kong 1.8 16.7 2 16.2 2.1 15.9
Ireland 1.5 10.8 1.2 8.7 1.1 9.4
S Korea 1.1 11.7 1.1 11.6 1.1 10.3
New Zealand 2.7 13.4 3.6 17.6 4 17.6
Shanghai 4.2 27.2 3.9 24.3 N/A N/A
Singapore 5.8 22.7 4.6 19.9 N/A N/A
Taiwan 0.6 8.4 0.8 8.8 1.7 14.6
UK (England) 1.9 11.7 1.9 11.6 3.0 14.0
US 1.1 7.4 1.3 9.2 1.5 9.1
Average 1.2 8.4 1.1 8.5 1.3 8.8


In science, the pattern of high achievement has more in common with reading than maths. It shows that:

  • There is again a relatively narrow spread of performance between this sample of jurisdictions – approaching five percentage points at Level 6 and 20 percentage points at Level 5 and above.
  • As in reading, Singapore outscores Shanghai at the top level 6, but is outperformed by Shanghai at Level 5 and above. Both are showing steady improvement, but Singapore’s improvement at Level 6 is more pronounced than Shanghai’s.
  • Finland remains the third best performer, although the proportion of learners achieving at both Level 6 and Level 5 plus has been declining slightly since 2006.
  • Another similarity with reading is that Australia, Finland and New Zealand all perform significantly better at Level 6 than Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan. Hong Kong alone performs equally well at Level 5 and above. None of these three Asian Tigers has made significant progress since 2006.
  • In Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US there has also been relatively little progress over time – indeed some evidence to suggest a slight decline. Conversely, Ireland seems to be moving forward again after a slight dip at Level 5 and above in 2009.



  • England was a strong performer in 2006, broadly comparable with many of its competitors. But it fell back significantly in 2009 and has made no progress since then. The proportions are holding up but there is no substantive improvement since 2009, unlike in maths and (to a lesser extent) reading. However England continues to perform somewhat higher than the OECD average. There is an interesting parallel with Taiwan, although that country dipped even further than England in 2009.

Table 12 provides the comparison with the proportions achieving the lower thresholds.


Table 12

Country Levels 5 and 6 Levels 1 and Below
  2006 2009 2012 2006 2009 2012
Australia 14.6 14.6 13.5 12.8 12.6 13.6
Canada 14.4 12.1 11.3 10.0 9.5 10.4
Finland 20.9 18.7 17.1 4.1 6.0 7.7
Hong Kong 15.9 16.2 16.7 8.7 6.6 5.6
Ireland 9.4 8.7 10.8 15.5 15.1 11.1
S Korea 10.3 11.6 11.7 11.2 6.3 6.7
New Zealand 17.6 17.6 13.4 13.7 13.4 16.3
Shanghai N/A 24.3 27.2 N/A 3.2 2.7
Singapore N/A 19.9 22.7 N/A 11.5 9.6
Taiwan 14.6 8.8 8.4 11.6 11.1 9.8
UK (England) 14.0 11.6 11.7 16.7 14.8 14.9
US 9.1 9.2 7.4 24.4 18.1 18.2
Average 8.8 8.5 8.4 19.3 18.0 17.8


  • Amongst the top performers the familiar pattern reappears. In 2012 Shanghai has 27% in the top categories against 2.7% in the bottom categories. This is very similar to reading (25.1% against 2.9%). At the bottom end, Shanghai’s nearest competitors are Hong Kong and South Korea, while Singapore and Taiwan are each approaching 10% at these levels. This is another similarity with reading (whereas, in maths, Singapore is more competitive at the lower end).
  • Since 2009, Shanghai has managed only a comparatively modest 0.5% reduction in the proportion of its students at the bottom end, compared with an increase of almost 3% at the top end. This may lend further support to the hypothesis that it is approaching the point at which further bottom end improvement is impossible.
  • No country has made consistently strong progress at the bottom end, though Ireland has made a significant improvement since 2009. There has been steady if unspectacular improvement in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. South Korea, having achieved a major improvement in 2009 has found itself unable to continue this positive trend.
  • Finland’s negative trend is consistent since 2006 at both ends of the achievement spectrum, though the decline is not nearly as pronounced as in maths. In science Finland is maintaining a ratio of 2:1 in favour of the performers at the top end, while percentages at top and bottom are now much closer together in both reading and maths.
  • There are broadly similar negative trends at top and bottom alike in the Commonwealth countries of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, although they have fallen back in fits and starts. In New Zealand the balance between top and bottom has shifted from being 4 percentage points in favour of the top end in 2006, to 3 percentage points in favour of the bottom end by 2012.
  • A similar gap in favour of lower achievers also exists in England and is unchanged from 2009. By comparison with the US (which is a virtual mirror image of the top-bottom balance in Finland, Singapore or South Korea) it is in a reasonable position, rather similar to New Zealand, now that it has fallen back.
  • England has a 1.5 percentage point gap to make up on Shanghai at the top end of the distribution, compared with a 12.2 percentage point gap at the bottom.

The PISA 2012 National Study reports that only the handful of jurisdictions shown in Table 11 above has a larger percentage of learners achieving Level 6. Conversely, England has a relatively large number of low achievers compared with these jurisdictions.

Rather tenuously, it argues on this basis that:

‘Raising the attainment of lower achievers would be an important step towards improving England’s performance and narrowing the gap between highest and lowest performers.’

When it comes to comparison of the 5th and 95th percentiles:

  • The score at the 5th percentile (343) and at the 95th percentile (674) gives a difference of 331 points, larger than the OECD average of 304 points. Only eight jurisdictions had a wider distribution: Israel, New Zealand, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Belgium, Singapore and Bulgaria.
  • The OECD average difference between the 5th and 95th percentiles has reduced slightly (from 311 in 2006 to 304 in 2012) and there has also been relatively little change in England.


Top-Performing All-Rounders

Volume 1 of the OECD’s ‘PISA 2012 Results’ document provides additional data about all-round top performers achieving Level 5 or above in each of the three domains.


PISA 2012 top performers Capture.

The diagram shows that 4.4% of learners across OECD countries achieve this feat.

This is up 0.3% on the PISA 2009 figure revealed in this PISA in Focus publication.

Performance on this measure in 2012, compared with 2009, amongst the sample of twelve jurisdictions is shown in the following Table 13. (NB that the UK figure is for the UK combined, not just England).


Table 13

2012 2009
%age rank %age rank
Australia 7.6 7 8.1 6
Canada 6.5 9 6.8 8
Finland 7.4 8 8.5 4
Hong Kong 10.9 4 8.4 5
Ireland 5.7 15 3.2 23
S Korea 8.1 5 7.2 7
New Zealand 8.0 6 9.9 3
Shanghai 19.6 1 14.6 1
Singapore 16.4 2 12.3 2
Taiwan 6.1 10 3.9 17
UK 5.7 15 4.6 14
US 4.7 18 5.2 11
Average 4.4 4.1


In terms of percentage increases, the fastest progress on this measure is being made by Hong Kong, Ireland, Shanghai, Singapore and Taiwan. Shanghai has improved a full five percentage points and one in five of its students now achieve this benchmark.

The UK is making decent progress, particularly compared with Australia, Canada, Finland New Zealand and the US, which are moving in the opposite direction.

The Report notes:

‘Among countries with similar mean scores in PISA, there are remarkable differences in the percentage of top-performing students. For example, Denmark has a mean score of 500 points in mathematics in PISA 2012 and 10% of students perform at high proficiency levels in mathematics, which is less than the average of around 13%. New Zealand has a similar mean mathematics score of 500 points, but 15% of its students attain the highest levels of proficiency, which is above the average…these results could signal the absence of a highly educated talent pool for the future.

Having a large proportion of top performers in one subject is no guarantee of having a large proportion of top performers in the others. For example, Switzerland has one of the 10 largest shares of top performers in mathematics, but only a slightly-above-average share of top performers in reading and science.

Across the three subjects and across all countries, girls are as likely to be top performers as boys. On average across OECD countries, 4.6% of girls and 4.3% of boys are top performers in all three subjects…To increase the share of top-performing students, countries and economies need to look at the barriers posed by social background…the relationship between performance and students’… and schools’ organisation, resources and learning environment.’ (p65)


Denizen by Gifted Phoenix

Denizen by Gifted Phoenix



Priorities for Different Countries

On the basis of this evidence, it is possible to draw up a profile of the performance of different countries across the three assessments at these higher levels, and so make a judgement about the prospects in each of ‘a highly educated talent pool for the future’. The twelve jurisdictions in our sample might be advised as follows:

  • Shanghai should be focused on establishing ascendancy at Level 6 in reading and science, particularly if there is substance to the suspicion that scope for improvement at the bottom of the spectrum is now rather limited. Certainly it is likely to be easier to effect further improvement at the very top.
  • Singapore has some ground to catch up with Shanghai at Level 6 in maths. It has narrowed that gap by three percentage points since 2009, but there is still some way to go. Otherwise it should concentrate on strengthening its position above Level 5, where Shanghai is also conspicuously stronger.
  • Hong Kong needs to focus on Level 6 in reading and science, but perhaps also in maths where it has been extensively outpaced by Taiwan since 2009. At levels 5 and above it faces strong pressure to maintain proximity with Shanghai and Singapore, as well as marking the charge made by Taiwan in reading and maths. Progress in science is relatively slow.
  • South Korea should also pay attention to Level 6 in reading and science. It is improving faster than Hong Kong at Level 6 in maths but is also losing ground on Taiwan. That said, although South Korea now seems back on track at Level 5 and above in maths, but progress remains comparatively slow in reading and science, so both Levels 5 and 6 need attention.
  • Taiwan has strong improvement in reading and maths since 2009, but is deteriorating in science at both Levels 5 and 6. It still has much ground to pick up at Level 6 in reading. Its profile is not wildly out of kilter with Hong Kong and South Korea.
  • Finland is bucking a downward trend at Level 6 in reading and slipping only slightly in science, so the more noticeable decline is in maths. However, the ground lost is proportionately greater at Level 5 and above, once again more prominently in maths. As Finland fights to stem a decline at the lower achievement levels, it must take care not to neglect those at the top.
  • Australia seems to be slipping back at both Levels 5 and 6 across all three assessments, while also struggling at the bottom end. There are no particularly glaring weaknesses, but it needs to raise its game across the board.
  • Canada is just about holding its own at Level 6, but performance is sliding back at Level 5 and above across all three domains. This coincides with relatively little improvement and some falling back at the lower end of the achievement distribution. It faces a similar challenge to Finland’s although not so pronounced.
  • New Zealand can point to few bright points in an otherwise gloomy picture, one of which is that Level 6 performance is holding up in reading. Elsewhere, there is little to celebrate in terms of high achievers’ performance. New Zealand is another country that, in tackling more serious problems with the ‘long tail’, should not take its eye off the ball at the top.



  • The US is also doing comparatively well in reading at Level 6, but is otherwise either treading water or slipping back a little. Both Level 6 and Level 5 and above need attention. The gap between it and the world’s leading countries continues to increase, suggesting that it faces future ‘talent pool’ issues unless it can turn round its performance.
  • Ireland is a good news story, at the top end as much as the bottom. It has caught up lost ground and is beginning to push beyond where it was in 2006. Given Ireland’s proximity, the home countries might want to understand more clearly why their nearest neighbour is improving at a significantly faster rate. That said, Ireland has significant room for improvement at both Level 6 and Level 5 and above.
  • England’s performance at Level 6 and Level 5 and above has held up surprisingly well compared with 2009, especially in maths. When the comparison is solely historical, there might appear to be no real issue. But many other countries are improving at a much stronger rate and so England (as well as the other home countries) risks being left behind in the ‘global race’ declared by its Prime Minister. The world leaders now manage three times as many Level 6 performers in science, four times as many in reading and ten times as many in maths. It must withstand the siren voices urging it to focus disproportionately at the bottom end.


Addressing These Priorities

It is far more straightforward to pinpoint these different profiles and priorities than to recommend convincingly how they should be addressed.

The present UK Government believes firmly that its existing policy direction will deliver the improvements that will significantly strengthen its international competiveness, as judged by PISA outcomes. It argues that it has learned these lessons from careful study of the world’s leading performers and is applying them carefully and rigorously, with due attention to national needs and circumstances.



But – the argument continues – it is too soon to see the benefits of its reforms in PISA 2012, such is the extended lag time involved in improving the educational outcomes of 15 year-olds. According to this logic, the next Government will reap the significant benefits of the present Government’s reform programme, as revealed by PISA 2015.

Recent history suggests that this prediction must be grounded more in hope than expectation, not least because establishing causation between indirect policy interventions and improved test performance must surely be the weakest link in the PISA methodology.

But, playing devil’s advocate for a moment, we might reasonably conclude that any bright spots in England’s performance are attributable to interventions that the previous Government got right between five and ten years ago. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that the respectable progress made at the top PISA benchmarks is at least partly attributable to the national investment in gifted education during that period.

We might extend this argument by suggesting a similar relationship between progress in several of the Asian Tigers at these higher levels and their parallel investment in gifted education. Previous posts have drawn attention to the major programmes that continue to thrive in Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

Shanghai might have reached the point where success in mainstream education renders investment in gifted education unnecessary. On the other hand, such a programme might help it to push forward at the top in reading and science – perhaps the only conspicuous chink in its armour. There are lessons to be learned from Singapore. (Gifted education is by no means dormant on the Chinese Mainland and there are influential voices pressing the national government to introduce more substantive reforms.)

Countries like Finland might also give serious consideration to more substantive investment in gifted education geared to strengthening high attainment in these core domains. There is increasingly evidence that the Finns need to rethink their approach.



The relationship between international comparisons studies like PISA and national investment in gifted education remains poorly researched and poorly understood, particularly how national programmes can most effectively be aligned with and support such assessments.

The global gifted education community might derive some much-needed purpose and direction by establishing an international study group to investigate this issue, providing concrete advice and support to governments with an interest.



December 2013

Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education: Postscript

A few months ago I published an extensive blog post about Hong Kong’s Academy for Gifted Education (HKAGE)

On 21 December 2011, a new question was asked in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) about the progress made by the Academy to date.

The answer included revised figures for many of the elements set out in the original post. This postscript introduces the new figures and compares them with those which I supplied previously.

Numbers of learners supported by the Academy

The latest reply gives total numbers admitted by school year as:

School Year 2008/09 2009/10 2010/11 TOTAL
1212 1409 1340 3961

These figures are different to those given in HKAGE press releases (which may have used a calendar year rather than an academic year):

Year 2009 2010 2011 TOTAL
700 1351 1200 3251

and those for 2008/09 and 2009/10 are different again to those given to LegCo in January 2010:

School Year 2008/09 2009/10
1357 1385

In the new answer, we are also given the domain into which students were admitted over the period 2008-11 (some students were admitted to more than one domain):

Domain Humanities Leadership Maths Sciences
No. admitted 857 864 1249 1159

It seems that there were no admissions during this period to the other two domains mentioned on the Academy’s website – Multi-Disciplinary and Personal Growth/Social Development.

The new answer also tells us from which grade these students were recruited:

Grade S1 S2 S3 S4 S5 S6 S7
141 305 709 1413 540 987 43

showing that S4 – the first year of senior secondary education – supplied by far the largest number of students, followed by S6.

The question asks specifically about primary sector provision. The answer refers to existing primary pilot activity, adding that the Academy has also accepted some primary pupils into activities intended primarily for secondary students and intends to expand its primary pilot provision. It continues:

‘Seeing the ever increasing demand for services from primary school students and their parents, the HKAGE will provide at least 6 primary programmes in mathematics and humanities within 2011/12 school year…It is planned to provide more primary programmes in the near future…Currently the EDB has been running 10 web-based courses for students of P4–S3 on astronomy, earth sciences, mathematics, humanities, and palaeontology. EDB will continue to run enrichment programmes for students, including programmes for those aged 10 or under.’

An Appendix provides figures for numbers of students undertaking different kinds of activities provided by the Academy, which are far larger than those given for students admitted to Academy programmes.

This is somewhat confusing because there is no obvious correlation between the number of students ‘admitted to the Academy’ (total 3,961) and the number ‘enrolled’ (total 10,440) or, indeed, the different number ‘served’ (total 14,228). The definition of these three terms and the distinctions between them are not made fully clear.

I had assumed that the figures for ‘number of students enrolled’ must be the total number of student enrolments (ie some students undertook several activities) rather than the total number of students, but the footnote to the figures in the total column says otherwise.

There is again some inconsistency with the January 2010 response to LegCo over the number of activities offered. The earlier answer says there were 41 activities in 2008-09 and that a total of 75 activities were planned for 2009/10. This latest answer says 40 or 45 in 2008/09, depending whether or not one includes the second set, and either 62 or 71 for 2009/10.

Adding in 110 activities in 2010/11 gives a grand total of 226 activities over the three year period, 123 of them falling into the category of ‘courses’.

Number of teachers and parents supported by the Academy

The figures provided for the engagement of teachers and parents relate to a different four-year period which begins in March 2007 and ends (presumably) at the end of the 2010/11 academic year.

The headline figures given are 121 programmes for 7,820 teachers and 88 ‘deliverables’ for 16,788 parents. The associated tables in the Appendix add further detail.

Taking teachers first, it is clear that the annual number served has declined somewhat over the period, from 2008/09 onwards.

The figures provided to LegCo in 2010 were almost 1,100 participants in 2008/09 and a projected 1,900 in 2009/10, but here the comparable figures are 2,743 and 2,689. It would appear that the basis for the calculation has changed between the two answers.

Thematic seminars, outreach talks, structured courses and thematic workshops respectively are the most attended activities.

Moving on to parents, outreach talks account for the majority of the service. Comparing with the answer to LegCo in 2010, which says that there were 1,241 beneficiaries in 2008/09, this table suggests that 5,420 parents were served in that year. It is not possible to reconcile the two figures.

The annual figure for parents served is fairly stable across the period, although number in 2010/11 are slightly down on the previous year.

The Appendix gives separate figures for the Academy’s Consultation and Assessment Centre:

These show that calls to the Helpline reduced markedly in 2010/11, while General Enquiries have increased markedly. There have been only 43 face-to-face consultations over the three year period.

Since the Academy’s original targets were to serve 5,000 parents and 600 teachers a year, and 10,000 learners over the period 2008-2011, we can see that, on the basis of these latest figures it is:

  • exceeding its target for learners
  • heavily exceeding its target for teachers and
  • falling slightly short on its target for parents in two out of three years (unless one includes the figures from the Consultation and Assessment Centre.

However, there are unanswered questions about the relationship between this set of figures and those previously published – and indeed about the nature and inter-relationship of the different figures for student involvement.

Budget and Expenditure

The Academy was established with an endowment of HKD 200m which was expected to last at least 10 years.

My post recorded that the audited accounts for 2008-09 showed income of HKD 3.2m (largely interest on the endowment) against expenditure of HKD 9.2m. For 2009-10, projected income was expected to be lower (only HKD 0.25m was earned between April and November 2009), while projected expenditure was forecast at HKD 25.1m.

The figures given in answer to this latest question show income in line with previous figures, but actual expenditure in 2009-10 undershot the forecast by almost HKD 10m.

Since 2008-09, annual expenditure has increased by roughly HKD 5m per year, but we do not know how close the Academy is to achieving ‘steady state’ nor are we told of its financial projections for future years.I am unsure of the accounting basis for including ‘the unrealised gain on the investment in Schroders’, which presumably refers to the location of that proportion of the endowment that the Academy does not yet need to draw down.

On the basis of this data, assuming that the Schroders investment is guaranteed, and will continue at a similar rate, the financial health of the Academy is better than I had previously assumed.

However, if the Schroders figure is excluded, it becomes more open to question whether the endowment will cover costs over 10 years. It appears that income generated from services is currently minimal and that the Academy needs to increase funding from that source to guarantee its longer-term financial sustainability.


The question asks about overall evaluation of the Academy’s effectiveness. The answer refers to:

  • the Board of Directors appointed by EDB, including its Strategy and Planning and Finance and Investment Committees;
  • the working groups in place for each Division of the Academy, by which means ‘a number of independent professionals have been invited to advise on the design and development of programmes/services’
  • the imminent establishment of the Academy’s Research Division which will initially ‘
    concentrate its efforts on the further development of an evidence-based Evaluation Framework that will operate across all Divisions’.

But there is no commitment to a full-scale independent evaluation, as suggested in my earlier post:

‘The apparent lack of a rigorous formative and summative evaluation seems to be a lacuna in all plans, from the inception of the Academy onwards.

It is particularly odd that the EMB is not seeking an evidence base with which to justify the level of the Government’s financial investment in the Academy – and HKAGE itself surely has a vested interest in securing evidence to show the positive impact it has on students’ learning outcomes and the educational effectiveness of partner schools.

We have seen how earlier evaluation exercises have avoided any attempt to pin down a measurable impact on student attainment. It is expressly to be hoped that, despite the conceptual obstacles, a future evaluation of HKAGE does not fall into the same trap.’


Overall, the new set of figures suggests that Hong Kong’s Academy is in fairly rude health, though some marginal doubts must remain given the questions I have raised about the figures above and the problems I have encountered in reconciling them with earlier data.

The new Research Division may well want to undertake some early work to flesh out a set of rigorous quantitative and qualitative performance indicators that will provide a more robust scorecard against which to assess the Academy’s future progress. Whether it will decide to commission independent external evaluation remains to be seen.


January 2012

Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education: An In-Depth Analysis

This second part of an in-depth study of gifted education in Hong Kong concentrates on the development of the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education (HKAGE) and its progress to date.

The treatment is somewhat more forensic than I normally offer: there is particular personal interest in an Academy very similar conceptually to England’s own National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, which operated under Government contract from 2002 to 2007.

I especially wanted to explore a statement concerning HKAGE in a recent publication – ‘Room at the Top’ – to which I drew attention in my posts critiquing it:

‘[This] organisation, supported in principle by government but freed from government interference, has proved a better basis for development of out-of-hours provision than the part-government directed NAGTY or its fully government-directed successor.’

A Brief Reprise

Part One of this post considered the wider development of gifted education in Hong Kong since 1990, describing the emergence of twin school-based and off-site strands.

The latter was originally intended for a tiny 0.1% cohort of exceptionally gifted learners but, by the time the Academy is launched, it has morphed into support for ‘those who consistently perform in the top 2% of their age cohort’.

We have observed that, during the genesis of the Academy, the Hong Kong Government laid down some explicit targets for its early development. It would:

  • provide services to 10,000-12,000 students from 2007-2010 (about 3,000 students per year);
  • serve about 600 teachers and 5,000 parents per year;
  • develop close partnerships with local and overseas universities to offer [student] programmes and provide a network of mentors for Hong Kong’s gifted students; and
  • initiate and conduct research to provide evidence-based advice on services for the gifted and effective pedagogy; and offer recommendations on government policy.

Before we examine the emergence of HKAGE services and the Academy’s progress towards these targets, it would help to rectify an omission from Part One by sketching out some broad demographical context.

Hong Kong Demographics

This map

conveys an important reminder that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) is a much larger entity than Hong Kong City. It incorporates Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula, the New Territories and some 200 smaller islands.

The total land mass of 426 square miles is divided into 18 districts which have a combined population of 7 million people. In 2009, the school-age population included 345,000 primary school learners and 481,000 secondary school learners giving a total school-age population of approximately 830,000.

Of these about 600,000 are within scope of the Academy’s current 10-18 age range. If the Academy were to apply rigidly a 2% cohort assumption, then the total size of its target group would be 12,000 learners. But the fact that learners are admitted on the basis of high performance in different domains will serve to increase the size of the target group significantly.

I can find no data to support a reliable estimate of the potentially eligible population – if the Academy has a figure, it does not seem to be in the public domain – but one might reasonably assume it to be something between 20,000 and 30,000 aged 10-18.

This assumes that the proportion of learners moving out of eligibility each year, having left secondary education, is broadly the same as the proportion arriving within scope at the other end of the age range.

These learners may potentially be drawn from Hong Kong’s 533 secondary schools, and also from those primary schools with learners in the two senior year groups from which the Academy draws. In reality though, almost all students seem currently to come from the secondary sector.

The Role of HKAGE

The Academy’s website gives the purpose of HKAGE as being to:

provide more structured, articulated and challenging off-site programmes for students with exceptional talent, and to promote the concepts and practices of gifted education.’

This formulation perpetuates the idea in earlier papers that HKAGE has a double role – to improve the education of a specific target group of students and to improve gifted education as a whole.

But, unsurprisingly, there is no further reference to providing policy advice to the Government, since that is properly the role of the Gifted Education Service (GES) within the EMB. At the very least, the EMB would want to ensure that any recommendations from HKAGE are filtered through them.

‘Promoting concepts and practices’ implies a much wider outward-facing role as champion of gifted education with the full range of external stakeholders.

Such a role would fit much more comfortably within the partnership between the Academy and the GES. But is is noticeable that there are no published targets for this element of the Academy’s task.

The website reproduces the previous target for the number of students served, but shunts it forward by a year, stating that HKAGE will ‘cater for 10,000 students during the period of 2008-2011’.

Parental education workshops are expected to serve about 5,000 parents annually (following the earlier figure).

There will be a range of training programmes – long and short courses, seminars and talks – but otherwise no specificity about targets. The Academy lowers expectations by noting that it will start ‘from a base of only a few hundred teachers in the first years’ but is highly ambitious for the longer term: ‘it is intended that ALL teachers in Hong Kong will have the opportunity to develop their skills in GE [gifted education]’.

There is a similarly aspirational reference to the research dimension which repeats the wording of earlier documents.

The risk of perceived overlap with GES is directly addressed, at least with regard to externally-facing services:

All of these developments will enable EDB to concentrate its efforts on collaborating with schools to promote effective learning and teaching practices in the classroom (Level 1) and provide support to pull-out programmes inside schools (Level 2). EDB will continue to offer relevant professional development programmes for in-service teachers and may provide some of these programmes in collaboration with the Academy. This will ensure a ‘seamless’ development of gifted students across learning contexts inside and outside schools’.

The HKAGE vision statement emphasises a holistic and strategic entity, but foregrounds the target group of ‘exceptionally gifted’ learners rather than any wider role.

‘to become a world-class institution of its kind with an effective framework for strategic planning and delivery of appropriate programmes to encourage and nurture exceptionally gifted students and to provide support to their teachers and parents as well as other researchers and related organizations within the Hong Kong SAR’.

But, conversely, its mission statement reverts again to the broader concept:

‘To secure appropriate learning and development opportunities for gifted students, initially aged 10 to 18 years, to enable them to realize their potential in a wide range of learning domains including leadership, creativity and inter-personal skills, and to cater for their social and emotional needs as well as their sense of commitment to the local community;

To mobilize and steer the interest and effort of parents, teachers, academics and business and community leaders with a view to creating a conducive and enriching learning environment for all gifted students;

To facilitate the professional development of teachers in the identification and support of gifted students within the school context;

To develop, through partnership with like-minded organizations, both locally and in other countries, a knowledge hub for furthering research on gifted education and the exchange of ideas and best practice.’

There is no hint here of an inward-facing policy advice function, but the outward-facing role across gifted education as a whole is writ large.

The research and advisory function is translated into the creation of a partnership-based ‘knowledge hub’ with national and international reach, calling to mind a sentence in the 2006 Legislative Council paper:

While the Academy will cater primarily for the needs of local gifted students, it has the potential to be developed into a knowledge hub to serve gifted students in the Mainland and the Asia-Pacific region as well’.

This concept borrows from the idea of Hong Kong itself as a ‘regional education hub’, an idea first promulgated in 2004 and subsequently developed into a policy to attract overseas students into its higher education institutions. It is a manifestation of Hong Kong’s wider positioning as a knowledge economy.

So much for these elements of HKAGE’s (regrettably unpublished) strategic plan. We turn next to the services offered by the Academy.

But, to set in proper context the analysis of student services, it is first necessary to review how eligible learners are identified.

Courtesy of Let Ideas Compete

How does HKAGE recruit students?

The Academy’s second press release in October 2008 shows it open for business. A school nomination process is being piloted, with a 4-week window for nominations to be submitted.

Each school is invited to nominate 8 gifted learners who demonstrate exceptional potential and/or performance in one of four domains – leadership, maths, science or humanities – with some leeway to nominate additional outstanding junior students if the quota is too restrictive.

So schools nominate potentially suitable students from amongst those they teach at Levels 1 and 2, though now there is some provision for students to be identified through ‘alternative pathways’ involving school social social workers and educational psychologists.

There is also now a third ‘nurturing the gifted’ entry route which allows HKAGE to nominate directly students who excel in local or international competitions.

The Academy uses screening interviews and ‘domain tests’ to decide which nominated students should be permitted to access its services. Students are selected for particular domain-specific programmes rather than into the Academy as a whole.

The process has changed slightly over time. The nominations window has been extended to six weeks and there is now an online platform supporting this element of the process. However, the entire identification procedure still takes some six months from start to finish.

The 2011-12 guidance invites participating schools to nominate no more than 12 students, with 3-4 in each domain. Nominations go through an initial screening process which examines evidence of achievement and activity and an online non-verbal reasoning test is administered. Shortlisted nominees then attend ‘programme-related selection activities’ (tests, except in the case of leadership where students are interviewed).

What this means in practice is that HKAGE is offering a conflation of categories D and E in the Hong Kong framework for gifted education – domain-specific pull-out programmes for a 2% population but drawn from a large number of different schools.

This presentation by HKAGE’s Director suggests the Academy would prefer an alternative identification process whereby an initial ‘talent pool’ is identified through a Hong Kong-wide assessment, from which Academy participants are subsequently identified through testing and nominations.

It is hard to know why this pool does not already exist, at least in the form of an aggregation of schools’ own identification processes. Certainly, documents such as the Senior Secondary Curriculum Guide insist that:

‘All schools need to develop a mechanism for identifying gifted students that suit their own school context and school-wide approach.’

One can only hypothesise that there is a significant gap between Government exhortation and reality – that, despite several years of support for school-based gifted education, too few schools can currently identify, with any reliability, a cadre of learners that are within scope of Level 1 Category B (10%) and Level 2 Categories C/D (2-4%) provision respectively during any given year.

How many gifted learners are nominated and join HKAGE programmes?

A succession of press releases give figures for the annual identification rounds to date, from which it is possible to build up a composite picture of the growth in numbers of learners involved:

2009 2010 2011
nominations 1080 1800 2007
schools nominating 187 227 249
acceptances 700 1351 1200

We can see that, while numbers of nominees and schools nominating have significantly increased, progress may be slowing. Moreover, the larger number of nominations in 2011 resulted in fewer acceptances, which perhaps suggests that HKAGE is trying to expand into schools which are relatively less secure in their gifted identification practice.

By 2011, the Academy is engaging only some 47% of Hong Kong secondary schools which, if the previous inference is correct, would suggest that over half of Hong Kong schools are relatively untouched by the school-based gifted education movement.

The quota system deployed by the Academy suggests that it is pursuing a deliberate policy of broadening the range of schools supplying participating learners. It presumably prevents some schools from dominating the Academy but, by the same token, it will also depress the total numbers.

In 2010-11, 31% of participants were nominated for the maths domain, 26% for sciences, 23% for humanities and 20% for leadership.

Successful students do not need to be renominated, remaining with the Academy throughout their time in secondary education. So, adding together the numbers for each year above suggests that the maximum number of participants (assuming none have yet left secondary education) is of the order of 3,250.

There is a complicating factor in that the 2009 figures above are not fully consistent with those provided in an answer to a Legislative Council question dating from January 2010. This reveals that:

  • in 2008/09 HKAGE took over from EDB in phases the Support Measures for the Exceptionally Gifted Students Scheme, providing services to 2,370 students by this means;
  • an additional 1,357 new students were admitted to HKAGE programmes during 2008/09.
  • In 2009/10, as of December 2009, HKAGE has admitted 1,385 new students.
  • The target number of students to be served for 2009/10 as a whole is expected to reach 3,500.

I suspect that the problem arises from a conflation of admissions to the Academy and students taking part in Academy programmes. The second figure, depending on how it is defined, will include students admitted in previous years but also, potentially, students not admitted at all. It may even be the case that students are counted more than once if they undertake two or more elements of provision.

It is the second figure – those taking part – which has been established as an indicator of HKAGE’s performance. This has the advantage of measuring activity, but the number admitted to the Academy would be a very useful complementary indicator.

So is the Academy meeting its published target of 10,000 students participating in programmes over 2008-11? This presentation by the Director reports that:

  • in 2008-09 the Academy provided 31 learning programmes for 3,000 students;
  • in 2009-10 43 programmes for 3,500 students and;
  • in 2010-11 70 programmes (though the number of participants is not specified)

so the answer is almost certainly ‘yes’. But this perhaps masks the fact that, if we look at admissions to the Academy as a percentage of potentially eligible learners, it cannot be much above 10% currently.

Courtesy of StudioH (Chris)

What Services does HKAGE offer to students?

The Academy currently divides its student services into six ‘domains’: humanities, leadership, maths, science, multi-disciplinary and personal growth/social development.

It had intended to diversify from 2010 by adding: Chinese language and literature, English language and literature, the arts, technology, mentoring and applied learning, but – with the exception of mentoring – this is not yet reflected on the website.

It offers a mixture of provision, mostly brokered from third party providers, including:

  • programmes (sequences of activities typically occurring weekly for 3-4 weeks);
  • talks
  • competitions
  • mentoring and
  • ‘other activities’ (such as expeditions and summer schools)

Most provision is free of charge both to students’ families and their schools, with the exception of a few credit-bearing programmes. There is also 100% fee remission for disadvantaged students meeting the eligibility criteria.

It is unclear what proportion of this ‘student offer’ consists of activities that would have happened anyway and what proportion are directly commissioned by the Academy, with the cost subsidised from HKAGE’s budget.

Provision in the former category has the merit of being free, but the Academy’s role is essentially confined to supplying the participants by advertising the opportunities to its membership.

Provision in the latter category eats up valuable budget but the Academy can influence the content and pedagogy to ensure that it meets the needs of its members.

It is clear that elements of acceleration, extension and enrichment are combined within this offer.

Activities typically seem to be advertised a term in advance. At the time of writing, the site advertises 11 programmes, all free to participants, as well as its 2011/12 mentoring scheme which matches 2-3 mentees with a single mentor over 4-6 months.

On top of its categorisation of provision, the Academy also plans to restructure its offer into three levels: introductory (enrichment activities), intermediate (accelerated or enhanced domain-specific learning opportunities for gifted students) and advanced (accelerated or tailored domain-specific learning opportunities for highly-gifted students).

So this is partly to support progression but also recognises of the need for improved differentiation to support the relatively wide ability range within the target group.

The Academy has undertaken ‘needs analysis’ surveys which suggest that students want a more developed ‘gifted education community’ and a wider range of provision. The community development aspect seems to depend significantly on an e-learning platform which was reportedly under development in 2010.

Other future plans include harnessing alumni, developing a student record and an award system and dedicated provision for ‘profoundly gifted students’ including an indvidualised education plan (IEP) and arrangements for dual enrolment and advanced placement.

This 2009 press release describes a pilot primary course undertaken in partnership with the Hong Kong Association for Science and Math Education. The outcomes are briefly recorded here. It seems that there has been no further progress towards primary provision since the conclusion of this pilot.

How much student provision is HKAGE brokering?

This is far from clear. A December 2008 press release reports that HKAGE has increased the number of student programmes by 15% compared with the previous year. The Finance Committee paper implied there would be 50 of these in 2007/08, 25 offered by the Academy and 25 by EDB, so this would suggest the total for 2008/09 is 57.5!

But the answer to the 2009 Legislative Council question gives the contradictory information that:

  • In 2008/09, HKAGE conducted 41 programmes for students including 4 seminars, 4 workshops, 31 courses, 1 learning camp and 1 exchange programme and
  • As of December 2009, HKAGE conducted 13 programmes: 3 seminars, 3 workshops and 7 courses. In 2009/10 [as a whole] HKAGE ‘plans to organise 75 programmes including 16 seminars, 14 workshops, 43 courses, 1 exchange programme and 1 mentorship programme, and will set up online courses’.

And we have the Director’s presentation quoted above suggesting 31 programmes in 2008/09, 43 in 2009/10 and a planned 70 in 2010/11. The Director’s figures are consistent with the subset of courses in the Legislative Council answer, but it is clear from the table in his presentation that what he is describing is a much wider range of provision:

2009-10 2010-11
Seminars 5 13
Workshops 10 14
Courses [ ] 41
Camps 2 0
Exchange programmes 1 1
Mentorship 0 1
TOTALS 43 70

One possible explanation is that the figures above are actually for 2008/09 and 2009/10 respectively; another is that one set of figures relates to academic year and another to financial years.

One thing is certain: there seems to be no standardised process for reporting the quantity of provision made available. The only reliable conclusion one can draw is that the overall quantum of brokered provision is increasing.

What Services does HKAGE offer to Teachers and Schools?

Professional development is clearly the Academy’s predominant focus within the service it offers to schools. It currently divides its provision between:

  • structured courses, at one of four levels – introductory (3-6 hours’ duration), foundation (36 hours’ duration), intermediate (34 hours’ duration) and advanced (duration not specified)
  • thematic courses – which includes lectures, workshops and seminars – in three fields: curriculum and instruction, affective education and general topics. These are also aligned with the four levels above.

There are at present no structured courses within the list of upcoming events on the website, though several have been offered in the past. Five thematic workshops and a symposium are advertised, all at foundation and intermediate level.

Both the structured and thematic courses are typically free to participants, suggesting that schools are unable or unwilling to meet any part of the cost of such professional development from their own budgets.

The website suggests however that the Academy will charge for school-based consultancy, offered at a rate between HKD 5,000 and 7,000 per day. There is no information about the take-up of this option.

The Teacher Zone of the website includes a substantial library of articles and resources and the Academy also publishes Inspire, a magazine for educators (there have been five editions to date). There is also a dormant blog for teachers which is only in Chinese.

The Academy organises an annual ‘Hotung Lecture’ (given in 2011 by Renzulli and Reiss and in 2010 by Gagne) and operates a Teacher Commendation Award.

This HKAGE presentation gives further details of the Academy’s future plans in respect of professional development.

The Academy has the strategic aim of becoming:

‘the acknowledged lead supplier of quality in-service gifted education development programmes for teachers in kindergartens, primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong’.

It is not clear whether the Academy intends to be a direct supplier of such services or, rather, a broker of services supplied by others, so following the model it has adopted for student services.

The potential risk of overlap with GES is addressed later in the presentation, since it implies that HKAGE is in the lead on ‘generic gifted education courses’ while the GES concentrates on ‘advanced subject-specific courses’.

The current lists of programmes provided by the GES for primary schools and secondary schools suggest that this is largely the position but not exclusively so.

The presentation says that schools’ feedback suggests they want more support for basic understanding of gifted education, identification, curriculum and instruction strategies, affective education and learning models. They rate more highly courses provided by overseas speakers.

It adds that work is in hand jointly with the GES to develop a framework of teacher competences. This would allow it to build courses around the achievement of specific competences – and presumably also help to iron out any overlap issues.

Other future priorities include: strengthening online learning, establishing a research project and increasing opportunities for professional exchange.

This more recent (2011) presentation by HKAGE’s Director suggests that work with GES on a competence framework has been expanded into a full-scale joint professional development strategy including a shared ‘stakeholder strategic approach’.

This identifies key roles in every school: the gifted education manager (who oversees whole school planning) and the gifted education co-ordinator (who co-ordinates teaching and learning strategies in the classroom).

A new professional development framework (reproduced below) is also set to be introduced, which links explicitly to these roles, and which clarifies the respective responsibilities of the Academy and the GES.

As far as I can establish, there is no requirement for schools to nominate separate Gifted Education Managers and Co-ordinators.

The Senior Secondary Curriculum Guide says:

‘There is a need to develop and implement a school-based gifted education policy that allows schools to take stock of the available resources and to plan for long term, coherent and holistic provision for the gifted. It is also essential that each school should nominate a member of staff to be the ’driver’ of the policy in the school, to ensure that all queries are answered, and to support all staff through in-house training’.

Any expectation that two roles are staffed is quite likely to run into opposition at a time when Hong Kong’s education system is undergoing substantive and fundamental reform.

Even if the training programme is free to schools, this framework assumes a big commitment in terms of teacher time, for the two roles themselves and for the training associated with them. School budgets are unlikely to have been supplemented to cover the costs.

How much support is being provided to educators and schools?

The original target was to serve 600 teachers a year. This is pitched low compared with the targets related to students and parents, suggesting perhaps that the Academy’s originators saw this as a field which the GES would continue to lead.

The 2009 Legislative Council question we drew on for information about student services confirms that:

  • In 2008/09, HKAGE took over teacher training work from the GES in phases. During the year, they together provided 18 professional development programmes – 2 lectures, 4 seminars, 5 workshops, 1 introductory course, 4 foundation courses, 1 intermediate course and 1 learning circle. Three outreach talks were also provided for schools. Almost 1,100 teachers took part in these activities;
  • In 2009/10, HKAGE plans to organise 28 professional development programmes – 1 mass lecture, 13 thematic seminars/workshops, 6 introductory courses, 3 foundation courses, 3 intermediate/advanced courses and 2 learning circles. As of December 2009, it has provided 9 such training programmes. The target number of teachers to be served is around 1,900.

All of which would suggest that the Academy is significantly exceeding its targets in this area – and has indeed taken a much larger role in professional development than was originally anticipated.

There are arguments for and against this. On the plus side, one can reasonably make a case that the student programme and the teacher programme are mutually reinforcing, especially since the teacher programme pushes schools into a closer relationship with the Academy, so encouraging them to nominate suitable students.

The counter-argument is that this level of involvement in professional development is evidence of mission drift, requiring a renegotiation of the division of labour between the GES and HKAGE. By devoting scarce resources to professional development, the Academy is reducing significantly the capacity it is able to deploy for the development of student services.

HKAGE’s Services for Parents

The Academy says it aims to:

‘enhance parents’ understanding of gifted education; strengthen the parenting skills of parents with gifted children; and provide a platform where parents can interactively learn from each other’.

It has established a Consultation and Assessment Centre offering a free helpline and a range of consultation, counselling and assessment services for which significant charges are levied.

The Parent Education Programme offers seminars (at introductory and intermediate levels), workshops, parent-child parallel groups and a twice-exceptional student project. The current list of upcoming events suggests that workshops are the most prevalent form of provision. They are sometimes free of charge and sometimes cost HKD 200.

The Academy also offers awareness-raising ‘outreach seminars’ and customised programmes attracting a charge. An online forum is available (in Chinese) and seems reasonably active.

It seems as though the Academy has a policy that at least some services to parents must cover their own costs through charges. It is unlikely that the income stream from this source is sufficient to cross-subsidise other elements of the Academy’s operation.

The original target was to serve 5,000 parents a year. The 2009 Legislative Council Answer makes it clear that a phased handover from GES also took place in respect of parent education services in 2008/09.

  • In that year the two organisations together provided 7 training programmes including 4 seminars and 3 workshops attended by 467 families. The number of parents served was 1,241.
  • In 2009/10, HKAGE planned 29 parent programmes including 1 annual conference, 5 seminars, 7 workshops and 16 parent-child programmes. It also expected to form 3 parent learning groups for parents of twice-exceptional learners. By December 2009, it had held 8 of these – 5 seminars and 3 outreach talks. We do not know how many parents these were expected to reach.

A reasonable inference is that, whereas the Academy is well ahead of target with professional support, it may be relatively behind with parental support.

Research and evaluation

There is no separate section of the website dedicated to research and currently no-one on the management team is allocated explicit responsibility for it.

A summary of proposed operational priorities for 2010-13 was attached to the answer to the Legislative Question asked in 2010. It suggests that this element of work might be commenced in 2010 but would mostly be outsourced, presumably to academics in various Hong Kong universities.

The Academy’s involvement in a recent ‘Giftedness in East Asia Symposium’, co-hosted with the Hong Kong Institute of Education and IRATDE, may indicate that it is now ready to expand its activity in this sector, having made relatively little impression to date.

One area the Academy is likely to invest in is small-scale, low-cost action research conducted by teachers in schools.

There is conspicuously no reference on the website to evaluative activity, whether at the programme level or for the Academy as a whole. The former would potentially have formed the in-house dimension of a nascent research programme.

The latter must of course be undertaken by an independent entity at arm’s-length from the Academy. The apparent lack of a rigorous formative and summative evaluation seems to be a lacuna in all plans, from the inception of the Academy onwards.

It is particularly odd that the EMB is not seeking an evidence base with which to justify the level of the Government’s financial investment in the Academy – and HKAGE itself surely has a vested interest in securing evidence to show the positive impact it has on students’ learning outcomes and the educational effectiveness of partner schools.

We have seen how earlier evaluation exercises have avoided any attempt to pin down a measurable impact on student attainment. It is expressly to be hoped that, despite the conceptual obstacles, a future evaluation of HKAGE does not fall into the same trap.

Without an evaluation we cannot of course substantiate the judgement in ‘Room at the Top’ that I drew attention to above.

Value for money is almost as important: it was expected that the original endowment of HKD 200 million would enable the Academy to function for at least 10 years, but that further income would be generated to secure its longer-term future.

The Legislative Council Finance Committee was advised that annual operating costs would be of the order of HKD 19 million. By late 2009, the Legislative Council is informed that:

  • The audited accounts for 2008-09 show income of HKD 3.2 million (interest on the endowment) and expenditure of HKD 9.2 million (the balance of the cost was met by EMB during this transitional period).
  • Between April and November 2009, income from interest was only HKD 0.25 million as a consequence of the economic downturn, but the 2009-10 budget assumes expenditure of HKD 25.1 million, almost a third higher again than the projections made 2-3 years earlier.

More recent budgetary information is apparently not public but, as we have seen, there is scant evidence that HKAGE has yet managed to establish a significant income stream and the global economic situation will continue to depress the rate of interest generated from the dwindling endowment.

Assuming expenditure relative to income has continued at the 2009-10 rate – and remember that the Academy has significantly expanded its range of services in the meantime – Hong Kong will be fortunate indeed if the Academy can survive on its existing endowment for a decade.

There is a Curriculum Development Council Committee on Gifted Education whose role is to ‘plan and co-ordinate gifted education at all levels’. Some call for independent evaluation might emanate from this source, since the Council is showing interest in such territory.

The notes of its two most recent meetings reveal that a Hong Kong-wide baseline survey of school-based gifted education was scheduled between October 2010 and August 2011. It was being undertaken by Joyce Van Tassel Baska and Kimberly Chandler of the College of William and Mary in the USA .

Perhaps a tender for the evaluation of HKAGE will follow shortly!

Next Stages of Development

The Annex to the Legislative Council question mentioned above – showing strategic priorities for HKAGE from 2010-13 – is reproduced in full below

Training Programme Services/research Online support
Student Division To expand programmes of different learning domains To promote diversified student services To develop online learning community
Teacher Division To expand systematic and phase-in training programmes for teachers Research projects and professional exchange enhancing teachers’ expertise in GE To develop online teachers’ learning community
Parent Division To extend diversified parent education Research projects and parent seminars enhancing parents’ level of understanding on GE To develop online parents’ learning community
Research Division Given the accommodation restrictions at present, there is no proposal to increase staffing for in-house research. Instead it is proposed to use outsourcing of research as an alternative delivery model. It is hoped to start this Division in 2010.

In his 2010 presentation the Academy’s Director identified a series of challenges ahead, including:

  • building capacity
  • the absence of statutory requirements for gifted education
  • an over-emphasis on identification especially via IQ tests
  • the limited amount of research undertaken on gifted education in Hong Kong
  • the challenges of trilingualism and biliteracy
  • the need to change the mindsets of teachers and students alike
  • focusing on undeveloped potential and underachievers who are slipping through the net.

Apart perhaps from the linguistic challenges presented by Hong Kong, these are not atypical of many other countries and states.

Lurking behind the list there seems to be a more general concern that the overall quality of school-based gifted education leaves something to be desired, especially in the majority of schools that have no history of involvement with the GES’s various projects.

Many of the initiatives now being undertaken jointly by the Academy and the GES would appear to be aimed at raising the universal standard of gifted education at school-level, so ensuring that all schools are equipped to enter into fruitful partnership with the Academy, not least for the benefit of the 2% cohort of learners it exists to serve.

One practical way in which Hong Kong could bring about the improvements it seeks is through the development and introduction of a universal Quality Standard for whole school gifted education, designed to raise all schools above a defined baseline while challenging those with greater experience to pursue continuous improvement.

Needless to say, such a standard would incorporate clear expectations in respect of the relationship with HKAGE so that, over time, all schools are encouraged to nominate students, encourage them to take part in Academy programmes and undertake the professional development offered.

A quality standard can be designed to carry within it any number of policy expectations from the centre, though its effectiveness will depend crucially on the carrots and sticks put in place to encourage schools to adopt it. A quality standard will potentially support self-evaluation, improvement planning, an award, or accreditation – even an accountability process.

The baseline survey just undertaken could provide enormously valuable evidence to inform the design. 

Final Words

There can be little doubt that HKAGE has made very strong progress from a standing start. Much credit should go to the redoubtable Stephen Tommis, Director of the Academy, and the equally redoubtable P T Chan, Chief Curriculum Development Officer at GES.

Equally, there are significant obstacles that have not yet been overcome and more looming ahead.

I can find no evidence to substantiate the statement in ‘Room at the Top’, particularly the implication therein that HKAGE’s progress is attributable to freedom ‘from government interference’.

Indeed, the division of responsibility between the two entities has forced HKAGE and EMB into the closest possible partnership, and not just to remove any risk of overlap and duplication: EMB must keep closely involved to ensure consistency with wider education policy, while HKAGE needs wider EMB leverage on schools to help it achieve its objectives.

While I can find no evidence that this partnership is or has ever been under particular strain, it is a fact that – no matter how harmonious – it eats up scarce resources on both sides.

The sheer weight of work involved cannot be under-estimated: from managing the day-to-day relationships through to the not inconsiderable task of briefing and servicing the presence on the HKAGE Board of the two most senior EMB officials.

Should an evaluation of HKAGE ever be commissioned, this important dimension should not be overlooked. Value for money is also critical. But the bottom line is – and must remain – whether involvement with the Academy is improving the attainment, motivation and self-esteem of as many as possible of the target population of gifted learners.


October 2011

The Recent Development of Gifted Education in Hong Kong

This is the first part of a two-part examination of gifted education in Hong Kong. It looks at how gifted education policy and delivery has developed since 1990, so bringing about the system in place today.

It provides a context for Part Two, which considers the emerging role of the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education (HKAGE) and its performance to date.

A Seminal Report

Most studies trace the recent development of gifted education in Hong Kong to Education Commission Report No 4 concerning The Curriculum and Behavioural Problems in Schools, published in 1990.

This includes ‘academically gifted’ learners amongst a list of those needing special educational provision. The wider definition of this group owes much to the 1972 Marland Report:

‘Gifted children are those who show exceptional achievement or potential in one or more of the following:

  • a high level of measured intelligence;
  • specific academic aptitude in a subject area;
  • creative thinking – high ability to invent novel, elaborate and numerous ideas;
  • superior talent in visual and performing arts such as painting, drama, dance, music etc;
  • natural leadership of peers – high ability to move others to achieve common goals; and
  • psychomotor ability – outstanding performance or ingenuity in athletics, mechanical skills or other areas requiring gross or fine motor coordination’

but the report defines the ‘academically gifted’ as those presenting one or more of the first three characteristics, noting that there is no specific provision for them in Hong Kong’s mainstream schools.

It adopts a 2% cohort assumption, based on an IQ of 130+, to estimate that 20,000 learners fall within this category and deploys now familiar equal opportunities arguments to justify supporting them.

It proposes school-based programmes rather than special schools for gifted learners, recommending that initial screening should be via teacher nomination. Nominated learners should then be individually assessed through ‘intelligence and achievement tests’ undertaken in the course of primary schooling.

This long-standing recommendation clearly influenced the practice of Hong Kong’s Academy (HKAGE) as we shall see.

It argues that schools should enjoy some flexibility to develop appropriate school-based programmes drawing on a mixture of grouping strategies, accelerative models, curricular enrichment and extension and extra-curricular programmes.

This marks the origin of a core strand of school-based gifted education that has also continued to this day, though now existing alongside the Academy.

Given the lack of information about current provision, the Report recommends further research and a four-year pilot to develop and evaluate school-based programmes in primary and secondary schools, these to be conducted by a professional team and resource centre.

courtesy of cblee

Follow-up Work

In the event, two research studies were conducted in 1992 and 1993. The latter, on the distribution of academically gifted children within Hong Kong schools, informed the shape of the pilot programme. The pilot ran from 1994 to 1997. It was initially confined to 19 primary schools but followed pupils into secondary school in the final year of the study.

The pilot explored the use of curriculum enrichment materials with all learners as well as pull-out options exclusively for gifted learners.

In 1996, the Report of the Sub-Committee on Special Education reviewed progress to date, recommending a more universal approach:

  • ‘There should be comprehensive provisions to support gifted students’ involving teachers at all levels and provision should be extended into secondary schools;
  • All teachers should be aware of gifted learners’ needs. Gifted education should be included in initial teacher education and professional development programmes and tertiary institutions should consider offering a postgraduate course’.

The Executive Summary of the pilot evaluation report records a positive influence on participating students, teachers and schools but, strangely, there is no assessment of the impact on learning outcomes because this was deemed not to be a project objective!

It recommends a staged identification procedure, arguing that it should include highly-creative learners, support for learners’ emotional needs and be renamed the ‘School-based Programme for High Ability Students’.

It reinforces the Sub-Committee’s case gifted education to be included in initial teacher training and subsequent professional development, including school-based training for all schools implementing gifted education programmes.

It continues to advocate flexibility at school level. Schools should be free to decide between within-class and pull-out provision. The former can develop:

‘thinking skills as well as introducing creative activities, self-learning strategies and [a] student-centred approach in the existing subjects, so as to lay the foundation for educating gifted children’.

While the latter can:

‘enable a group of students with similar ability to learn and to stimulate each other. Findings on the pilot project showed that teachers preferred to have about 15 students in each group. The students can be chosen from different classes’.

Meanwhile, the Fung Hon Chu Gifted Education Centre (FHCGEC) had been established as a curriculum and professional development centre in 1995. The evaluation recommends that it should continue, extending its remit to the development of new enrichment activities, and it has done so to this day.

A Policy Framework Emerges

A second phase of development began in 2000, with the publication of a significant Education Department policy paper on ‘The Development of Gifted Education in Hong Kong’.

It offered additional justification for gifted education, referencing Hong Kong’s performance on international benchmarking studies:

‘The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 1997 revealed that the top 10% students in Hong Kong were ranked the lowest amongst the academically brilliant students in other Asian countries’.

The Policy Paper sets out a series of principles derived from the pilot project:

  • Gifted education should be seen as part of quality education; gifted students’ needs should be met in their own school;
  • Hong Kong should adopt a broad definition based on multiple intelligences; nurturing multiple intelligences should be the mission of all schools;
  • Special provision is necessary for exceptionally gifted students whose learning needs cannot be met in school and for gifted students with emotional, behavioural or learning difficulties;
  • Teachers should identify and select students for extension and enrichment activities; such activities are one way of meeting individual learning differences at the upper end of the ability range. But the label ‘gifted’ should not be used to define those taking part;
  • Stakeholder resources should be drawn together to support schools in stretching gifted students;
  • A ‘more generic approach’ (which is not further defined) is recommended for primary schools.

Four basic conditions need to be satisfied before gifted education based on these principles can be implemented: a strengthening of existing curriculum and school activities; training for teachers and headteachers; the networking of stakeholders; and development of assessment tools for teachers. Progress is also subject to resource constraints.

Future provision in Hong Kong will:

  • embed three core elements – higher order thinking skills, creativity and personal-social competence – in the curriculum for all students ‘as the basis for nurturing talents and giftedness’;
  • provide enrichment and extension activities across all subjects and differentiated teaching strategies inside the classroom, relying on teachers to match programmes with students’ needs;
  • offer additional pull-out programmes so students can receive ‘systematic training as a homogeneous group, in which they are exposed to mutual challenges, cross-discipline exploration, in-depth studies and co-operative work’;
  • provide for those with special needs via psychological assessment, counselling and special arrangements including individualised education plans;
  • network and mobilise stakeholders to provide competitions, scholarships, mentoring and summer schools; and reposition the Fung Hon Chu centre as a ‘multi-functional resource centre’.

An implementation plan is appended that features this significant diagram.

At level 1:

A involves embedding the core elements of higher order thinking skills, creativity and personal-social competence in the curriculum for all students in regular classrooms.

B (applying to 10% of students in each school) involves differentiated teaching through grouping practice, meeting needs through curriculum enrichment and extension across all subjects in regular classrooms.

At level 2:

C (for 2-4% of students in each school) involves generic pull-out programmes training homogeneous student groups.

D, also for 2-4% of students in each school involves subject-specific pullout programmes for students with outstanding performance in specific areas.

At level 3:

E (just 0.1% of students – so around 1,000 students in all) involves individualised provision for these exceptionally gifted learners.

The paper’s insistence that students accessing school-based programmes (A-D) will not be labelled gifted has not survived. Nor has the assumption that students accessing E-type provision are ‘a highly selected group of exceptionally gifted students’, as we shall see.

Continuing Support for Level 1 and Level 2 Projects

A Cluster School Gifted Project was launched in 2000, under the aegis of the Quality Education Fund, to pilot this structure in 30 schools up to March 2003. (The QEF was established in 1998 with capital of HKD 5 billion to support community initiatives that promote quality education. By the end of 2010, the balance of the Fund was some HKD 6.69 billion.)

The Chinese language website related to this project contains little information but the final project reportis still available. It describes the objectives as:

  • developing schools’ capacity to meet the needs of their gifted learners, including through mutually supportive ‘regional cluster schools’ which specialise in key areas so creating a Hong Kong-wide network of expertise;
  • providing a curriculum development framework and creating a resource base;
  • developing school-based training packages and provide training for the full range of education professionals engaged in gifted education.

The 30 participating schools formed four primary clusters and two secondary clusters, each comprising one key school and four or five associates. The clusters were supported by a School Consultation Service which developed curriculum and training materials.

There were plans to invite tertiary institutions to tender for the provision of teacher development programmes but no satisfactory bids were received. There were also problems with staff turnover in the Consultation Service and significant implications for participating teachers’ time and workload.

Nevertheless, the project was judged to have met its objectives. Teachers and students reported a positive impact on students’ learning (but again there seems to have been no attempt to measure this properly).

In parallel a series of collaborative research and development ‘Seed’ projects were supported by the Curriculum Development Institute (CDI) of the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB) – essentially Hong Kong’s Ministry of Education.

These were supported from 2001-2006 with the aim of developing knowledge and expertise, creating ‘a critical mass of curriculum change agents’, providing further impetus to school-based development and modelling the change process in schools.

The 30 schools in the cluster project were invited to continue as Seed projects and 25 did so in 2002-03. (The 5 remaining schools opted to develop their expertise independently). Details of the projects are available in Chinese.

The impact of these projects is evident from an article published in 2008 by the staff of Queen Maud Secondary School one of two ‘leading schools’ in the cluster project and an active participant in several subsequent ‘Seed’ activities.

But it also notes that school-based education is difficult and unpopular, openly acknowledging the downside:

‘Actually, a lot of problems needed to be addressed. For instance, time constraints faced by the teachers act as one of the major barriers…Secondly, shortage of recognized tools for identifying gifted students makes assessing giftedness of a student difficult…Ultimately, difficulty in assessing students’ performance before and after the program often exists…we also lack adequate tools to make accurate measurement of the performance on participants’ creativity and critical thinking [sic]’

The cumulative experience from these two projects captured in EMB’s extensive online Guidelines on School-Based Development Programmes produced in 2007.

Meanwhile, school-based networks have continued to develop. The reply to a Legislative Council Question asked in 2007 noted that:

‘There are currently over 130 schools in the gifted education networks. These networks consist of 57 schools participating in the Gifted Education Partner School Network organised by the EDB since 2004, and 73 schools participating in the Quality Education Fund Thematic Network (Gifted Education). Moreover, about 290 schools participate in various EDB schemes since 2004 for promoting school-based gifted education programmes, and encourage their teachers to study the professional (practical) training programmes run by EDB. The school-based programmes and activities organised by schools are generally offered free to students as part of the education programme of the school’.

Deatails of provision in these Partner Schools is accessible through the Partner School Web which showcases their gifted education programmes for the benefit of other schools in the network and beyond.

The QEF Thematic Network was developed in 2006-07. In the initial phase, 8 primary schools developed school-based pull-out programmes and shared their experiences. Sixteen further schools joined the project in phase 2 and a further 48 in phase three.

A fourth phase, launched in 2010-11 with 84 schools involved also has its own website which describes its purpose as to:

  • develop a Networking Schools Model in Gifted Education so as to include as many schools in Hong Kong as possible to implement thematic gifted education pull-out programmes and whole-class programmes;
  • ‘immerse the core elements advocated in gifted education in the curriculum for the gifted students in the networking schools so as to cultivate their potential’ [sic];
  • deploy teaching materials and grouping arrangements within an ‘enrichment and acceleration curriculum’ in the thematic pull-out programmes; and
  • support the sharing of experience between teachers and schools in the network and, through collaboration, with schools overseas.

The bulk of this activity has been overseen by the Gifted Education Section (GES) of the EMB, first established as a separate entity in 2003, with an office located in the Fung Hon Chu Centre. In broad terms, the role of the GES is to oversee all aspects of school-based gifted education (though this is not quite as clear-cut in reality). The GES website says that it:

  • promotes school-based gifted education by developing curriculum resources and providing support to schools, including guidelines, web-based curriculum resources and teacher training packages for school-based gifted programmes;
  • manages the Fung Hon Chu Gifted Education Centre;
  • disseminates curriculum resources by organising regular briefings and experience sharing sessions; and organises teacher development events;
  • recruits mentors for experimental enrichment programmes, monitors their implementation and selects and refines suitable materials for use as web-based curriculum resources;
  • compile exemplars for uploading into the curriculum bank of the Curriculum Development Institute;
  • implements pilot projects to promote school-based gifted programmes;
  • liaises with related organisations and bodies; and answers enquiries on gifted education and related issues.

Note that, both through its name and its responsibilities, the GES has set aside the original edict that the ‘gifted’ label should not be applied at Levels 1 and 2 of the HK gifted education framework.

The GES provides updates via this resource bank, this list of about professional development programmes and this ‘What’s New’ page.

The GES has to date commissioned six year-long web-based learning courses on Earth Science, Astronomy, Mathematics, China’s Reform & Opening-up, The Rise of Contemporary China and Palaeontology from various universities and professional bodies . There is a separate website giving access to these courses.

courtesy of stuckincustoms

The Antecedents of the Hong Kong Academy

As early as 2001, a project called Support Measures for Exceptionally Gifted Students was introduced. Its website is no longer functioning, but background information can be found elsewhere. The answer to the previously cited Legislative Council Question explains that this scheme provides:

‘off-site support to exceptionally gifted students in need for [sic] advanced enrichment and extension. The students are selected through annual territory-wide school nomination and accepted as members of the Scheme. Since 2001, 6 000 students have been admitted…over 200 secondary schools nominate their students…..An evaluation… was completed in January 2006 through survey, case studies and interviews. The results demonstrated that the Scheme was able to enhance students’ academic knowledge, self-confidence, learning ability and widened their perspectives.’

Even allowing for movement out of the cohort, we can already see that this group has many times exceeded its original specification as 0.1% of the school population.

A Finance Committee document from 2007-08 updates the position, explaining the relationship with the nascent Academy:

‘In 2006-07, the Support Measures for Exceptionally Gifted Students included 51 enhancement programmes and 36 related activities for gifted students, their teachers and parents, costing about [HKD] 3.8 million in total. The total number of participants (including students, parents and teachers) was about 8 000’.

In 2007-08, 25 enhancement programmes will be conducted by the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB) with an estimated expenditure of about HKD 1.9 million, while the newly established Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education (the Academy) will gradually take over and further develop around 25 enhancement programmes in the various domains, in addition to offering new programmes for senior primary students and junior secondary students with its own funding. The total estimated number of participants of the programmes by EMB and the Academy would be about 10 000 (increased by 25%) in 2007-08.

The enhancement programmes for gifted students organised under the Scheme include university-based credit-bearing courses, research projects, study camps, Olympiad training, leadership training cum social services etc. Since 2006-07, mentoring programmes have been launched to further stretch the potential of award winners in open competitions. There will be new domains of languages and arts in 2007-08.’ (p. 305)

Since there were approximately 480,000 secondary students in the Hong Kong education system at this time, this ‘level 3’ provision seems to have become associated with a 2% cohort before the Academy was launched.

An Academy is Proposed

The first references to the Academy can be found at least a year earlier, in a description of Policy Initiatives on Education in 2006-07 published by the Legislative Council:

‘The mission of the proposed Academy for Gifted Education (the Academy) is to expand the pool of talents in terms of both numbers and diversity by providing learning opportunities and specialist services. To achieve this, it aims to catalyse and galvanise the efforts of teachers, parents and different sectors of the community to create a supportive, sustainable and enriching learning community for students. The Academy will also network with overseas institutions on gifted education to pool international expertise and to share experience with local practitioners and experts. While the Academy will cater primarily for the needs of local gifted students, it has the potential to be developed into a knowledge hub to serve gifted students in the Mainland and the Asia-Pacific region as well.

The direct services of the Academy will cover the following –

  • for students – the direct service mainly comprises off-site service for the exceptionally gifted students whose needs cannot be met by school-based programmes. Learning opportunities aim for ‘enrichment’ (i.e. knowledge not normally encountered in schools such as film, art, astronomy, marine science) and ‘acceleration’ (such as programmes set at the undergraduate level or beyond);
  • for teachers – it provides an arena for teachers and specialists to exchange experiences, collaborate and enhance the overall capacity in supporting gifted education;
  • for parents – it provides advice on parenting the gifted at home to better cater for their cognitive and emotional needs; and
  • for academics and professionals – building on strengths and local experience, it should aspire to tap into and contribute to the development of gifted education both locally and worldwide as a long-term goal.

While EMB will continue our efforts in gifted education to serve schools and teachers at Levels 1 and 2, we will support the Academy in widening the range of services to the above stakeholders at Level 3.’

The Finance Committee considered the projected costs of this plan in January 2007. It was invited to approve a one-off grant of HKD 100 million (equivalent to £8.3m) to match a donation given by a philanthropist, Sir Joseph Hotung (see below) giving a total start-up budget of HKD 200 million (so £16.6m).

This budget constituted an endowment, allowing the Academy to draw down funds while continuing to earn income from investment of the capital.

The previous annual budget for gifted education of HKD 29 million (£2.4 million) was therefore increased significantly, though with the rider that this funding was predominantly targeted at the relatively small ‘level 3’ cohort, who were now much more generously supported than the much bigger group benefiting from school-based gifted education

In making the case for this investment, the EMB quantifies the service to be provided, so giving us a set of benchmarks against which we can assess the Academy’s progress. It will:

  • provide services to10,000-12,000 students during the period from 2007 to 2010 (about 3,000 students per year);
  • serve about 600 teachers and 5,000 parents per year; and, more qualitatively:
  • partner closely with local and overseas universities in offering programmes and to set up a network of mentors comprising different expertise to support the development of gifted students in Hong Kong; and
  • initiate and conduct research to provide evidence-based advice on services for the gifted and effective pedagogy, and offer recommendations on government policy which are conducive to the sustainable growth and advancement of knowledge in gifted education in Hong Kong’.

It states that the Academy will be operated independently of Government ‘for greater operational effectiveness’ (this assertion is not justified and one can imagine the EMB authors not being entirely convinced).

It is not clear where this insistence on independence originated. It may have been imposed as a funding condition by Sir Joseph Hotung or, more probably, there were legal obstacles to the acceptance of such largesse by an arm of Government.

Whatever the source, the Academy:

‘should have a high degree of independence and flexibility in planning and operating its services as well as in managing its human and financial resources. We therefore propose to set up the Academy as a limited company under the Companies Ordinance (Cap. 32). The objectives of the Academy will be clearly set out in the Memorandum and Articles of Association. As a non-profit-making entity, the Academy will not be allowed to distribute dividends’

Since ‘various stakeholders interested in the development of gifted education in Hong Kong should be involved in the management of the Academy’ it should have a Board of eight to ten directors appointed by the Government.

The next section is oddly worded:

‘The Academy is expected to assume the role of a central co-ordinator and lead collaborator to develop and monitor the scope and quality of the services, partly to be conducted by its staff, and partly to be contracted out to potential course providers…This mode of operation without a purpose-built premises for the academy itself is being implemented elsewhere (e.g. in the United Kingdom)’.

A negative interpretation would be that the Ministry is creating an expensive middle-man, in the form of an arm’s-length body that will handle relationships with third parties that were previously handled through the GES.

The notion of an Academy on the original NAGTY model – a community that serves students and to which student members belong – seems not to be central to this thinking.

The Academy will ‘start with a strategic and core team of about 15 staff, to be headed by an Executive Director…supported by a small team of professional officers and other technical and administrative staff.’

Annual operating costs are estimated at about HKD 19 million (staff costs HKD 6.5m, student services HKD 7.0m). The endowment might be supplemented over time through the addition of ‘donations, sponsorships and course fees’ but the initial sum ‘should have provided sufficient financial certainty for not less than ten years for the Academy to develop the best financing model to suit its operation’.

…which is not quite the same as voicing an aspiration that the Academy should become as far as possible self-funding within a 10-year period.

The Hotung Donation, the Board and Director

Sir Joseph Hotung issued a general statement in the form of an EDB press release in October 2006 but it says very little of significance.

Hotung is a Hong Kong based philanthropist and art collector. He was born in Shanghai, attending a Catholic school run by the Marist Brothers, St Louis College in Tsientsin. He then briefly attended university in Hong Kong before moving to the Catholic University of America. He was also subsequently an external law student of the University of London.

He worked initially as a security analyst with the Marine Midland Bank, returning to Hong Kong on the deaths of his father and grandfather. He launched a property business and subsequently became a Director and Board Member for HSBC Holdings plc, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Hong Kong Electric Holdings, Guinness Investment Ltd. and Ho Hung Hing Estates. He was knighted in 1993.

The Academy’s Board of Directors was constituted and met for the first time in November 2007 under the Chairmanship of Mr Irving Koo, another Hong Kong businessman who has served as Chair of the Quality Education Fund (1998-2003) and the Hong Kong Examination and Assessment Authority (to 2009), as well as being a member of the University Grants Committee and the Education Commission.

Other original members were:

  • Professor Shiu-yuen Cheng, Professor of Maths at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
  • Mrs Julia Fung, Trustee of the Fung Hon Chu Trust Fund
  • Mrs Lisa Hotung, representative of Sir Joseph Hotung (and presumably his wife)
  • Mr Frederick Lam, Chairman of the Hong Kong Association for Parents of Gifted Children
  • Mrs Stella Lau, Headmistress of the Diocesan Girls’ School
  • Dr Eric K C Li, a senior partner in an accountancy firm and former member of the Legislative Council
  • Dr Philip Wu, a bank director and former Chairman of the Council of the Open University of Hong Kong.

Messrs Koo, Cheng, Fung, Hotung and Lam had been part of a Preparatory Committee established by January 2007 to assist in the selection of an Executive Director, ‘prepare the ground and…ensure a smooth transition to setting up the governing body’.

Messrs Koo, Cheng, Fung, Hotung, Lam, Lau, Li and Wu continue to serve on the Board, but there are two other very important members:

  • Mrs Cherry Tse Ling Kit-ching, the Permanent Secretary for Education at EMB
  • Dr Catherine Chan Ka-ki, her Deputy Secretary for Education.

These are the two most senior civil servants for education in Hong Kong. This almost unparalleled show of strength – for they appear to be full participants, not alternatives and not observers – must signal the potentially huge significance of HKAGE within Hong Kong’s educational system

But it probably also suggests that the EMB, on behalf of the Hong Kong Government, is absolutely determined to exert some control over what might otherwise be a potentially loose cannon.

The Executive Director, Stephen Tommis, formerly Chief Executive of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) in the UK, was appointed in February 2008 and continues to provide strong leadership. His experience in working closely with central Government while simultaneously maintaining an independent organisation will have commended him to the Preparatory Committee.

The Academy’s first press release, dated July 2008, confirms the figures in the previous documents referenced above, adding, for clarity:

‘The target student population is those who are exceptionally gifted as defined by those who consistently perform in the top 2% of their age cohort. Initially, the Academy will concentrate its provision on the 10-18 ages with the Support Programmes for the Exceptionally Gifted but hopes to extend the age range in time…

…apart from the frontline Student Division, Parent Division and Teacher Division to cater for these three types of stakeholders, the Academy also has a research division to partner closely with local and overseas universities as well as to initiate and conduct research to provide evidence-based advice on services for the gifted, effective pedagogy and government policy.’

The ‘Level 3’ population has been expanded significantly – it would not make sense to establish an Academy of this size to cater for the 1,000 students deemed exceptionally gifted, so the target group is now expanded to something nearer 20,000 and confined in the first instance to the 10,000 or so aged 10-18.

Hong Kong’s gifted education programme clearly made enormous strides over this period of less than twenty years but, with the advent of the Academy, expectations were raised significantly higher.

In Part Two we will review the rapid development of the Academy to date and consider whether it is yet meeting the targets it has been set.


October 2011

Room at the Top: A New Direction for Gifted Education? (Part One)

This two-part post is a review and a critique of ‘Room at the Top: Inclusive Education for High Performance’, a Policy Exchange publication written by Deborah Eyre in April 2011.

Policy Exchange is a centre-right think tank in the UK. Deborah Eyre is Education Director with Nord Anglia Education, a UK-based company that operates twelve international schools and a range of learning services in the UK, Asia and the Middle East. These include a contract with the Mawhiba Schools Partnership, a substantial gifted education programme in Saudi Arabia.

From 2002 to 2007 Eyre was Director of England’s National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY). ‘Room at the Top’ draws significantly on her experience in that role and, subsequently, as an education consultant working particularly in the Far and Middle East.

The problem that the paper seeks to address is how to maximise the proportion of high performing learners in an education system, specifically the English education system.

I should say at the outset that I support entirely the broad thrust of the central argument. Many of the core messages are consistent with the views expressed on this blog over the past year.

I also have some fairly significant reservations about certain aspects of the treatment. I want to return to those in the second half of this post, but first I shall do my best to summarise the document, interspersing a commentary which raises these and several less substantive issues.

The Premiss

‘Room at the Top’ argues that parallel debates about improving system-wide performance and about supporting the most able pupils have mostly failed to connect with each other.

The former has neglected the latter, concentrating over-much on structures, while the latter has been preoccupied with ‘identifying a fixed and relatively small cohort with the ability to achieve… advanced levels of cognitive performance’, an approach which is unworkable.

A larger proportion of learners has the potential to achieve these advanced levels of cognitive performance but this demands consistently higher expectations and systematic nurturing of all learners, so improving system-wide performance.

The report has two broad recommendations:

  • That the English system is too preoccupied with achieving floor targets and mediocrity. Structural reforms are needed to the national curriculum, qualifications, the OFSTED inspection framework and performance tables to ensure we prioritise and celebrate high performance.
  • That the gifted and talented agenda has become marginal in many schools, but can be main-streamed by expecting high performance on advanced learning opportunities as the norm. This should be via a blend of in-class and school-based enrichment activities, as well as a range of informal learning opportunities.

Three paradigms of Gifted Education

‘Room at the Top’ charts three broad phases, or paradigms, in the development of gifted education over the past century.

First, a ‘Unique Individual Paradigm’, in place up to middle of last century, focused on a small number of unique individuals. The initial view was these few individuals had no relevance for thinking about education systems as a whole. There was no appreciation that giftedness could be influenced or developed.

Second, a ‘Cohort Paradigm’, surviving until the end of last century, which concentrated on identifying and selecting groups of gifted learners from amongst the general school population. Identification strategies developed from the use of IQ tests, introduced in the 1920s.

It was undertaken in the belief that these learners were different from their peers and so would benefit from being educated differently. At the same time, the cohort itself was assumed to be relatively homogeneous, with common learning needs.

This paradigm is associated with selective education as well as gifted programmes. There are significant benefits for those selected, relative to those who are not.

Third, a ‘Human Capital Paradigm’, introduced at the start of this Century, which switched focus to the educational conditions in which giftedness could be optimally developed.

This change is associated with a questioning of the assumptions underpinning selection, since:

  • longitudinal studies of high-performing adults demonstrate that they were rarely outstanding as children, casting doubt on the value of early identification;
  • there is a consistent bias within cohorts towards the affluent middle classes, although the few selected from poorer backgrounds achieve social mobility as a consequence;
  • beliefs about the nature of giftedness have shifted away from heredity and a single measure of intelligence. The majority now hold that it is a complex blend of nature and nurture, includes a motivational element and is not straightforwardly measurable;
  • research suggests that gifted learners deploy exactly the same learning strategies as their peers, only do so more creatively, implying that gifted education methods can potentially be applied universally;
  • labelling learners as gifted is perceived as unhelpful, if not for gifted learners then for those without the label, affecting their confidence and narrowing their learning horizons.

The ‘human capital paradigm’ is not primarily concerned with identifying gifted learners, but with the systematic nurturing of high potential across the system, by setting high expectations for all learners while also ‘encouraging excellence among any emerging elite performers’.

This nurturing process is undertaken in specific domains, in recognition that high performance is achieved in an individual’s specific areas of strength.

It works backwards from the ultimate goal – what is required to achieve expertise in the relevant domain – aiming to give learners the right blend of opportunities, support and encouragement to work towards that objective.

Some use ‘giftedness’ to describe the outcome of this process (as opposed to the starting point) or it can be called ‘high performance’ as it is throughout this publication.

The implications of the ‘human capital paradigm’ for education systems are that:

  • an (internationally) agreed definition of giftedness is no longer necessary;
  • it is unnecessary to pin down a cohort since the focus is on nurturing high performance in as many learners as possible;
  • this should be undertaken daily in the normal classroom through curriculum, pedagogy and a culture of high expectations;
  • the learner, his parents and mentors have a significant role alongside that of the school.

Unfortunately, while researchers have been influenced by developments in psychology and neuroscience, the public and policy makers alike remain stuck in the first of the two outdated paradigms.

Commentary I

The analysis raises several questions, such as whether:

  • Inclusion in a gifted cohort and entry to a selective school can be treated as two sides of the same coin in all respects. The latter denotes entirely separate education, normally for the duration of secondary schooling. The former does not typically involve separate education and is not necessarily a fixed, permanent arrangement.
  • Labelling can be avoided entirely in any approach, including the human capital paradigm, where excellence is recognised and celebrated. (The author argues later that learners should not be protected from over-demanding learning challenges. Much the same argument might be applied to labelling, since accepting there is always someone cleverer than you may be a valuable lesson in realism rather than a demotivating influence, especially if you know that the label isn’t necessarily denied you in future.)
  • The domain-specific approach of ‘expertise in development’ is an essential pre-requisite for the human capital paradigm. There is no clear justification for the relationship in the text – and it is hard to see the relevance of school subject expertise in strict human capital terms, since it is pretty unlikely that the learner will pursue the same field into undergraduate study and subsequent employment. Generic skills are surely more important, especially for younger learners in primary schools;
  • The distinction between enlightened researchers on one hand and gullible public and policy-makers on the other is quite as clear-cut as the text suggests. After all, there are still many academic apologists for the ‘cohort paradigm’ , as well as several more forward-thinking policy-makers!

Four Principles of a Human Capital Strategy

One can increase the proportion of high performers if the education system is refocused on different priorities. Four key principles are identified:

First, capitalise on any inherited predispositions. Although some learners are ‘gifted’ (ie ‘genetically predisposed to be more cognitively successful’) it is more important to develop the ability we all have rather than assessing which of us has relatively greater capability.

We do not yet fully understand the way environment impacts on inherited predispositions, but many more learners could benefit if given the opportunity. It is possible to overcome poor quality early years education and wrong to assume at any point in the education system that significant numbers of learners are unable to cope with advanced cognition.

Second, recognise the importance of families in providing a stable, encouraging environment. We need to help families to ‘nurture gifted behaviours’ by extending the benefits of parental involvement in middle class families to all learners.

Third, provide reasonable schooling. This is not as significant as the role of parents (and peers) because high performance ‘isn’t the same as being ‘school smart”. It is not just about passing exams, but also involves developing the skills that a domain-specific expert needs

Because high performance isn’t entirely dependent on the quality of schooling it is possible to compensate through parental support, personal motivation and informal learning. Hence it is not necessary to wait until all schools are high-performing.

On the other hand, good schools are typically better at facilitating high performance, so the more there are the better.

Fourth, instil a ‘growth mindset’ (the text does not actually employ this term, which is conspicuous by its absence). It is essential to help learners to understand that their educational performance lies in their hands.

While other cultures understand that trying hard is important, our practice of labelling and choosing cohorts suggests to learners that they cannot achieve beyond a certain level. Learners need to understand that their achievement is not dictated by their family background, their school, or where they live.

Commentary II

There is perhaps the basis for an equation here, parallel to that which the author herself now calls ‘the Eyre Equation’ (indeed does so earlier in this Paper):

High Performance =

(Capitalised) Inherited Ability

+ Family Support

+ (Effective) Schooling

+ Growth Mindset)

x All Learners

But the Paper is not particularly informative about the relationship between these four variables. Although it is suggested that schooling is less significant than often assumed, no empirical evidence is given to support this statement, or to quantify the relative weight attached to the other variables.

While the ideal is presumably to have all four in play, is it possible to compensate for any one that is relatively less secure? Any two? Any three? Are there essential minimum levels of given variables that need to be in place for individual high performance to have a reasonable chance of being realised?

In short, the limited treatment we are given begs many more questions.

It is surprising, too, that there is no real recognition of the sizeable potential impact of poverty on high performance, even if it is part of the hypothesis that this is too often used as an excuse. It is widely understood that the impact of poverty dwarfs the educational effects and really needs to be tackled directly.

The emphasis on keeping doors open at all stages is clearly antithetical to selection. So selective schools and ‘fixed’ gifted cohorts are inappropriate, but so is much setting practice (because the sets are too infrequently adjusted).

If we were to be purist about this it would not be acceptable to require a specified level of achievement to secure admission into a sixth form or, indeed, for admission to a given university course. While such an open access approach is laudable in theory, it is doubtful whether our education system could apply it consistently and with rigour.

This is surely more about a state of mind – and about being prepared to give learners second chances – than it is about the practical operation of the system.

Four Attitudinal Problems that England Must Overcome

The Paper identifies four sets of beliefs and assumptions that must be overcome if England is to maximise its proportion of high performing learners.

First, we hold outdated beliefs about ability and academic performance. There is still a widely-held view that ability is genetically determined, even though we also accept that there are some environmental factors in play. This belief is reinforced by putting 5-10% quotas on the gifted and talented population in schools for ‘society feels more comfortable with norm-referencing than criterion-referencing’.

Second, we mistakenly assume that we must choose between an education system focused on nurturing an elite and one that is effective for the majority. ‘We are always trying to be fair but sometimes this is at the expense of opportunity and excellence’. The political focus is on allocative fairness rather than on stretching all learners.

On the right this manifests as meritocratic fairness; on the left as ensuring that demographically representative populations get through. Both are mired in the false belief that only a fixed number can succeed.

We are preoccupied with floor targets.

‘We have created a system that requires that most pupils reach mediocrity and which asks schools to arrange their structures with this as the primary expectation’.

In an ideal world, shifting one student from A to A* would be as significant as shifting another from D to C. GCSE data is quoted showing that increases over time in the proportion of students gaining a B grade or above in each of maths and English is significantly lower than the increase in the proportion achieving a C grade.

Our broader cross-party consensus on the significance of the standards agenda in schools has outlived its usefulness, because it has become focused on raising average performance rather than encouraging more learners to reach advanced levels.

Third, we wrongly assume that large-scale social mobility is unattainable. International benchmarking studies show that our education system is relatively inequitable and we have come to believe that this is an insurmountable problem.

The demonstrable link between performance and socio-economic background has led us to conclude that learners from poor backgrounds cannot achieve highly. Schools limit opportunities, for example by restricting access to triple science, and getting a C grade represents the pinnacle of success.

Fourth, we wrongly believe we must protect learners from cognitively over-demanding work. There is a climate of false kindness in schools, but learners must be given the opportunity to try – and to fail.

Commentary III

Although a broadly accurate analysis, I would again question some of the detail:

  • I am not sure there is necessarily a logical connection between belief in genetic giftedness and a quota-based approach to gifted education. Moreover, it is wrong to suggest that quota-based populations are current Government policy, since schools are free to determine the size of their gifted and talented populations. This is evident from the very publication referenced to evidence the contrary statement in ‘Room at the Top’: ‘Identifying Gifted and Talented Learners – Getting Started (p. 1)
  • The emphasis within England’s approach to gifted education on securing G&T populations that are broadly representative in demographic terms is therefore less about allocative fairness and more about recognition that potential for excellence is found equally amongst learners from disadvantaged backgrounds and other underachieving groups. So it is consistent with the human capital paradigm and can support progress towards large-scale social mobility.
  • While there is other data to support the argument that schools have been concentrating on borderline grades at GCSE at the expense of higher grades – see for example my November 2010 post about STEM and high achievers which makes pretty much the same case – recent emphasis within our assessment processes on progression as opposed to raw attainment would suggest that this is already being addressed.
  • Similarly, the assertion that we believe social mobility to be an insurmountable problem isn’t really borne out by the emphasis given to improving it, both by the last Government and the current Coalition. Indeed, both have declared it a top priority.

Why High Performance is Important

The paper gives a brief treatment of the reasons for investing in talent: to fill talent gaps for high-level skills that are already evident and to enable England to compete in a globalised economy where highly-skilled workers are increasingly internationally mobile.

Other countries are already investing in developing their stock of high achievers and England cannot afford to lag behind. This requires a step-change rather than small-scale incremental improvement.

We should move beyond a ‘rescue mentality’ that benefits a few more disadvantaged learners. And we need to focus on competition with those in other countries rather than a ‘micro-preoccupation with who is in and who is out’.

The key to social mobility is raising our general level of expectation – in the highest-performing countries the ‘excuse’ of coming from a poor background is not accepted. Hong Kong is given as an example.

Commentary IV

This is very familiar territory for regular readers of this Blog and it would not be too difficult to strengthen the arguments in ‘Room at the Top’ by reference to the economics of gifted education, highlighting work by Hanushek et al on the economic value of cognitive development and also material about the cost of the ‘excellence gap’.

It would have been interesting and useful to have had an insight into the rationale by which different knowledge-based economies have made a link between gifted education and increasing the national supply of highly-skilled workers – and some treatment of the reasons why that connection has not been made in England.

I am not sure whether the economic arguments would justify a definition of high performance based primarily on expertise in subject domains. As we have noted already, relatively few learners study at university the subject they were best in at school and still fewer enter employment that requires expertise in the same discipline.

Moreover, HE and employers tend to be interested primarily in examination grades and (in the case of graduates) the perceived ‘quality’ of the institution at which those grades were obtained. They are engaged in ‘screening’ for the best candidates rather than worrying particularly about the value added by their education.

So far so good the, apart from some minor hiccups, but in Part Two of this post we begin to engage with the business end of ‘Room at the Top’, as well as the section – about the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth – that causes me the greatest difficulty. Stay tuned!


May 2011