Today the Sutton Trust has published Missing Talent, a research brief we wrote on the 7,000 pupils who score in the top 10% nationally in their KS2 tests, yet who five years later receive a set of GCSE results that places them outside the top 25%. The findings show that boys, particularly those from disadvantaged homes, are the most likely to be in this group of missing talent. Our analysis also suggests that schools are not ensuring highly able but poor children take a GCSE curriculum that leaves open the widest choice of options at age 16: they are less likely to be taking GCSEs in history, geography, triple sciences or a language. But there are many schools across the country that are exemplars of best practice in the education of highly able children and these schools could provide a programme of extra-curricular support to raise horizons and aspirations for children living in the wider area.
I have never before written about highly able pupils – those capable of excellence in school subjects. Whenever I’ve thought of investing time in learning more about their educational experiences, the voice of an old political friend rings in my head saying ‘it is always easy to figure out how to educate the wealthy or the clever; these aren’t the important questions in education policy’. Debates about whether politicians should focus on the brightest pupils emerged during the election campaign when Schools Week editor Laura McInerney criticised the 2015 manifesto of the Labour Party for its focus on gifted and talented pupils. And the Fair Education Alliance has advocated redirection of the pupil premium towards those children who are already behind at school. (There is an energetic rebuttal of these arguments by the brilliant blogger Gifted Phoenix.)
Whilst, of course, I have strong sympathies with the view that illiteracy is more costly to society than a child gaining a place at Bristol rather than Oxbridge, I do believe that the work Sutton Trust does to support highly able children from disadvantaged backgrounds is important, for several reasons. First, many of the interventions that could help support highly able children to reach their full potential are zero or low cost. For example, a highly able child should have access to and be encouraged to study a broad curriculum. Second, the political and social elite in this country is still dominated by the graduates of Oxbridge and other elite universities. We must do everything we can allow high achievers from all communities to participate in this microcosm that continues to shape our country.
And finally, I still believe in the kind of comprehensive schooling that I was lucky enough to receive and hope my own children will experience. Segregation of children into different institutions is widely accepted as fine at 18 and in urban areas is the norm at 16, but at age 11 it is inevitably inequitable (as I wrote here almost a decade ago). The political consensus that all-ability secondary schools should remain feels as fragile as ever. The onus now should be on all schools who wish to claim to be truly comprehensive to demonstrate they can enable every child, regardless of their ability, to reach their full potential. Parents with highly able children living in areas of the country with comprehensives must know that their children will not be placed at a disadvantage to those with grammar schools.