An international perspective on the performance of high performing pupils from different backgrounds

The Sutton Trust, in collaboration with University College London’s Institute of Education and Education Datalab, has produced a report looking at how the socio-economic gap affects “high attaining” students across the 35 Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries. “High attainers” are defined as those pupils who are performing in the top 10% in their respective country. The report looked specifically at maths, science and reading.

In science subjects, the report commended England for having some of the best young scientists in the world; only Finland and Japan have “significantly higher science scores than England”. The report also outlined that high performing pupils from poor backgrounds also perform well against other countries, with only Finland and Estonia performing better in international league tables.  However, the authors did outline that poorer high attaining pupils are still two years and eight months behind their wealthier high attaining peers. The gap is specifically large for girls, with “bright but poor girls lagging 3 years behind bright but better-off girls in science in England”.

In maths, England’s highest achievers perform in line with the OECD average and “significantly outperform” peers in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Much like in science, the gap between poor high attainers in maths and wealthy high attainers in maths is two years and eight months. This is in line with the OECD average. Significantly, there has been no improvement in the maths skills of high attainers, regardless of background, since 2009.

Finally, looking at reading, the report also found that high performers are broadly in line with the OECD median. There are only three other OECD countries where pupils have “significantly higher reading skills than their counterparts in England”. However, there is an average gap of two years and eight months between poor and wealthy high attainers in reading, rising to three years amongst girls. In England, some improvement in the reading attainment gap between poor and wealthy pupils has been recorded between 2009 and 2015.

The report recommends that students who are identified as “high attainers” early in their school life, but are from low or middle income families, should “receive sustained interventions” from a ring-fenced budget. The report also recommends that all high attaining pupils should have access to the science triple award at GCSE, a broad curriculum, a language and a humanities qualification. It proposes that the government should report the three-year average Progress 8 figures for high ability pupils. Finally, the report outlines that “exemplar schools” in different localities should help other struggling schools as well as consider the delivery of “a programme of extra-curricular support to raise horizons and aspirations for children living in the wider area”.

A key role of the governing board is knowing the school or organisation well; to achieve this, those governing should have an idea of how high attainers are performing in their school and how this compares to the national average. Governors and trustees may want to raise the issue with senior leaders at appropriate times in governing board meetings. See the NGA guidance centre for more information.

Published: 10/02/2017, by Sam Henson
Last Updated: 05/09/2018, by Tom Fellows