Bright but poor pupils are twice as likely to miss top GCSE grades


The brightest pupils at age 11 are much more likely to fall off track during secondary school if they are poor, with boys being hit hardest, a new analysis has found. Pete Henshaw reports

Students who score in the top 10 per cent nationally at the end of primary school are more than twice as likely to miss out on the top GCSE grades if they are from a poor home, a study has found.

The Sutton Trust, which has published the research briefing, is now calling for the government to establish a new “highly able fund” to trial the most effective ways of improving progress and attainment of bright students.

The research is based on 7,000 “highly able” pupils in England who scored in the top 10 per cent in their key stage 2 SATs but who got GCSE results (in 2014) that placed them well outside the top 25 per cent nationally. This figure includes more than 1,550 disadvantaged (Pupil Premium) children.

The 7,000 pupils represent about 15 per cent of those who are deemed highly able at the end of key stage 2 each year. The briefing calls these children our “missing talent” because of their relative underperformance at GCSE.

Across the study’s cohort of 7,000, researchers found that the median achievement across eight GCSEs for the “bright but disadvantaged” pupils was four As and four Bs.

However, for their equally able but better-off class mates, it was eight As – a difference of half a grade per GCSE.

But this is not the whole story. The briefing continues: “The problem is much more pronounced for some students, as highly able (Pupil Premium) pupils have a long tail of underachievement. One in 10 of the poor but clever pupils are barely achieving C grades (or doing much worse) and at this end of the distribution they are lagging their (non-Pupil Premium) peers by almost a whole GCSE grade per subject. These figures lay bare the extent of the missing talent.”

Ultimately, the analysis finds that 36 per cent of “bright but disadvantaged” boys seriously underachieve at age 16 compared to 16 per cent of bright boys from better-off homes.

Meanwhile, 24 per cent of bright but disadvantaged girls seriously underachieve at 16 compared to just nine per cent of bright girls from richer households.

The briefing states: “Highly able boys are almost twice as likely to fall off track than girls, and for both boys and girls (Pupil Premium) status more than doubles the risk of falling into our missing talent group. A staggering 36 per cent of highly able (Pupil Premium) boys fail to achieve a good set of GCSEs.”

The research also finds that the bright but disadvantaged group is less likely to take subjects traditionally associated with university entry, including languages and triple science.

The briefing adds: “They are less likely to be taking history or geography – essential subjects in the English Baccalaureate measure – and almost a quarter will not be taking a language at GCSE. What we do not know here is the extent to which the school has supported them in making these very different curriculum choices.”

The Sutton Trust is warning that the issue of underachieving bright but poor students is not high enough on the national education agenda, especially since the demise of the gifted and talented programme. It is now calling for a national fund to be established.

The briefing states: “The government should implement the recommendations of Sutton Trust’s Mobility Manifesto to develop an effective national programme for highly able state school pupils, with ring-fenced funding to support evidence-based activities and tracking of pupils’ progress.”

The briefing also recommends that all schools be made accountable for the progress of their most able pupils and be encouraged to use their Pupil Premium funding to target bright but disadvantaged children.

It also calls for schools with strong track records in this area to be engaged to deliver programmes of support for other schools and children in their wider local areas. 

The report’s author, Dr Rebecca Allen, director at Education Datalab, said: “Our research shows how much support some schools need to enable all children to reach their full potential, regardless of ability and background. 

“But there are also many schools across the country that are exemplars of best practice in the education of highly able children and so could provide a programme of extra-curricular support to raise horizons and aspirations for children living in the wider area.”

Dr Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, added: “The figures highlight the tragic waste of talent witnessed every year in our schools as so many bright pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds fail to fulfil their early academic potential. It is a scandal that over a third of boys from low-income homes who achieve so highly at the end of primary school are not among the highest school achievers at age 16.

“The fact that a pupil’s chance of reaching their full potential is linked to their background tells us that we urgently need to do more to make sure that our most able students have the support and advice they need to thrive. 

“This attainment gap is holding many young people back from gaining the grades they need to get to the best universities.”

The Sutton Trust is currently piloting its own model of support for bright but poor students in early secondary school, entitled Sutton Scholars, which is run in partnership with four leading universities and currently reaches around 500 students in disadvantaged areas. Visit

Photo: MA Education


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