Potential for Success looks at how students with high prior attainment in England perform at school and reviews the evidence to find out how best to support them to reach their full potential.

The report finds that poorer pupils are less likely to perform well at the end of primary school than their classmates. Only 4% of disadvantaged students score in the top 10% when they’re 11 years old, compared to 13% of their more advantaged peers.

But even those disadvantaged pupils who get good grades in primary school fall behind their classmates with similar levels of attainment by the time they get to GCSE. 52% of these disadvantaged students get at least 5 A*-A grades at GCSE, compared to 72% of their classmates.

According to the report, if poorer students who do well at the end of primary school performed as well at GCSE as their classmates with similar levels of prior attainment, over 1,000 more disadvantaged students would achieve at least 5 A*-A grades each year.

As well as a student’s background, the research finds that the type and characteristics of the school they go to impacts on how well pupils with good grades at the end of primary school do later in school. High-attaining students do better at GCSE in schools in London and in converter academies, as well as schools with more high-attaining students. They do worse at schools with more free school meal eligible pupils, further highlighting the barriers faced by young people in poorer areas of the country.

While there are far higher proportions of pupils who did well at primary school in grammar schools – over half of all students in grammars were in the top 10% at the end of primary school, compared to just 8% of students in comprehensives – the report finds that disadvantaged students make up a much smaller proportion of the high attainers in grammars: just 1 in 17 of all high attainers in grammars are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, compared to 1 in 8 in comprehensive schools.

The report also highlights that white students from disadvantaged backgrounds have the lowest level of attainment at GCSE, with only 45% with high prior attainment gaining 5A*-A at GCSE, compared to 63% of black students and 67% of Asian students.

Potential for Success identifies examples of good practice in schools who do particularly well for their pupils with good grades at the end of primary school. However most schools have very small numbers of these students, with a typical school having just 11, one of which will be disadvantaged.

To combat this ‘wasted talent’ and ensure that disadvantaged students are able to fulfil their potential, the Sutton Trust is calling for stronger evidence and evaluation of activities that support pupils who did well at the end of primary school. The report also recommends that:

  • Ofsted inspections should routinely assess a school’s provision for disadvantaged students and GCSE attainment scores for poorer pupils with high prior attainment should be published in school league tables.
  • Access to high quality teaching should be increased, with incentives for teachers with more experience and subject specialism to teach in disadvantaged schools.
  • Support students with the potential for high-attainment should be as inclusive as possible given that they can be difficult to identify.
  • All students should have access to high quality extra-curricular activities to boost essential life skills.

As part of efforts to combat the problem, the Sutton Trust runs Sutton Scholars, a programme for high-attaining state school students in early secondary school.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“It is worrying to see that disadvantaged pupils with the potential for high achievement are falling behind their more advantaged peers. All pupils should be given the chance to realise their potential regardless of their background.

“We need better evidence of how to improve the attainment of disadvantaged highly able students. Schools should be monitored and incentivised to do this.”


  • The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 200 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  • The report is authored by Dr Rebecca Montacute, Research Fellow at the Sutton Trust
  • The report uses data from the National Pupil Database, focusing on the top 10% of pupils in English and maths measured at Key Stage 2 at the end of primary school, and looks at their GCSE performance, measured over three years from 2014-2016. Case study schools were selected on the basis of the performance of their disadvantaged students with high prior attainment during this period of time.

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