England’s teenagers are just over half as likely to reach the highest levels in maths in international tests as students from other developed nations finds a major review of the support for highly able children.

England ranks 26th out of the 34 OECD countries when compared in terms of the proportion of highest achieving children in maths tests at age 15 according to the Sutton Trust research. The few high performing pupils in the England come mostly from independent and some from grammar schools, with “almost no pupils” achieving top levels from non-selective state schools warns the report.

In England only 1.7% of children reached the highest level in maths compared with 7.8% in Switzerland and 5.8% in Belgium (8.7% in Flanders), and an average of 3.1 % across all OECD countries. But the report, by the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, says that on a world scale, the picture is even more concerning – 26.6% achieved the highest level in Shanghai and 15.6% in Singapore (full listing in table below).   Maths in almost all countries is compulsory to the age of 18 except in England where almost 90% of students drop Maths after GCSE.  So comparisons at the age of 18 would look far worse than the already worryingly poor performance at 15.

The report argues that England’s poor international performance is the result of successive failures of policies and programmes to do enough to stretch the most able children.

It advocates that highly able children should be identified in tests at the end of primary school, and their progress and performance tracked in published secondary school tables. National tests meanwhile should include more difficult questions, so that there is ample opportunity for the highly able to show what they can do.

The last government created the ‘gifted and talented’ programme to get schools to stretch their most able students, but the report argues that a more honest and straightforward term would be ‘highly able’.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “These are shocking findings that raise profound concerns about how well we support our most academically able pupils, from non-privileged backgrounds. Excellence in maths is crucial in so many areas such as science, engineering, IT, economics and finance. These figures show that few bright non-privileged students reach their academic potential – which is unfair and a tragedy for them and the country as a whole.”

In response, the Sutton Trust is announcing a call for proposals to pilot projects supporting and stretching the highly able in non-selective state schools. These projects will be rigorously evaluated, with those that are successful scaled up to many more schools.

Co-author of the report, Professor Alan Smithers said: “Policy and provision for the highly able in England is in a mess. The root of the problem is that ‘gifted and talented’ is too broad a construct to be the basis of sensible policy. In our view the focus should be on those with the potential for excellence in the major school subjects. The key issue is that secondary schools should be held to account for the progress of the highly able.”

The review found that when schools were required to report the percentage of ‘gifted and talented’ pupils, the percentages ranged from zero to 100%. Interviews with headteachers and ‘gifted and talented’ co-ordinators in schools provided the explanation for the unrealistic figures: they were unclear exactly what was meant by ‘gifted and talented’.

“It was not unusual to hear the complaint that the highly able are a neglected group,” says the report. It warns that low income pupils in particular could be isolated in poor schools.

Some schools have attempted to provide for the high attainers within school through setting, streaming, accelerated learning and extension studies. Others have concentrated on out-of-school activities such as master classes, competitions and visits. “In some cases, ‘gifted and talented’ appears to have been more of a rationing device for popular trips than a means of high-level education.”

The report recommends that the “confusing and catch-all” construct ‘gifted and talented’ be abandoned. Instead the focus, as far as schools are concerned, should be on children capable of excellence in school subjects, with pupils termed simply as the ‘highly able’.

Highly able children should be identified in Key Stage 2 tests at the end of primary school, possibly those making up the top ten per cent of performers nationally in state schools, and their progress and performance tracked in published secondary school tables. Evidence of under-performance of the highly able should be a trigger for the inspection of schools.

The report recommends that provision for the highly able should be integral to schools and not a bolt-on. At the same time national tests and exams should include more difficult questions, so that there is ample opportunity for the highly able to show what they can do.

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