Britain’s brightest boys from the least advantaged homes are more likely to score poorly on international reading tests than those in any other advanced nation, according to new Sutton Trust research published today.

The research, The Reading Gap, by Dr John Jerrim of the Institute of Education at the University of London, shows that England’s gap in international reading tests between high achieving 15 year-old boys from the most and those from the least advantaged backgrounds is equivalent to 30 months (2.5 years) of schooling.

Analysing the 2009 test scores from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) PISA tests, Dr Jerrim has found the high achievement reading gap in England is the second highest in the developed world. Only Scotland has a higher gap.

Among the top achievers, the gap is fifteen months or less in countries like Finland, Denmark, Germany and Canada, and eighteen months in Ireland.

Comparing youngsters of all abilities, the least advantaged fifth of English 15 year-olds lag 28 months behind the richest fifth of pupils. England is placed 23rd out of 32 countries, ahead of France, New Zealand and the USA, and close to the OECD average.  But, the gap is more marked for boys of higher ability in England than for the population as a whole.

The report follows an Ofsted survey last month showing that many state schools don’t have adequate provision for highly able youngsters. It also comes after Sutton Trust research in 2012 showed that only half as many English students reached the highest levels in the PISA Maths tests as the average across all OECD countries.

Now the Sutton Trust is urging the government to ensure that schools have good provision for the brightest students, so that they don’t lose out in places at the best universities and the top professions to those whose parents can afford to pay fees at independent schools.

The Trust wants ministers to back a targeted programme to test the most effective ways for state schools to stretch highly able students from low and middle income backgrounds.

The Trust also wants more information in secondary school league tables about the numbers of A and A* grades achieved by those scoring in the top 10 per cent of ability nationally in the primary school tests  – at present the data just covers the top third.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today: “It matters because it is clearly economically inefficient not to tap into talent wherever it exists. By not stretching our most able students from all backgrounds, we are not only failing them, we are reducing our ability to compete globally. Moreover, such under-achievement perpetuates those inequalities which make it so hard for bright children to move up in society.

“We need to improve the support given to highly able children in comprehensive schools and academies. That is why it is so important that there is a targeted scheme that ensures that those with high potential from low and middle income backgrounds are identified and helped to thrive. Parents and students need to know that highly able young people will be given the backing they need to succeed regardless of which school they attend.”

Dr John Jerrim, the report’s author, added: “My earlier research has shown that while English youngsters’ reading skills are heavily linked to their socio-economic background, the gap was about average within the OECD. For this study, I looked specifically at high achievers and at differences between girls and boys. The analysis shows that England stands out in international comparisons when considering the link between family background and high achievement.”


1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 135 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.

2. The report The Reading Gap is available at

3. The OECD PISA study for 2009 compared the reading scores of 15 year-olds in 32 countries, including England and Scotland. For this study, Dr Jerrim used the International Socioeconomic Index, a measure based upon the highest occupational status of a child’s mother or father. Within each country, children are divided into five groups, with each group containing approximately 20% of the 15 year old population. High achievers are defined as the top 10% within each group. Girls perform better than boys in the tests, though the socio-economic gap is similar in England. However, on an international comparison, high achieving boys in Scotland and England have the widest gap among the 32 countries surveyed. England’s exact position may be subject to sampling variation.

4. In 2012, a Sutton Trust report by the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham showed that 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 ranked 26th out of the 34 OECD countries when compared in terms of the proportion of highest achieving children in maths tests at age 15. That report is available at

5. James Turner’s blog. Reasons to be cheerful, can be read here.

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