Over a third (36%) of bright but disadvantaged boys seriously underachieve at age 16, new Sutton Trust research reveals today. Clever but poor girls are slightly less likely to underperform, with just under a quarter (24%) getting disappointing GCSE results. These figures compare with 16% of boys and 9% of girls from better off homes who similarly fall behind by age 16.

The new Sutton Trust research brief, Missing Talent by Dr Rebecca Allen, Director at Education Datalab, looks at the 7,000 pupils (including 943 boys and 614 girls who are disadvantaged) every year who scored in the top 10% nationally at the end of primary school but who receive a set of GCSE results that places them well outside the top 25%. Today’s report identifies who is at risk of falling in to this group and becoming ‘missing talent’.

For all the able young people studied, being from a poor home more than doubles your chances of missing out on top GCSE grades. This means that bright disadvantaged pupils will on average score 4As and 4Bs while their equally able classmates from better off backgrounds get 8 straight As. But the problem is much more pronounced for some students, as one in ten of the poor but clever pupils barely achieve C grades (or do much worse), lagging behind their more-advantaged peers by almost a whole GCSE grade per subject.

The bright but disadvantaged group is also less likely to take subjects that will stand them in good stead for university choices. Almost a quarter will not be taking a language at GCSE and just 53% will take triple sciences – separate papers in physics, chemistry and biology – compared with 69% of their more advantaged peers.

If you are a highly able pupil, your chances of falling behind could be affected by where you live. The report identifies the areas in England with the highest proportion of highly able pupils who underachieve: eight out of the ten worst performing local authorities are in either the North of England or the Midlands.

The Sutton Trust wants the new government to establish a new highly able fund to test the most effective ways of improving the progress and attainment of highly able students in comprehensive schools and to show that the needs of highly able students, especially those from low and middle income backgrounds, are placed high on the national policy agenda.

The Trust is concerned that, since the demise of the gifted and talented programme, too many schools lack special provision for the highly able. The Trust is piloting a model of support for bright students in early secondary school. Sutton Scholars is run in partnership with four leading universities, including Cambridge, and currently reaches 500 of the brightest students in state schools serving poorer areas‎. The Trust hopes to expand the programme more widely across the country.

The report urges that:

  • All schools must be made accountable for the progress of their most able pupils and these pupils should have access to a broad traditional curriculum that widens their future educational opportunities.
  • Highly able pupils from poor families are at high risk of underperforming at age 16. Schools should be encouraged to use their pupil premium funding for those pupils to improve the support they are able to give them.
  • Schools that are very good at catering for highly able pupils should support local schools and be encouraged to deliver programmes of support to raise horizons and aspirations for children living in their wider area.

Dr Lee Elliot Major, Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust said:

“Today’s 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 pupils’ chance of reaching their full potential is linked to their background tell 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.”

­­­Report author, Dr Rebecca Allen, 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.”


  1.  The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 150 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 Mobility Manifesto, published by the Sutton Trust in September 2014 ahead of the party conference season and this year’s general election, sets out 10 practical policy steps to improve social mobility.
  3. Sutton Scholars is the Trust’s flagship programme to support highly able low and middle income students in ‎early secondary school, widening the pipeline of talent feeding initiatives aimed at later age ranges, including the Trust’s sixth form summer school programme. Sutton Scholars begins in key stage three (age 11-14) and offers a minimum of two years of attainment-raising and enrichment activity, delivered through leading universities, to pupils in the top 5-10 percent of the ability range. The programme – which fills a gap in provision since the demise of national programmes to support able learners – is currently being piloted.
  4. To identify missing talent in the research brief, the authors took the cohort of pupils at English schools  completing GCSEs in 2014 and looked at their mark on each KS2 test paper they sat in 2009. This detailed marks data was used to find the group of pupils who scored in the top 10% nationally at age 11. In this research brief they are called highly able pupils, following the Sutton Trust’s previously used notion of those ‘capable of excellence in school subjects’. The pupil’s Attainment 8 score in 2014 is used as a broad measure of their achievement across a traditional curriculum that is appropriate for highly able pupils. Missing talent are those highly able pupils that are not in the top 25% nationally at the age of 16. The disadvantaged group includes all those eligible for free school meals over the previous six years, the group eligible for the pupil premium.

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