Bright but poor pupils lag behind their bright but better-off classmates by around two years and eight months in maths, science and reading, according to new Sutton Trust research published today. The attainment gaps within the most able 10% of pupils are even bigger for girls than they are for boys, standing at about three years in science and reading.

Global Gaps by Dr John Jerrim of the UCL Institute of Education (IoE) and Education Datalab analyses the 2015 test scores from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) PISA tests to assess how well the UK’s schools are doing for the top 10% of pupils. It shows that socio-economic gaps between high achieving pupils are significant throughout much of the developed world.

While England’s highest achievers score above the median score for OECD countries in maths, science and reading, bright pupils in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland perform, on average, worse. Wales performs particularly poorly with only the highest achievers in Chile, Turkey and Mexico getting lower scores in reading and maths.  The mathematics skills of highly able pupils in Scotland have also declined since 2009.

The socio-economic gap in science for bright girls in England is equivalent to three years of schooling, eight months greater than that for boys, while for reading the three year gap is nine months greater than that for boys. There is no significant gender difference in maths, with a gap of around 2 years and 9 months for both girls and boys.

Previous research by the Sutton Trust found that over a third (36%) of bright but disadvantaged boys seriously underachieve at age 16. To address the gaps identified by today’s report, the Sutton Trust is calling on the government to establish a highly able fund to support the prospects of high attainers in comprehensive schools.

The Trust believes that ring-fenced funding, where high-potential pupils are tracked and monitored, would help to improve social mobility by widening access to top jobs and universities.

To support this, the Trust wants to see schools made accountable for the performance of their most able pupils, in the same way that they are for pupils who are eligible for pupil premium funding. The government could support this by reporting Progress 8 figures for highly able boys and girls in league tables.

Schools that have already developed a proven programme of support for their brightest pupils should be encouraged to support other schools in their region where highly able pupils underperform. They should also be invited to consider whether they are able to deliver a programme of extra-curricular support to broaden horizons and raise aspirations for children living in the wider area.

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“It is staggering that at age 16 bright but poor pupils lag behind their rich classmates by almost 3 years.  This results in a huge waste of talent which is why we at the Sutton Trust are calling on government to establish a Highly Able Fund.

“High potential pupils would be monitored and given specific support.  This would improve social mobility at the top by widening access to leading universities and to top jobs.”

Dr John Jerrim, author of the research brief, said:

“While England’s brightest pupils score around average in international tests – and better in science – this analysis shows that there are some very big socio-economic gaps in attainment between the brightest pupils from poor and better-off homes. There are also some very big challenges in Scotland and Wales highlighted by the research.”


  1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 180 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 UCL Institute of Education is a world-leader specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In the 2014, 2015 and 2016 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for education worldwide. It was shortlisted in the ‘University of the Year’ category of the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) awards. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its ‘outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the most recent Research Excellence Framework, 94 per cent of its research was judged to be world class. On 2 December 2014, the Institute became a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education.
  3. The paper uses data from the 2015 round of the Programme for International Assessment (PISA); a study of 15-year-olds performance in reading, mathematics and science conducted every three years by the OECD. The report focuses upon the scores pupils need to make it into the top 10% in each country.
  4. The table below provides a summary of the scores needed to make it into the top 10% of pupils in each country. The OECD equates 30 PISA test points to one year of schooling. Using this rule of thumb, we convert the ‘gap’ between high-achieving better-off pupils and poor pupils into an approximate number of months.
  England Northern Ireland Scotland Wales OECD median
All high-achieving pupils
Science 642 618 619 602 620
Mathematics 613 592 601 578 610
Reading 625 605 608 588 617
High-achieving better-off pupils
Science 680 648 659 629 657
Mathematics 649 623 633 607 645
Reading 665 637 639 614 649
High-achieving poor pupils
Science 598 582 581 576 575
Mathematics 567 556 556 551 565
Reading 585 578 574 562 576
Gap between high-achieving better-off and poor
Science 33 months 26 months 31 months 21 months 33 months
Mathematics 33 months 27 months 31 months 22 months 32 months
Reading 32 months 24 months 26 months 21 months 29 months


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