Report Overview

This report draws on the 2015 OECD PISA scores to analyse the gaps in attainment between the top performers in the poorest and best off groups of UK children. Focusing on highly able 16 year olds across the four nations of the UK, it looks at overall performance and socio-economic gaps over time in reading, mathematics and science, in an international context of 38 OECD countries. The report reveals that while England’s highest achievers consistently score above the OECD average across the three subjects, bright but poor pupils lag behind their better-off classmates by around two years and eight months of schooling.

Written by John Jerrim, this report shows that such substantial gaps are in fact typical throughout the developed world, with England and Scotland about average in this respect. While Wales and Northern have substantially lower socio-economic gaps, this reflects the overall worse performance of their brightest students, in particular those from better-off backgrounds. The report also shows that, in England, the socio-economic attainment gap in science and reading performance is greater for girls than it is for boys, standing at around three years of schooling, eight months greater than the gap for boys. The report concludes with calls for the government to establish a ‘highly able’ fund to support the prospects of high attainers in comprehensive schools.


Key findings
  • England has some of the best young scientists anywhere in the world. Able children from poor backgrounds in England also perform comparatively well on the PISA science test; in only Finland and Estonia do the highest-achieving poor children perform significantly better in science than in England.
  • However, bright but poor pupils in England and Scotland (in the top 10% of achievement nationally, but the lowest quarter socio-economically) are substantially behind bright well-off pupils – a gap of around 2 years and 8 months, around the OECD average.
  • Across the three subjects of science, mathematics and reading, the socio-economic gap is smaller in Wales and Northern Ireland. However, this reflects the comparatively weak performance amongst the top socio-economic group, particularly in Wales, rather than any outstanding level of achievement among academically able pupils from low socio-economic status homes.
  • The gap is particularly big for girls in science and reading: bright but poor girls lag 3 years behind bright but better-off girls in science in England. This is 8 months greater than the equivalent gap for boys.
  • There has been little sign of improvement in PISA scores for the highly able across the UK since 2006, with declines seen in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in some subjects.

1. The government should establish a highly able fund to support the prospects of high attainers in comprehensive schools, where high potential children from low and middle income backgrounds are identified at the start of compulsory education and receive sustained interventions throughout their time at school.

An effective national programme for highly able state school pupils, with ring-fenced funding to support evidence-based activities and tracking of pupils’ progress would do much to improve social mobility, maximising the attainment of the majority of highly able students, widening entry to top universities, and improving their economic prospects in the long term.

2. All schools must be made accountable for the progress of their most able pupils.

These pupils should have access to triple sciences and a broad traditional curriculum, including a language and humanity, which widens their future educational opportunities. The Government should report the (3-year average) Progress 8 figures for highly able girls and boys in performance tables.

3. Schools where highly able pupils currently under perform should be supported through the designation of another local exemplar school.

In the small number of areas where there is no exemplary good practice, a one-off centralised support mechanism should be set-up

4. Exemplar schools already successfully catering for highly able pupils that are located in areas of under performance should be invited to consider whether they are able to deliver a programme of extra-curricular support to raise horizons and aspirations for children living in the wider area.