Report Overview

Pupils from less well-off homes who have shown promise early in their school career are both a vulnerable and extremely important group for social mobility. Harnessing the potential of this group is an important goal for the education system, but many of them fall behind during their school career. Since the previous ‘gifted and talented’ programme ended in 2010, there has been no national programme for the highly able.

Authored by Dr Rebecca Montacute, Potential for Success analyses how high attaining students fare in secondary schools in England. The report also explores issues surrounding how to maximise the potential of high attaining young people through analysis of existing literature and case studies of good practice in schools that do particularly well for these students.


The proportion of disadvantaged students with high attainment at KS2 is 4%.


Over half of high-attaining disadvantaged students achieve 5 A*-A grades at GCSE.


1 in 17 high attainers are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Key Findings
  • Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be in the top 10% for attainment in English and maths at the end of primary school – referred to in this report as high attainers. Disadvantaged students are three times less likely to be in this high attainment group than their more advantaged peers: only 4% of disadvantaged students have high attainment at KS2, compared to 13% of non-disadvantaged pupils.
  • Furthermore, even for those disadvantaged pupils who do perform strongly in primary school, they are much more likely to fall behind at secondary school, compared to other high attaining students, across a range of measures. While high attainers overall make about an average level of progress between key stage 2 and key stage 4 (a Progress 8 score of .02, where the national average is zero), those from disadvantaged backgrounds fall substantially behind, with a negative Progress 8 score of -0.32.
  • They are also less likely to achieve the top grades that open doors to universities and employers: while 72% of non-disadvantaged high attainers achieve 5 A*-A grades or more at GCSE, only 52% of disadvantaged high attainers do. If high attaining disadvantaged students performed as well as high attaining students overall, an additional 1,000 disadvantaged students would achieve at least 5A*-A at GCSE each year.
  • High attainers from disadvantaged backgrounds who are white have the lowest level of attainment at GCSE compared to their peers in any other ethnic group. Only 45% of disadvantaged white students with high prior attainment gain 5A*-A at GCSE, compared to 63% of black students and 67% of Asian students from similar backgrounds.
  • Students with high attainment do better at GCSE in schools with lower proportions of students on free school meals, schools in London, in converter academies, and in schools with higher numbers of other previously high attaining students.
  • Disadvantaged students make up a much smaller proportion in grammar schools, compared to those in comprehensives, with disadvantaged high attainers only half as likely as high attainers overall to enter a grammar. In grammar schools, only 1 in 17 of all high attainers are from disadvantaged backgrounds, compared to 1 in 8 high attainers in comprehensive schools.
  • Maximising the potential of highly able young people poses three main challenges in schools: identifying the right students, offering them the right programmes and interventions, and managing the process organisationally in a sustainable way. While highly able students from certain backgrounds, in certain parts of the country, and attending certain types of schools face substantial barriers, what schools actually do for such students can be crucial for success.
  1. We urgently need stronger evidence and evaluation of activity to support the highly able. We welcome the recent announcement of the Future Talent Fund (aimed to help raise the attainment of highly able pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds). The government should now ensure that the fund is properly delivered, trials are robustly evaluated, and that findings from the work are implemented in schools as part of a national programme.
  2. Improving attainment of highly able pupils, specifically those from disadvantaged backgrounds, should be monitored and incentivised. Ofsted inspections should as a matter of course assess a school’s provision for its disadvantaged highly able students, and GCSE attainment scores for disadvantaged pupils with high prior attainment should be published as part of school league tables.
  3. Increasing access to high quality teaching is essential to allowing those with high potential to flourish. Teachers with more experience and subject specialism should be incentivised, for example by offering more money and more time out of the classroom, by government, or through multi-academy trusts, to teach in more disadvantaged schools and geographical social mobility cold spots.
  4. Support for the highly able should be as inclusive as possible. Highly able students can be difficult to identify. To ensure that all such students (especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds) have access to work that will fit their needs, programmes should be made widely available where possible, and any grouping or targeting should be flexible and regularly reassessed.
  5. Students of all backgrounds should have access to high quality extra-curricular activities in order to boost essential life skills that facilitate academic attainment and future success. The government should introduce a means-tested voucher system, or encourage schools to do so, in order for lower income families to access additional support and enrichment, including extra-curricular activities and one-to-one tuition. Development of essential life skills should be incentivised and rewarded in Ofsted inspection criteria.