This report looks at the progress made during secondary school of young people from different backgrounds who were in the top third of attainers at the end of primary school.

High attaining pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have the best chance of becoming socially mobile, and Social Mobility: The Next Generation will explore, through a series of reports, what barriers there are to that group fulfilling their potential, and what are the circumstances and policies associated with educational and labour market success.

This first report, Lost Potential at Age 16, authored by the Trust’s Erica Holt-White and Carl Cullinane, uses data from the National Pupil Database and the COSMO longitudinal study to explore the progress during secondary school of pupils with the same grades on entry, but different socio-economic backgrounds, and shows the extent to which pathways diverge at this age.


Disadvantaged high attainers are more than twice as likely to fall out of the top third at GCSE


Disadvantaged high attainers are three times more likely to be a young carer


The proportion of disadvantaged high attainers who feel they don’t have much of a chance in life

Key Findings

What are the characteristics of disadvantaged high attainers?

  • Disadvantaged high attainers are less likely to be White (62%), than average (75%) and other high attainers (79%). Among them, the number of Black African and Bangladeshi pupils is more than double their proportion in the population.
  • They are also concentrated in London, with 25% attending school in the capital, compared to 14% of other high attainers. More advantaged high attainers are most likely to attend school in the wider South East. Just 5% of disadvantaged high attainers attend grammar schools, compared to 13% of other high attainers.
  • 16% of disadvantaged high attainers are a young carer – 11 percentage points more likely than other high attainers (5%). They are less than half as likely to have a parent with a degree, and four times more likely to live in a single-parent household compared to other high attainers.
  • Disadvantaged high attainers tend to be eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) for less of their school time than other FSM students, highlighting the impact of persistent disadvantage on grades.

How do disadvantaged high attainers progress at secondary school?

  • Disadvantaged high attainers had GCSE grades on average more than three quarters of a grade lower per subject than the grades of other high attainers, a full grade lower than those from the most affluent backgrounds, and are almost twice as likely to drop out of the top third of attainment at GCSE.
  • 62% of non-disadvantaged high attainers got five or more grade 7-9s at GCSE in 2021, compared to 40% of disadvantaged high attainers. If the disadvantaged group progressed at the same rate as their peers, there would have been almost 7,000 more achieving top grades. Over five years, this amounts to over 28,000.
  • Looking at Progress 8, a measure of progress made between primary school and GCSEs, disadvantaged high attainers make less progress than the average student (a third of a grade per subject), and score more similarly to other Free School Meal students (half a grade less than average), compared to other high attainers, who progress a third of a grade higher than average. There was a slight widening of this gap in 2020 and 2021 in comparison to previous years.
  • Within the disadvantaged high attainer group, those most likely to fall behind at GCSE included boys, White and Black Caribbean pupils, those with Special Educational Needs, and pupils in the North East.
  • In Year 12, disadvantaged high attainers were nearly twice as likely to be at a Further Education college (12%) compared to other high attainers (7%).

Experiences and attitudes

  • Despite their high grades, 21% of disadvantaged high attainers agreed with the statement ‘people like me don’t have much of a chance in life’, more than double the figure of other high attainers saying the same (10%).
  • Disadvantaged high attainers were over three times more likely to lack a suitable device to study at the beginning of the pandemic, and twice as likely to lack a suitable place to study.
  • They were less than half as likely to receive private tutoring compared to other high attainers, but more likely to receive catch-up tutoring at school – 26%, compared to 18% of other high attainers. Though this was less than other FSM pupils (34%).
  • 37% of disadvantaged high attainers feel they have fallen behind their classmates as a result of the pandemic’s disruption, compared to 22% of other high attainers.
  • When asked about what they are most likely to be doing in two years’ time, disadvantaged high attainers were 10 percentage points less likely to report that they think they will be studying compared to other high attainers, at 65% and 75% respectively. The figure for private school students of any attainment level is 85%.



For policymakers

  • There should be a national strategy to close the attainment gaps that have opened since the pandemic.
    • Addressing these gaps should be a national priority, with a long-term plan in place, based on evidence. This should include closing the gap at all levels of attainment, and not just the lowest attainers.
  • In order to deliver this, the government must urgently review the funding given to schools, particularly those in the most deprived areas.
    • The National Funding Formula should better reflect the level of need in schools. Disadvantage should be more highly weighted in the formula, and it should also reflect the persistence of eligibility for Free School Meals.
    • The Pupil Premium should be extended to 16-19 year olds in education and training. Disadvantage does not stop at 16, so key funding for this group should not do so either.
    • The National Tutoring Programme (NTP) should be seen as a core part of the school system going forward, with delivery re-focused in the long term to tackle the attainment gap. Tutoring programmes have been found to be beneficial for highly able students. Whilst the National Tutoring Programme has reached many disadvantaged students, a significant number have not yet benefited. Developing this programme provides a chance to have a long-term intervention to support disadvantaged pupils and narrow the attainment gap. Central funding of the NTP must be sufficient for schools to deliver high quality tutoring and bed the programme in for the long term.
  • School admissions should be reformed so there is a better socio-economic mix of pupils across schools, particularly in the most over-subscribed.
    • High attaining disadvantaged pupils are much less likely than their peers to attend a high performing school. Those who attend more socially mixed schools progress more at GCSE. Oversubscribed schools should consider a variety of ways of diversifying their intakes, including ballots, banding and priority for Pupil Premium applicants.

For universities

  • To make better and more ambitious use of contextual offers (including reduced grade offers) and admissions, to acknowledge the attainment gap.
    • Findings in this report show that disadvantaged students with high potential often underperform in the school system. Therefore, universities should make admissions decisions that take this context into account. For admissions decisions made for those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, including the summer 2023 intake, this is particularly important, especially for those who just miss out on their offer grades.
  • To recognise the disruption faced by students joining them in the autumn by supporting their transition and success in higher education.
    • When students arrive this autumn, universities should identify key gaps in learning at an early stage in the first term, and provide continuing support if necessary, as well as support for student mental health and wellbeing.
Top 10 tips for schools

Identifying highly able students

  • Despite the challenges in identification, it is still important to track highly able students, so your school can track the progress of the group and provide additional targeted support for those who have previously achieved highly but are falling behind.
  • All methods have limitations, but testing is likely to have fewer issues than identification by teachers, as it is easier to make the process transparent. Assessment of all students should be ongoing, starting when students are in primary school, and continuing throughout their time in education. Results of disadvantaged students should be considered within the context of their background.

Staff responsibility and organisation

  • Schools should consider designating a team of teachers as highly able coordinators, a group of staff with collective responsibility for implementing programmes and practices for the highly able.
  • A school’s highly able team should ensure all staff receive training on how best to cater for this group, coordinate the teaching of this group across the school and the sharing of best practice between schools.
  • Pupil premium funding should be used to support highly able disadvantaged students, to ensure they have access to activities and programmes tailored to their particular needs, and recorded in a school’s pupil premium report.


  • Due to the difficulties in identifying highly able students, wherever possible, interventions to benefit the highly able should be available to all students. This should include stretch activities in classes and extra-curricular activities to be open to attend (with promotion to high able students where required).
  • Structured mentoring and tutoring programmes should be accessible for disadvantaged highly able students (notably through the National Tutoring Programme using pupil premium to subsidise costs).
  • Teachers should adapt the level of challenge and support given to pupils according to prior knowledge and need. Classroom assistants should support those in the class with stretch activities.
  • Setting should be used with caution, as it can harm the attainment of students in lower sets. If used, sets should be fluid, with regular opportunities for students to move between different sets, and appropriate measures to manage mixed ability classes, such as teaching assistants.
  • Interventions should, where possible, also engage the families, guardians and communities of the students involved. For those from disadvantaged backgrounds particularly, support from their family and wider community can be vital in ensuring their progression and attainment.