How England treats its gifted children

The next few days will be a tense time for thousands of English families, as they wait to find out which state secondary school their 10- and 11-year-old children will attend in September. If the child is especially bright, and the school news delivered on Monday or Tuesday isn’t good, the long-term effects could be devastating.

According to many parents, state education is failing its brightest children. The problem is not lack of cash. The past 13 years of Labour government will be remembered as an age of generous spending on education, up from £30bn in 1997-98 to £67bn in 2008-09. Some £50bn has been spent on new school buildings, and teachers are better-paid.

Labour has also made many attempts to help the most able pupils. Currently, around 800,000 children are labelled “gifted and talented”, but there has never been a consensus about what constitutes a “gifted child”. Following the 1944 Butler Education Act, the grammar-school elite were selected by an IQ test. Now the government says “gifted” describes “students who achieve, or have the ability to achieve, significantly above average (compared with other students in their year group at their school) in one of the national curriculum subjects”. This in-school comparison means that not every child labelled “gifted” will be Oxbridge material.

“Gifted children are one of the country’s most valuable assets and they’ve been treated appallingly,” says Dr John Marincowitz, headmaster of Queen Elizabeth’s School, a boys’ grammar in the north London suburb of Barnet.

Marincowitz is well qualified to assess the requirements of the very brightest, having taken Queen Elizabeth’s to the top of the league tables, where it matches the leading independent schools in GCSE and A-level results. Last year QE sent 25 of its 150-strong upper sixth to Oxbridge. QE prepares its pupils for the most taxing exams and the finest universities, despite 40 per cent of them having English as a second language.

This September the school will accept 180 boys, out of 1,380 who sat its exams. Marincowitz says the school could take 500 or 600 more of those boys and still get excellent results. Demand for top-notch academic education wildly outstrips its availability.

Only seven per cent of English children attend fee-paying schools, costing up to £30,000 a year. Many are oversubscribed and able to admit only the best and brightest applicants. The other 93 per cent are in state-funded education, where it is often harder to achieve the high grades and beefed-up CVs that students need for access to leading universities.

In A-level league tables published by the Financial Times in March 2009, only 24 comprehensives are in the top 500 schools – the top perfomer is the partially-selective comprehensive Watford Grammar School for Boys (number 89).

Last June, the Sutton Trust (a charity that seeks to promote social mobility through education, set up in 1997 by the businessman Sir Peter Lampl) gave evidence to the House of Commons committee on education and access to the professions. According to the trust’s data, the private sector educates more than half the leaders in business, medicine and journalism: “Our concern is that state-school pupils may make up an even smaller proportion of the next generation of leaders,” the trust said. “When we looked at younger leading lawyers (up to age 39), 71 per cent were independently educated.”

Over its three terms in office, Labour has launched a confusing array of schemes to help gifted children. From 1997 to 2002, able pupils in inner cities were supported through Excellence in Cities, which provided “in school and out-of-hours provision for Gifted and Talented (G&T) learners”. In 2002, the government commissioned the University of Warwick to establish a National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, which developed summer schools and other “outreach activities” for the top five per cent of secondary students.

Five years later this was closed and, in 2007, the government commissioned an online “virtual academy”, which offered extra help for the most clever children. All these schemes have been shut.

Today, the focus is on integrating the most able children within the school system. From next year, primary and secondary schools will be expected to identify the brightest 5 to 10 per cent of pupils, and then give them appropriate support – through extra work, extra activities or whatever the school feels will work best.

According to schools minister Diana Johnson, speaking earlier this month to a House of Commons committee on gifted and talented education, the government feels that: “It is right that teachers should be put in the driving seat in deciding what support will best meet the needs of their G&T pupils.” She also said that schools would be given a new “online needs analysis tool” and that bright children from poor homes would be given a one-off £250 grant, to help them “fulfil their potential”.

The mish-mash of policies during the Labour years hasn’t all been bad news. It has brought the needs of the bright child much higher up the education agenda – previously, all the focus in state schools was on those with “special needs” at the lower end of the ability spectrum. “Credit is due to Labour,” says Professor Deborah Eyre, professor of education at the University of Warwick, and formerly head of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth. “This was the first time there’d been any kind of programme for the top ability. But it wasn’t clear about its goals and nothing got into its stride before it was switched.”

New G&T schemes have been halted for the moment, but what will happen if the Conservatives win this year’s election? Despite the popularity of grammar schools, the Tories have stated they have no intention of expanding that system. Instead, “setting pupils” (teaching them in groups of similar ability, with different sets for each subject) is considered one way forward. Nick Gibb, the Conservative schools spokesman, says: “The orthodoxy is mixed-ability teaching, but bright children suffer most from this orthodoxy. The key is to set and then to accelerate the curriculum. We intend to allow schools to teach harder exams, such as the IGCSE and IA Level, and we’re toying with a points system, requiring schools to indicate how many pupils got eight or more GCSEs.” Opinion has long been divided over which sort of teaching most benefits the very bright child. After the second world war, state-funded grammar schools worked well for the clever but consigned those who failed the 11-plus exam to secondary modern schools.

In 1965, Labour education secretary Anthony Crosland told local authorities that comprehensives would be the future for state education, replacing selective schools. The earliest of these often taught children streamed by ability, but by the 1970s a liberal progressive approach to teaching was in vogue: no sets, no streaming, no selection. Many of the middle-classes fled comprehensives, fearing (often correctly) that their children would not be pushed hard enough.

The introduction of the National Curriculum under the Conservatives’ 1988 Education Reform Act, followed by a Labour focus on raising standards, has led to better exam results. The government target is for a minimum of 30 per cent of pupils to get five GCSEs, including English and maths at grades A*-C. In schools where most struggle to reach this minimum, heads are unlikely to prioritise those who easily surpass it.

Last December, the schools inspectorate Ofsted published a survey of 26 secondary schools deemed to be neglecting their “gifted and talented” pupils. It said: “Many teachers were not convinced about the importance of making differentiated provision for these pupils.” This feeling is widespread: at an event hosted by an independent school that had offered extra coaching to Oxbridge candidates from local comprehensives, I asked one of the comprehensive heads why a Cambridge-bound pupil could not have received that extra tuition at her own school. “Our job is to serve everyone, not serve the elite,” she said.

Dr Lee Elliot Major, research director at the Sutton Trust, says that among teachers there is “a confusion between excellence and elitism, and often a confusion between an academic elite and a social elite. There’s also a real reluctance to differentiate between children.”

Pupils, too, sometimes resist being labelled “gifted and talented”, partly as it could lead to bullying but also because much of the “enrichment” on offer is in after-school hours. “If you’re a bright kid, you get punished with more work on Saturdays and in the summer holidays,” says Marincowitz at Queen Elizabeth’s.

Independent schools have no qualms about elitism or extra work. Most pre-test on IQ, select rigorously and, once children are admitted, they are worked very, very hard. (“You should be studying for 100 hours this Easter,” one London independent school tells its GCSE students).

The secret of private schools’ success is often not the teaching, but the other pupils. According to Professor Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education at London University: “The compositional effect, the effect of the peer group, is very important. It’s a smart choice to have smart kids around you.”

A widespread return to selective state secondaries – where bright children can be educated alongside their peers – is unlikely. So the best hope for parents of bright children may lie with comprehensives that meet the needs of all pupils, including the most gifted. One such school is Seven Kings High in east London. Although more than 100 pupils have refugee status and 75 per cent have English as a second language, Seven Kings is proof that a non-selective comprehensive can deliver academic excellence.

Seven Kings’ sixth form is a similar size to Eton’s and in 2009 produced similarly pleasing results. Last summer, 64 pupils got an A grade in chemistry (Eton had 37). A third of its upper sixth went on to elite universities including the LSE, Cambridge and Imperial College; 20 were accepted to read dentistry or medicine; and one boy won a scholarship to a US Ivy League university.

One reason for the school’s success is that it knows what it takes to get into prestigious universities and offers a tailored approach to each pupil’s studies, according to its head, Tracy Smith: “This isn’t an exam factory, but we do know the syllabus and understand the requirements.”

While no one at Seven Kings is publicly identified as “gifted and talented”, all pupils are treated as though they could be. It is an attitude that Warwick’s Deborah Eyre supports: “We ignore our most talented at our peril. We need leaders and they can’t just come from the seven per cent who can afford to pay.”

Sadly, schools such as Queen Elizabeth’s or Seven Kings are rare in the state sector. As parents wait for the e-mail or envelope giving secondary school offers this week, they can do no more than have their fingers crossed for their child’s future.

Lisa Freedman runs At The School Gates, an education consultancy

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.