Saturday 7 March 2015

Helping the highly able

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I look at the debate around the highly able in state schools.
This week saw a flurry of activity on the issue of promoting the interests of highly able – or gifted and talented – students in state schools. With Ofsted issuing its second stinging review in two years, and Tristram Hunt announcing plans for a new ‘gifted and talented fund’ if he is elected, the issue of able students from low and middle income backgrounds has been placed firmly on the national agenda.
Ofsted’s report found that most schools had been slow in taking forward Ofsted’s previous recommendations, especially for 11-14 year-olds, and notes a degree of complacency in some. Half of all schools visited made no special provision for the highly able. Too often in those schools, the inspectors recorded a sense that ‘expected progress’ was not good enough.
It may be, as Ofsted suggests, that the new Progress 8 measure (which replaces five good GCSEs as the Level 4 benchmark from 2016) will start to change such attitudes, though a focus on the extent to which high attaining pupils (who are already singled out in the performance tables) gain at least 5As at GCSE and get into Russell Group universities and Oxbridge would be a far sharper measure. More to the point, as the Government moves towards ever less comprehensible measures on the attainment gap, there is a danger that the new data’s impenetrability to the public will reduce rather than increase accountability.
However, the bigger issue goes beyond measures of accountability. It is about the extent to which schools recognise that their most able students – those in the top 5-10% nationally, particularly from low and middle income backgrounds with whom the Sutton Trust is most concerned – need extra nurturing just as much as those who may start school as low attainers. When David Blunkett launched the first ‘gifted and talented’ provision and plans for what became the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth he saw such provision as an essential part of truly comprehensive education.
With government funding, many schools developed gifted and talented programmes, and accompanying support for Aim Higher summer schools meant that the needs of the highly able started to have a government focus that extended beyond grammar schools or even promotion of setting by subject ability, into masterclasses, university links, accelerated AS levels and other activities.
Sadly, the early energy of those programmes dissipated in the late 2000s, in part with the disbandment of the Warwick-based national centre in 2007 – I have met a number of young people at Oxford and Cambridge from modest home backgrounds whose ambitions were raised in their early teens by attending Warwick – and the lost focus that accompanied a changed contractor for the programme. Any remaining support for teachers was scrapped in 2010, ending the national drive for highly able students.
That’s why Tristram Hunt’s commitment this week to establish a national ‘gifted and talented’ fund is so welcome. It draws on ideas in our Mobility Manifesto last year and is an idea we would like to see adopted by all the political parties in the May election. Essentially his new fund would enable promising ideas to be evaluated, with schools bidding to draw down funds, using some of their own money to match government support.
The Sutton Trust has already started to develop a new programme in this space. Sutton Scholars, which started at University College, London is extending to Cambridge, Nottingham and Warwick offering an intensive two years of support to bright low and middle income students during the early years of secondary school, so they take the right subjects at GCSE that will lead on the A-levels that are in demand at leading universities.
The Trust supports over 2,100 students a year at our 10 UK and 2 US summer schools, and we greatly increase their chances of going to top universities. But we also know that we are not reaching enough able young people early enough in their education so that they have the ambition to apply for those summer schools and similar access programmes in the sixth form.
Whoever wins the next election should see provision for the highly able before GCSEs as an important a part of the access agenda as outreach in the sixth form or fee bursaries for undergraduates. We are not doing enough to harness the talents of all our young people. Ofsted’s timely report this week should be a wake-up call to all the parties in the months to May.