To fully stretch the brightest and best we need a more serious focus on interventions

To fully stretch the best pupils involves a much more serious focus on interventions within schools that target those children who are falling behind.


Jonathan Clifton is a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR); follow him on Twitter: @jp_clifton

Conservative MP Priti Patel has an article in today’s telegraph that claims Britain’s education system is falling behind other countries because we are not stretching the brightest pupils.

Here’s a snapshot of her argument:

“Thanks to 13 years of Labour government our education system concentrates on achieving basic minimums, rather than maximising the potential of young people. The consequences could hardly be more serious: our children are struggling to compete against those from other countries…

“The misguided ‘all must have prizes’ mantra failed the young people it was claiming to help… Why is South Korea so far ahead of Britain, when we have greater resources and such a high reputation for academic excellence?”

In a quirk of good timing, a report, “A long division: Closing the attainment gap in England’s secondary schools” (pdf), published by IPPR today, allows us to answer her last question.

It compares the proportion of students that reach different levels on the latest international PISA assessment. It shows that in England, 18% of students failed to reach basic proficiency in reading, compared to 10% in ‘world class systems’ such as Korea.

IPPR’s report goes on to calculate what it would take for the English system to match the performance of our ‘world class’ competitors.

The table below shows how many pupils would have to improve by one level in order for England to have the same distribution of scores as our key competitor: Level 2 is defined by the OECD as reaching sufficient proficiency to be able to succeed in life; Level 6 is exceptionally high performance:

It is clear from international evidence that the biggest challenge for England – both in terms of the proportion and absolute number of students needed to improve – is raising the achievement of our lowest performers. More than 80 per cent of the pupils who would need to improve by a level to ensure the UK becomes ‘world class’ come from attainment levels 3 or below.

None of this is to say everything is fine at the top. Of course our education system should be stretching the brightest pupils more. But it is clear the world’s best systems come out on top because of their ability to reduce their long tail of underachievement. (Incidentally that is also why London’s schools have been able to outperform the rest of the country, as Chris Cook from the FT explains here)

This will involve a much more serious focus on interventions within schools that target those children who are falling behind – including small group tuition and after school clubs.

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