British talent squandered through economic disadvantage

  • Highly-able disadvantaged pupils are almost twice as likely as similarly talented classmates to drop out of the top third of attainment at GCSE, achieving on average a whole grade lower per subject than the most affluent highly-able children.
  • 62% of better-off high-potential pupils got five or more 7-9s at GCSE in 2021, compared to 40% of high-potential children who were disadvantaged.
  • Over 28,000 disadvantaged young people who would be expected to achieve top grades at GCSE between 2017 and 2021 did not do so, impacting their future life chances.

New research published today by the Sutton Trust reveals the extent to which the talent of high-potential disadvantaged young people is being wasted due to inequalities in society and education.

Social Mobility: The Next Generation is the most comprehensive study to date on social mobility and wasted potential. It looks at a group of almost 2,500 young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who showed high academic potential at the end of primary school. It explores the progress of this group during secondary school in comparison to their non-disadvantaged peers with the same grades.

The research finds that in 2021, 62% of better-off high-potential pupils got five or more 7-9s at GCSE, while for high-potential pupils who were disadvantaged, it was less than 40%. Between 2017 and 2021, over 28,000 young people who would be expected to achieve top grades at GCSE based on the potential they showed at primary school, did not do so due to the disadvantage they faced.

While inequality impacts on academic attainment from an early age, these gaps accelerate during secondary school. The research shows that by the time disadvantaged pupils with high potential take their GCSEs, they have fallen behind similarly talented classmates by three quarters of a grade per subject, and by a whole grade per subject compared to the most affluent. They are almost twice as likely to drop out of the group of children who are in the top third of attainment.

The high-potential disadvantaged children most likely to fall behind at GCSE include White boys and Black Caribbean pupils, those with Special Educational Needs, and pupils in the North-East and North-West of England.

The research also highlights some of the reasons why academically talented disadvantaged young people fall behind. These children are over three times more likely to lack a suitable device to study at home, and twice as likely to lack a suitable place to study. They are also less than half as likely to receive private tutoring compared to other high attainers. Furthermore, 16% are young carers – three times more likely than other high attainers (5%). They are also less than half as likely to have a parent with a degree, and four times more likely to live in a single-parent household.

Despite their high potential, over a fifth (21%) of disadvantaged highly-able pupils believe that people like them don’t have much of a chance in life, more than double the proportion of their better off peers (10%). More than a third also reported that they would be unlikely to be studying in two years’ time, over double the proportion of private school pupils of any attainment level.

To maximise the talent of the next generation, the Sutton Trust is calling on the government to urgently review funding for schools in the most disadvantaged areas of the country, as well as to make the National Tutoring Programme a core part of a national strategy to close attainment gaps. It also recommends that universities make better use of contextual admissions which help to level the playing field including reduced grade offers, given that disadvantaged students with high potential often underperform in the school system.

The report authors set out a range of measures schools can take to ensure these pupils can reach their potential, including early identification and tracking, provision of targeted support including mentoring and tutoring, as well as family engagement.

Peter Lampl, Founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“It’s tragic that the talent of so many youngsters showing early promise is being allowed to go to waste. This is not only grossly unfair, damaging the life changes of young people, but by wasting their talent we’re also damaging the country.

“The government needs to increase funding in the most disadvantaged areas such as by means of the highly effective National Tutoring Programme. There is a sense that bright young people can look after themselves, but this is patently a myth. These young people need as much nurturing as the average youngster.”