High-flying pupils tend to go to Oxbridge, do well in their degrees and go on to get good jobs, but it is often the more average students who take the best advantage of the jobs market.
Rob Little, acting headteacher at Silverdale secondary school in Sheffield, said: "High-flyers tend to be very focused on where they want to go, and they normally get there. A lot of those that don't do so well end up being thrown in a direction where there are lots of career opportunities, and then they suddenly take off.
"Many of those who were high achievers at school go into the professions and are often quite influenced by their backgrounds, their peer group and sibling pressure. They will usually end up in a steady job but nothing outstanding. "
Elspeth Insch, headteacher at King Edward's school in Handsworth, Birmingham, said: "We are seeing a good number of pupils getting firsts who did not get three straight As at A-level."
High-flyers also sometimes end up earning less than their peers. Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Liverpool University, said: "Many of the real high-flyers stay within the university system where they earn very little. The thing that turns them on is discovering things about the world. They have a sense of vocation.
"Some become priests," he added.