England’s schools are divided between “winners and losers”, with higher-status institutions benefiting from new opportunities and resources while others battle with undersubscription and disproportionate numbers of disadvantaged pupils, new research has found.
The UCL Institute of Education’s state of the nation report found that two-thirds of headteachers believe inequalities between schools have widened a result of education reforms enacted since 2010.
A four-year study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, evaluated the aim of producing a “high autonomy, high accountability” school system and found that while the best-rated schools saw their numbers of poorer pupils fall, others ended up with disproportionate numbers of disadvantaged, migrant and hard to place children.
Analysis of national Ofsted results showed schools that sustained or improved their Ofsted rating to ‘outstanding’ between 2010 and 2015 saw, on average, a reduction in the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM). Schools that were downgraded to a ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ judgement in the same period saw the opposite.
The research was carried out between 2014 and 2017 and included 47 school case studies across four localities of varying socio-economic contexts, a survey of almost 700 school leaders, and statistical analysis of the impact of multi academy trusts on student outcomes.
It found that any increase in autonomy for schools since 2010 has been more than balanced out by changes to the accountability framework, which have allowed governments to “continue to steer the system from a distance”.
Schools are increasingly forced to compete for “authority and legitimacy”, with 91 per cent of secondary school leaders responding to the survey agreeing that ‘schools in my locality compete with each other to recruit students’.
“Improving a school’s Ofsted grade was the most immediate strategy for improving its reputation and position in the local status hierarchy, but we also observed a range of other practices,” researchers Toby Greany and Rob Higham said.
“These ranged from gradual, authentic work to enhance the quality of learning and engage parents, through to aggressive marketing campaigns and ‘cream skimming’ aimed at recruiting particular types of students.”
While multi academy trusts (MATs) were seen as one way for schools to achieve “greater financial security and clearer lines of accountability and authority”, the research also found there was “no positive impact from MAT status for pupils in either primary or secondary academies when compared to pupils in similar standalone academies”.
However, pupils in small and mid-sized MATs tended to perform better, on average, than their peers in comparable maintained schools in both phases.
But while smaller MATs seem to benefit pupils, they are being encouraged by the DfE to “grow or merge” and “adopt more corporate, bureaucratic and standardized approaches”, in search of “efficiencies and ‘economies of scale’”.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said a “radical change of direction” is required, in order to develop a system which “puts the needs and aspirations of all pupils, regardless of social background or circumstance, at its heart”.
“The consensus of the last 30 years that market methods are the way to improve education is broken. The government needs to act.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said the government wants “to improve education for every child”.
“We are investing £23 billion by 2020 to create more good school places and we are targeting £72 million at the areas that need it most to help improve prospects and opportunities for some of the most disadvantaged young people.”