Schools account for ‘relatively small’ variance in pupils’ grades, and 4 more key findings

New research has suggested that school reforms in the past two decades have failed to bridge the gap in pupil attainment.

The Better Schools For All? report, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, examined the role schools play in pupils’ education.

Researchers from UCL and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) looked at data from about 3,000 secondary schools in England between 2003 and 2016.

Here are five key findings from the report:


1. The difference in attending a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ school is ‘relatively small’

While researchers acknowledged that secondary schools do matter when it comes to assessing academic attainment of pupils, they found that schools “do not account for as much of the variance in pupil attainment as some parents and policy makers seem to think”.

The study is the first to track the issue of pupil academic attainment at school over a significant length of time – since the early 2000s.

It found the proportion of variance in pupil attainment accounted for by schools has remained largely unchanged during the period, at around 10 per cent, despite the “huge overhaul” of state-funded schools (ie academies, free schools).

The report states: “Overall, the contribution of the school attended to the variance in pupil attainment is relatively small. This means that attending a ‘good’ secondary school only adds a small amount more value than attending a ‘bad’ secondary school.

The study highlights the importance of parents’ investments in their child’s education, as well as the value of investment in early years education.


2. State schools better at managing staff than private school counterparts

The study found that human resource management (HRM) is deployed more effectively in state schools than it is in private schools, “suggesting that the policy of private ‘sponsorship’ of state schools to encourage the transfer of best practice is misplaced”.

The report found schools tend to use a different mix of HRM practices compared to other workplaces, such as fewer incentives, targets and records but more employee participation practices.

Companies investing in the management of their employees through incentives, training, employee participation and other techniques is collectively known as HRM.

We are not optimistic that anything of substance on a large scale is likely to be gained by bringing in private school managers

Researchers found HRM was linked to improvements in schools’ financial performance, labour productivity, but does little to tackle teacher turnover, nor is associated with higher pupil attainment.

The government last week launched a £200,000 fund to help create partnerships between private and state schools, as well as universities.

But the report stated this focus “seems ill-conceived: if anything, state schools make more and better use of HRM practices than their private counterparts, so we are not optimistic that anything of substance on a large scale is likely to be gained by bringing in private school managers.”


3. Performance-related pay for teachers is ‘ineffective’

Increased use of performance-related pay and performance monitoring, which do improve workplace performance elsewhere in the economy, are ineffective in schools, the study found.

These findings “raise concerns about the government’s hope that greater use of performance pay for teachers will bring about improvements in school performance,” the report adds.

“Pay was linked to organisational commitment in non-school environments, but not schools, confirming the limited value of pecuniary rewards for commitment in an environment where employees are mission-orientated,” the report states.

“Higher pay, although linked to improved job satisfaction and lower job-related anxiety, is not linked to organisational commitment among school staff, suggesting pecuniary rewards may be of limited value in engendering commitment in an environment where employees are ‘mission orientated’.”

The study also found that job-related stress and anxiety were no more prevalent among school employees than among employees elsewhere.


4. Bigger middle leader teams linked to higher school performance – but not in MATs

On average, academies had a higher number of teachers in middle leadership, with “some indication” that schools increased the size of these teams after converting.

Schools with more middle leaders “tended” to be rated more highly by Ofsted in terms of leadership and management.

The study found that in single academy trusts (SATs), and in some non-academy schools, the number of people in middle leadership roles was positively associated with school performance.

However, in schools which formed part of MATs, “no significant relationship was apparent”.

There was also “no compelling evidence” found that school performance changes when a new headteacher enters a school, although researchers warned that effects may only become apparent over a longer period of time.


5. Employee commitment higher in schools than in other workplaces

Researchers found that school employees report a greater organisational commitment than other employees, and that higher organisational commitment is associated with better school performance.

School employees also expressed greater job satisfaction and job contentment than employees in other workplaces.

“Although it is commonly thought that teachers and other school staff suffer particularly acute levels of job-related stress and anxiety, our study suggests they are not exceptional in this regard. Where they are exceptional is in their organisational commitment: it is higher among school staff than elsewhere in the economy,” the report states.


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