Since 2010 the government has used the language of a “self-improving school-led system” to characterise its reforms, arguing that these are “moving control to the frontline”. Our research shows that this is a partial and idealised account: while some higher-performing schools are benefiting, the system as a whole is becoming more fragmented and less equitable. Toby Greany and Rob Higham from the UCL Institute of Education write in The Observer
Yet schools and academies have faced greater regulation through national accountability, which has become more punitive. One bad Ofsted report and a school can be removed from its local governing body and handed to a multi-academy trust (MAT) – after which the school ceases to exist as a legal entity.
Fear of such a takeover and the wider consequences of being downgraded by Ofsted has led many schools to focus relentlessly on national test outcomes, to constrain teacher judgment and to narrow their curriculum. These pressures have combined with a chaotic process of centralisation. Attempting to manage thousands of academies directly from Whitehall, the government has created new regional commissioner roles, but their work can be in tension with both Ofsted and local authorities. This has left schools with minimal support as they navigate an endless churn of new policies.
We found that the school system has become more socially stratified since 2010, with schools judged by Ofsted to be “outstanding” admitting fewer children eligible for free school meals, while schools judged “requires improvement” or “inadequate” have higher concentrations of these children than previously.
Meanwhile, schools have been encouraged to work together in new teaching school alliances (TSAs), led by schools the government has designated as high-performing “system leaders”, but competitive and economic pressures have made this challenging.
Some alliances have collaborated to share expertise and to support vulnerable schools. But the need for TSAs to generate income has encouraged a focus on selling easily commoditised “best practice” knowledge rather than on facilitating deeper collaborative learning processes that support professional growth for teachers.
Our research suggests that this economic push for MAT growth is in tension with an educational argument for school quality. We found no positive effect of MATs on pupil attainment and progress overall, but we did identify differences by size: while students in smaller MATs (those with two or three academies) tended to perform better than comparator schools, pupils in larger MATs (those with 16+ schools) did worse, particularly in secondary schools.
Read the full article ‘A market-led school system has put finances before the needs of pupils’
Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin
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