“The economic and regulatory incentives facing state schools in England are increasingly in tension with an inclusive, broad and balanced education for pupils.
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.
Schools have been strongly encouraged (and sometimes forced) to become academies, which are independent of local government, on the premise that they will be freed from red tape.
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.
Schools have also faced stronger incentives to compete for students and the funding that is linked to them. New “providers” have been encouraged to run academies and free schools on the premise they will pressure existing schools to improve. Yet school leaders can feel obliged to put the market position of their school above all else, even if this means making decisions that contradict their professional values.
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……”