Social justice and schools: Collaboration vs competition

Written by: David Anderson | Published:
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In this seven-part series, teacher and school leader David Anderson considers how schools can be a key driver for social justice and offers us a blueprint for how we can make our education system more equitable. In part two, he looks at why we must end our system’s obsession with competition – and how we can do this

SecEd series: A school system that drives social justice

In my first article in this series, I presented the all-too familiar situation of a town, city or area with a well-defined hierarchy of school provision. You can imagine it – a prestigious independent or grammar school at the top and less well-regarded, comprehensive state schools at the bottom (Anderson, 2020).

In this article, I want to consider how competition between schools contributes to this stratification in our education system and will argue that it is through collaboration, rather than competition, that we will ensure greater equity in our schools.

A consumer marketplace

In the English education system schools compete with other local schools to attract students. This has been the case since the 1988 Education Reform Act, which placed parents as consumers, able to choose their product – the school of choice for their child – from a market place.

The aim was this: by introducing competition, it was claimed, standards across all schools would be driven up. Schools, eager of course to ensure full rolls, have therefore had to advertise their unique advantages over their competitors. While other measures, such as access to sporting or creative opportunities are often touted, schools largely rely on Ofsted rankings, Progress 8 and other public outcome statistics to try and win this competition.

For example, one school in the Midlands boasts as the strapline on its homepage: “We outperform every school in the area by quite a distance. Our students achieve a grade more on average, in every subject, than at the nearest grammar schools and, according to the National Teaching Awards, we have the best maths department in England.”

This seems to be a school desperate to attract students, but at the expense of other local schools.

Another selective school located more than 20 miles away, and therefore operating well outside its natural catchment area, regularly posts whole-page adverts in local free magazines promoting its open evenings, not to mention its 11-plus testing information events for year 5. This is in stark contrast to most of the other 20 secondary schools that lie between my home and the school in question. Again, in its quest to drive up pupil numbers, I would argue that this school is damaging the future intake for all the other schools within its massive catchment area.

I am sure you can name schools local to you that operate in a similar manner – an unaltruistic by-product of a market-driven system. If you want a look, simply type your postcode into the Department for Education’s (DfE) schools comparison website or and see how the hierarchy pans out in your area.

But unpalatable self-promotion strategies are not the main issue with our competitive system. My argument is this: schools compete with other local schools to attract students. The schools that appear to be the most successful can attract more students, and indeed more students with academically motivated or advantaged parents. This will inevitably lead to better outcomes in a variety of accountability measures, which will in turn increase the school’s ability to self-promote and so on. Furthermore, for a school to be oversubscribed leads to greater financial stability and security, and therefore improved strategic financial planning.

But that is not the end of it. Schools that appear to be more successful will also attract bigger fields of candidates for teaching and other positions. This is likely to lead to higher quality staffing, improvements in the delivery of teaching and learning and subsequently better outcomes for students.

It follows then, that the reverse is true, and research backs this up. Schools that appear to be less successful – those in Ofsted categories, the “sink” school, the school at the bottom of the educational pile – have an uphill battle in recruiting students generally, but particularly students from more academically motivated backgrounds and, inevitably, will struggle to recruit and retain quality staff (Reay, 2017; Gorard & See, 2013).

Our system of highly public, high-stakes accountability measures with league tables and school rankings leads to a self-perpetuating cycle of frustration for those with the least choice. The competitive English education system is set up to favour those who are most advantaged in society – those who can afford to pay for an independent school education, for a private tutor to help prepare for the 11-plus, or to move to a certain catchment area to reach a “better” school.

It is, of course, the more disadvantaged who have the least or often no choice in our competitive system.

This is where social justice is absent – the forgotten children at the bottom of the educational hierarchy. And all this, of course, despite the fantastic efforts of the dedicated and hard-working professionals who form the staffing backbone of these “less desirable” schools.

International lessons

So, what can we learn from the approach of other countries?

In her fantastic book Cleverlands (2016), Lucy Crehan explores how in Japan all students up to the age of 15 attend their local elementary and junior school. Teachers are employed by the local board of education and are moved schools typically every four to five years. Teachers are given frequent feedback on their practice and are confidentially graded A to E. This grade is then used when moving teachers between schools to help balance the quality of teaching over time.

I would not necessarily advocate such an approach in England, but it is an example of how other nations place equity at the heart of their system.

In Finland, there is a consistent focus on equity and cooperation rather than choice and competition. Since the 1970s, their aim has been to have a good school for every child, but they have sought to achieve this without a school inspection regime, with no standardised high-stakes testing before the age of 18, and with the absence of test-based accountability.

And yet, Finland outperforms most other nations in terms of academic outcomes and in terms of equity of education, according to the OECD (Schleicher, 2019). In Finland, education is seen as a “public good” and is therefore protected as a human right.

Our current situation with Covid-19 presents a rare opportunity for the English education system to operate without our usual set of high-stakes accountability measures – with no SATs, GCSEs and A level results to be used to publically rank our schools. The current cessation of Ofsted visits may also mean subsequent comparisons carry less weight.

Do we, as teachers and school leaders, have an opportunity to demonstrate that the collaboration between schools that we have drawn upon in the challenging circumstances of the last few months is a superior way to improve practice and therefore raise standards?

Schools work best when given the opportunity to collaborate with others, but this must operate in a framework of trust. Colleagues working within multi-academy trusts (MATs) know this only too well, but for schools outside of MATs, or network partnerships, the spectre of competition looms large and prevents authentic collaboration from taking place.

What I would like to see is a removal of publicised high-stakes accountability and therefore public rankings of schools. There is no evidence that this raises standards in all schools and, in fact, it perpetuates inequity in our system at the expense of those with the least choice, as argued by Melissa Benn and Janet Downs in their 2016 book The Truth About Our Schools.

I would like to see all schools collaborate in an authentic way, free from the pressures of marketisation. There are undoubtedly models of excellent practice within MATs, local authorities and other peer challenge partnerships that could form a new framework for genuine sustainable school improvement for all schools and not at the expense of the “forgotten few”.

For true equity in education we need to reach a position where “parents rarely worry about the quality of their neighbourhood school because there is so little between-school variation”. This may seem an impossible dream but it is exactly how Pasi Sahlberg describes the situation in Finland, in his book Finnish Lessons 2.0. In 2018, PISA found that Finland had the lowest between-school variation of any OECD nation, an accolade definitely worth competing for (Schleicher, 2019).

There are many factors that contribute to the massively unlevel playing field of the English education system. Competition is one, but another is resources. And that is what I will tackle in my next article in this series.

  • David Anderson is deputy principal at Uppingham Community College in Rutland. The remaining articles in this series will publish in June and July.

Further information & references

  • Gorard & See: Overcoming Disadvantage in Education, Routledge, 2013.
  • Reay: Miseducation, Policy Press, 2017.
  • Schleicher: PISA 2018: Insights and interpretations, OECD, 2019:

Further reading

  • Cleverlands, Lucy Crehan, 2016.
  • Engines of Privilege, Francis Green and David Kynaston, 2019.
  • Miseducation, Diane Reay, 2017.
  • Reframing Education, Mike Murray, 2019
  • The Truth about Our Schools, Melissa Benn & Janet Downs, 2016
  • Finnish Lessons 2.0, Pasi Sahlberg, 2015.
  • Posh Boys, Robert Verkaik, 2018.


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