Fifteen years of school reforms have not closed the gap, researchers say

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

From the abolition of SATs for 14-year-olds to the introduction of academies, there have been countless school reforms over the last 15 years or so.

From the abolition of SATs for 14-year-olds to the introduction of academies, there have been countless school reforms over the last 15 years or so.

But despite the huge efforts to transform the secondary school system, research by University College London (UCL) and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) has found that school reforms have not bridged gaps in pupils’ academic attainment.

The study, published last month, examined the role that schools play in pupils’ education. Researchers analysed data from around 3,000 secondary schools in England between 2003 and 2016 and compared teachers’ experiences at work with those of employees elsewhere.

“Following a huge overhaul in state-funded education in the last decade or so, the proportion of variance in pupil attainment accounted for by schools has remained largely unchanged over that period, at around 10 per cent,” said David Wilkinson, a principal research associate at UCL and one of the report’s three authors.

“While some school-led initiatives may have a part to play in attainment levels, it is likely that parental investments in children’s education and early years interventions could have significantly more influence on pupil attainment.”

Co-author Professor Alex Bryson, professor of quantitative social science at UCL’s department of social science, added that while schools are clearly important for improving pupil attainment, “attending a ‘good’ school only adds a small amount more value than attending a ‘bad’ school”.

The authors also found that the most effective and high-performing schools were those that had rigorous hiring practices and employee participation schemes. They also reported that performance-related pay and performance monitoring, which are widely used by other sectors, were ineffective in schools.

Prof Bryson said: “We found that teachers express greater job satisfaction than employees in other workplaces but they also expressed greater organisational commitment. Job-related stress and anxiety were no more prevalent among school employees than among employees elsewhere. Investing in school employees’ job quality is therefore a win-win for employees and employers because it is strongly associated with both employee wellbeing and its improvements in school performance.”

The academics also reported that academy schools employ more middle leaders (classroom teachers with leadership roles) than other schools. But while having more middle leaders was associated with better school performance in single academy trusts this was not necessarily the case in multi-academy trusts. The authors of the report said that their findings are helpful for policy-makers, governing boards and executive school leaders.

Further information

Better schools for all? School effectiveness and the impact on pupils, UCL & NIESR:


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