Education reforms creating system of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’

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Inequality in England’s schools appears to have increased following government reforms, with fewer children from less well-off backgrounds now attending higher rated schools.

Professor Toby Greany and Dr Rob Higham, authors of the hard-hitting 'Hierarchy, Markets and Networks' study, warned current policies were creating a “system of winners and losers” as schools acted in “selfish” ways to protect their own interests. They found the system had become less equitable, with higher achieving schools accepting fewer pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds than before.

Faced with pressures to perform to achieve higher Ofsted grades, for fear of being taken over by Multi-Academy Trusts that could narrow their curriculums, the report looked at the tactics schools were implementing to attract pupils and funding.

Two thirds of school leaders surveyed as part of the study agreed that "inequalities between schools are becoming wider as a result of current government policy".

The new state of the nation report by the UCL Institute of Education included 47 school case studies, from 2014 to 2017. It analyses how well the ‘self-improving school-led system’ (SISS) policy agenda, which was brought in in 2010 by the coalition government has worked, and the implications it has had on schools. The research also surveyed almost 700 school leaders, looked at 10 years of Ofsted results and analysed how well Multi-Academy-Trusts worked.

The report states: “The schools judged Good and Outstanding between 2010 and 2015 saw a relative reduction in the percentage of students eligible for free school meals (FSMs) compared to the 2005-2010 period, while schools judged Satisfactory, Requires Improvement and Inadequate saw a relative increase. Schools that retained an Outstanding grade between 2010 and 2015 saw a greater relative reduction in FSM pupils compared to schools that were Outstanding in 2010 but that had been downgraded by 2015.

The report also found many schools struggled with the competitive pressures over the types of pupils and the levels of funding they could attract, leading to high stress levels.

The report quoted one school leader as saying: “It doesn’t sit easily with my values as a teacher, but everybody wants those bright, sharp, well-motivated, middle-class children who are going to get the top grades.”

It also found “support for the most vulnerable children is reducing, with a tendency for these pupils to become more concentrated in certain schools”.

Co-author Professor Toby Greany warned: “The problem is that the system is hard-wired to encourage selfish behaviour, because the consequences of a drop in exam scores or Ofsted grade can be so catastrophic.

“At present we see a system of winners and losers, with increasing incoherence and a loss of equity as a result.”

While higher status schools seemed to be benefiting from policies, schools on the other end of the spectrum were facing more challenges, the study found, such as being undersubscribed and having “disproportionate numbers of disadvantaged, migrant and hard-to-place children”.

The differences in schools were further highlighted by what schools interpreted as “challenging” behaviour. “Several schools in one locality, for instance, had been shocked to learn a higher-status neighbour made referrals to children’s social care for ‘repeated swearing’ when, one of the headteachers argued, referrals ‘in my staff’s head [are for] things like biting, kicking, spitting … injuring people’,” the study said.

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