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A fine balance: why we need to focus on equity as well as autonomy and accountability in schools policy

By Cheryl Lloyd

Cheryl Lloyd explores what new Nuffield-funded research tells us about post-2010 education reforms.

Lacking in any formal definition, the term ‘self-improving school-led system’ (SISS) is sometimes used to describe a series of reforms introduced by the Coalition Government and schools policy since 2010. These reforms include expansion in the number of academies and the development of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), coupled with a reduced role for Local Authorities in school oversight. Another key feature has been efforts to embed new school-to-school support models, such as Teaching School Alliances.

A new report by Professor Toby Greany and Dr Rob Higham from the UCL Institute of Education provides the first in-depth evidence of how schools in England have interpreted and begun to respond to the SISS policy narrative. Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the researchers drew on case studies from 47 schools across four localities and worked with NfER to conduct a survey of almost 700 head teachers, and analysis of Ofsted results, pupil composition, progress and attainment over a 10-year period.

Commodification, fragmentation, equity and legitimacy

At a Nuffield Foundation seminar to share and discuss the findings, the researchers highlighted the complexities of the education system and how these can play out from the perspective of school leaders and other key stakeholders. Some are optimistic about the potential for their school to become self-improving, and the increasing importance of partnership working, and the benefits this can bring. But this is not the case for all, and four themes emerge from the research as warranting further attention:

  • A new economy of knowledge has emerged through the commodification of professional knowledge. Higher-status schools are incentivised to sell ‘best practice’ knowledge, rather than to share knowledge through an inclusive approach to professional development and implementation that can be used to support the workforce and improve teaching quality across the board.
  • There are concerns that the system is becoming more fragmented, intensifying the division between ‘winners and losers’, with some schools having more capacity to do well than others. The mediating role of schools in the ‘middle tier’ in the system in bridging this gap is crucial, and it will be important to evaluate the effectiveness of the sub-regional improvement boards in helping to achieve this. Local school systems are stratified by socio-economic status and children from vulnerable groups are concentrated in the most deprived schools, with some leaders facing moral dilemmas about acting in the best needs of their individual school or the wider network or community.
  • This prompts questions about how policies on fair access and funding can be reshaped to promote equity and better meet the needs of disadvantaged groups. With more variation in the role of local governing bodies and the extent to which governance is for a MAT as a whole or delegated to school governing bodies there is a risk that the legitimacy of the school system is also diminished, as parents have few mechanisms to influence local school provision, and conflicts of interest emerge at different levels.

Winners and losers in the school system

Our panel, chaired by Baroness Estelle Morris, provided further insight and stimulated discussion on different aspects of the report, including about the extent to which SISS was conceived as a coherent policy, as well as the need for comparison with what came before. Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman argued that there have always been winners and losers in the school system, and that inspection can play an important role in helping to balance out inequality.

This was echoed by National Schools Commissioner Sir David Carter, who was keen to recognise that many MAT leaders are ethically motivated and doing a great job in difficult circumstances. He went on to acknowledge a need for more action to incentivise good practice, including keeping the most vulnerable children on the school roll.

Drawing attention to the finding that 40% of secondary schools identified a local school cluster group as their strongest partnership, Professor Philip Woods from the University of Hertfordshire questioned why this is not reflected in the level of policy attention, which is heavily focused on MATs.

There was also discussion of the need for coherence in the system, and some level of consensus on what constitutes a good school, and indeed of the wider purpose of education. Head teacher and Chair of the ASCL’s Ethical Leadership Commission Carolyn Roberts argued that this is essential for parental confidence in the system. Her fellow head teacher Chris Knowles drew attention to how inequality in the system can be perpetuated because the most challenged schools often have the least opportunity to access the support available.

Unintended consequences

The report’s findings are helpful in understanding how schools are collaborating and exercising their autonomy. They also highlight the unintended consequences from the tensions of emphasising both collaboration and competition, coupled with high stakes testing and Ofsted inspections. These consequences are felt particularly keenly by pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, and staff at schools in more challenging circumstances – groups that are core to our strategy at the Nuffield Foundation, and speak to our wider portfolio of work in education, particularly in the areas of disadvantage, school funding and the teacher workforce.

As Toby and Rob highlight in their report, there are mixed views about how the SISS is working, and it has been beneficial to see the positive examples of things working well, both in the report, and in the responses to it. These examples help us understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’, so we can use this knowledge to better support school leaders and teachers, and put in place the mechanisms to establish sustainable partnership models and solutions.

It is important to recognise the views of those who are experiencing the tensions and pressures on the frontline of education. Tensions in the system reported by teachers and school leaders are not in themselves evidence of a fundamental problem with the underlying concepts of collaboration, autonomy and competition. But the issues raised should inform how best to move forward, so that we can build on the successes and support schools to work collaboratively, drawing on the evidence base.

As Estelle Morris concluded, there is a shared goal at the heart of all this – high quality education for the good of all children and young people and the wider community. A successful system for school improvement will be one that supports these values rather than challenges them.

About the author


    Cheryl Lloyd
    Programme Head, Education


Cheryl is a Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation. She leads the development and management of the research portfolio relating to young people aged 13+, focusing on educational disadvantage, teaching quality, young people’s pathways and skills. Cheryl also manages the evaluation of the Foundation’s Nuffield Research Placements.

Prior to joining the Nuffield Foundation, Cheryl was a Research Director at NatCen Social Research where she designed and managed quantitative and mixed-method studies in the fields of education, families and youth unemployment for government, academic and third sector organisations.

By Cheryl Lloyd

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