Understanding the self-improving school-led system

The concept of a 'self-improving school-led system' is at the heart of the Coalition Government's education policy. As such, its success or failure has clear ramifications for millions of children.

As set out in the 2010 white paper The Importance of Teaching, in this system schools would be autonomous and accountable for their own improvement. Meanwhile, Teaching Schools, Academy sponsors and National and Local Leaders of Education would take a systemic lead in school-to-school support.

To date, however, there has been no independent research aimed at analysing local or national responses to this policy agenda or considering the implications for quality and equity.

This project has two strands.

Qualitative strand

This strand of the project, co-funded by the Nuffield Foundation and the Education Development Trust, aims to:

  • update and synthesise existing literature and evidence on self-improving systems and develop a robust theoretical framework
  • undertake detailed case studies of four sub-regional areas. This will explore leadership responses and the conditions required for school to school support and collaboration to emerge.
  • engage key stakeholders and practitioners in an evidence-informed dialogue about what we mean by a self-improving school-led system, how it is developing in practice and how it might be enhanced.
Quantitative strand

This strand of the project is being carried out in partnership with the National Foundation for Educational Research. It aims to:

  • provide a national perspective on how school leaders are responding to the self-improving system agenda
  • analyse the impact of the most widespread structural models of school collaboration on pupil outcomes. These are seen as critical to the success of the self-improving system.

The researchers will survey headteachers and senior leaders from 1,000 secondary, primary and special schools. They will also assess the impact of multi-academy trusts, umbrella trusts and teaching school alliances on pupil outcomes by comparing the performance of schools in these arrangements with a matched sample over a three-year period

The outcomes of the research have the potential to make a significant contribution to the evidence-base on school-led systems and inform both national and local policy and practice.  

Project details



Professor Toby Greany, London Centre for Leadership in Learning, UCL Institute of Education

Dr Rob Higham, IOE - Learning & Leadership, UCL Institute of Education

Grant amount and duration:

£184,099 (both strands)

December 2014 – July 2018



Hierachy, Markets and Networks: Analysing the 'self-improving school-led system' agenda in England and the implications for schools 

Full report, July 2018 (PDF)

Executive summary, July 2018 (PDF)

Multi-academy Trusts: Do they make a difference to pupil outcomes?

Full report, July 2018 (PDF)