Sweeping education reforms appear to be fuelling inequality in the school system, according to a major analysis that shows high-performing and improving schools are accepting fewer children from poor backgrounds.
In a stark assessment of the impact of controversial measures introduced since 2010, the study warns that an original pledge to set schools free and give them more power has actually led to a system that is causing high levels of stress among teachers.
It finds the system is now pushing schools and their heads to prioritise “the interests of the school over the interests of groups of, usually more vulnerable, children”. Some schools were found to be engaged in “aggressive marketing campaigns and ‘cream skimming’ aimed at recruiting particular types of students”. The drive to turn schools into academies, the key part of reforms since 2010, is described as “uneven and often fraught”.
There is also worrying evidence of schools improving or keeping their high status by shunning children who qualify for free school meals, whose parents receive state help. “Our analysis of national Ofsted data for the periods 2005-10 and 2010-15 showed a relationship between inspection grades and the changing socioeconomic composition of a school’s student body,” say the authors, Toby Greany and Rob Higham.
“Schools that sustained or improved their judgment to ‘outstanding’ in the 2010-15 period saw, on average, a reduction in the percentage of students eligible for free school meals (FSM), while schools retaining or being downgraded to a ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’ judgment saw, on average, an increase in FSM eligibility. While higher-status schools were seen to be benefiting [from reforms since 2010] in terms of new opportunities and resources as a result of policy reform, the lower-status schools we visited faced a concentration of challenges often including under-subscription, higher mobility and disproportionate numbers of disadvantaged, migrant and hard to place children,” the study concludes.