School Autonomy Leads to More Social Exclusion and Inequality in Education

School autonomy and greater private control over some English schools has lead to increased social stratification and education inequality according to a new study published by the Institute of Education at the University of London. The conversion of some secondary schools to what are called “Academy” schools run by private sponsors has led to more social exclusion. Academies were supposed to meet the needs of students in deprived areas, but instead are taking fewer students from these backgrounds.

The Academy program launched by the Labour Government in 2000 was targeted at improving student achievement in secondary schools located in disadvantaged areas. Academy schools are operated by private sponsors independently from the local education authority control that is characteristic of most state secondary schools. They have much greater control over staffing, subject teaching, and enrolments than other secondary schools. They also receive more funding than other secondary schools.

The evaluation carried out by a researcher at the Institute of Education examined the inclusiveness of schools that were converted to Academies between 2003 and 2007. It focused on compositional changes in these schools relative to their predecessors and to other schools within the local education authority of Academies who shared a similar historical evolution in their characteristic make-up but have differed by their non-participation in the strategy of school reform. It investigated relative changes in both the intake composition and the whole school pupil profile of Academy schools.

The study found that Academies have increased education inequalities and schooling stratification in terms of student performance and social background. It found evidence that Academies raised enrolled higher performing students and reduced admissions of lower achieving students. Students enrolled in Academies in Year 7 had higher average primary schools results than either the predecessor schools or the non-Academy control schools in the study.

….school renewal of this kind appears to have resulted in a more ‘exclusive’ pupil profile within Academies and reduced entry into these schools of pupils that may have otherwise lowered the general academic performance of the school. [p.67]

There was also a significant drop in the proportion of new students from deprived social backgrounds in the schools that converted to Academies. The average percentage of free school meal eligible pupils in Year 7 in Academy schools fell by nearly six percentage points compared with their predecessor schools.

The study concluded as follows:

Thus the Labour government’s programme of school conversion into an Academy seems to have featured a relative rise in stratification within the schooling system compared to that which went before, implying a worsening of education inequality. [p.4]

An even more stratified education system could emerge under the new approach to Academies adopted by the new UK Coalition Government elected in May 2010. All state primary, secondary and special schools throughout England can now convert to Academy status, while secondary schools with outstanding student performance in age-16 tests have been given priority fast-track conversion.

This new approach represents a “momentous” divergence from objectives of the original programme that had at its core a focus on improvement among low performing secondary schools in particular and the underprivileged students in deprived areas who typically attend these schools. The study concludes with the following warning:

Aspects such as independence from local authority control coupled with a continued pursuit of academic excellence may encourage newer Academies to adapt their admissions towards a more homogeneous and advantageous pupil intake, a fragmented situation that would produce less fairness in access to schools, lowering potential attainment and educational opportunity among disadvantaged pupils. [p.5]

Joan Wilson, Are England’s Academies More Inclusive or More ‘Exclusive’? The Impact of Institutional Change on the Pupil Profile of Schools, Discussion Paper 125, Centre for the Economics of Education, Institute of Education, University of London, May 2011.

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