What exactly is happening to our school system since the Coalition Government began forcing through its mixture of academisation and centralisation? What does it mean for children and teachers and where is it all leading? Ken Jones, Senior Policy Officer at the National Union of Teachers, gives the bigger picture: one in which education is increasingly driven by a conflicting mixture of private, market-let bodies and state-set targets and audits, with prior educational ideals dropping down the priority order. To download a pdf of this paper click here.


The Autonomous School, the Strong State, the Problems of Education

Ken Jones

Since its election victory, the Conservative Party has wasted no time in getting on with its education programme – essentially an acceleration and extension of policies developed by the previous Coalition government. Its centrepiece is the attempt to convert most English schools into academies – institutions that are publicly financed but are not accountable to any elected body, other than central government itself.[i]

In some ways, this looks like a programme of marketization: the creation of a landscape buzzing with the activity of private companies, filled with autonomous schools managed by leaders incentivised to innovate and to discover through experiment ‘what works’ and what can drive standards ever higher. But this is not the whole picture. Ever since the Education Reform Act of 1988, the measures of marketization introduced to English schooling have been intertwined with the strengthening of the powers of central government. Making sense of this private-public amalgam, sketching its trajectory and anticipating its problems, is both a complex analytical task and a worthwhile political project. It brings into view the outlines of a dynamic and unstable system, which has had powerful effects on knowledge production and educational work – effects that merit both exploration and challenge.

Towards Academisation

There are around 22,000 state schools in England – about 17,000 are primaries, and 3200 secondaries. There is a diminishing number of nursery schools – around 500 – and nearly 1000 special schools. Since 2010, governments have been trying to persuade and in some cases compel schools to become academies. The result of this recruitment drive, which is supported by a special unit of the Department for Education (DfE), is that as of June 2015, there are 4,676 academies of all types open across England[ii]. 61 per cent of secondary schools are academies, and 14 per cent of primaries[iii]. A school becomes an academy either by conversion, or sponsorship. Conversion is a process through which the existing governing body takes over from an elected local authority control over admissions, performance, assets and finances. By this means, billions of pounds of public wealth have been transferred into private hands. With sponsorship the same ends are achieved through the intervention of an outside agency, approved by the DfE to take over an ‘underperforming’ school. Sponsors can include other educational institutions, and also ‘businesses and entrepreneurs, educational foundations, charities and philanthropists and faith communities’.[iv]

In this variegated landscape, where the old forms of co-ordination and governance, exercised through local authorities and local representation on governing bodies, are in decline, new forms arise. The multi-academy chain – a group of academies with a single sponsor – is one such form. Under the Coalition the number of chains increased, as did the number of schools that they controlled. In 2010, ARK (Absolute Return for Kids) managed 8 schools; by the end of 2014, the number had risen to 31; the Harris Federation – 9 in 2010 – by 2014 controlled 27; United Learning, linked to the Church of England, had increased from 13 to 41. In June 2014 the DfE listed 192 chains, some running more than 50 schools, the majority only three or four.[v]

The influence of these organisations has spilled over from school management to wider fields of policy. ARK, for instance – closely involved with the financial sector from which it draws much of its funding – has become involved in professional development, teacher training, curriculum and learning strategies development. In the process it has brought ‘new practices and methods from the business sector to bear upon the education problems it addressed’ and became an ‘active agent of education reform’[vi]. The DfE is keen that this process of agency should be extended and works to achieve the appointment of ‘exceptional business leaders to the boards of multi-academy trusts’[vii]. As the influence of business leaders grows, the role of parents and teachers on governing bodies will be reduced.

Government as Co-ordinator

Many aspects of state schooling are thus shaped by private sector influence and there is profit to be made in many places, from the provision of supply teachers to the maintenance of buildings, to consultancy, research and policy advice. But it would be a mistake to see this proliferation of activity as a sign that the future of schooling will be organised along full market lines, with change being driven by competition between private educational entities seeking to maximise their market share. From the supplier’s standpoint, it is difficult to make a consistent profit from a business in which staff costs as a percentage of total expenditure are so high; from the regulator’s standpoint, it is difficult to guarantee standards across the diversity of a fully marketised system. Thus, while policy has favoured private sector involvement in schooling, it has not adopted a voucher-based or ‘user pays’ approach. That decisive step towards marketisation, is something that governments shrink from taking.

The emphasis of policy has thus fallen elsewhere. Both New Labour and Conservative administrations have held on tightly to the role that government was allocated in 1988, one of steering the system so that it follows procedures and pursues goals that are ever more closely specified by central authority. It is not to parental demand that the system answers but to the central state – a form of accountability that is stronger, now, than ever.

Steering is based on the collection of data about school performance, focused on levels of success in tests and exams. The widely-publicised league tables provide one way of doing this. Another, more powerful instrument is the Ofsted Data Dashboard. This ‘provides a snapshot of performance in a school’ to which Ofsted inspectors will refer ‘to compare the performance of a school with others with which it is deemed to be comparable’[viii]. Likewise, another Ofsted site, Raise Online, provides teachers with ‘interactive analysis of school and pupil performance data’, intended as a resource for school improvement.[ix] The appeal to the authority of data underlies also the mechanisms that the government proposes for further academisation. ‘Coasting schools’- those destined for forced academisation – are defined by their failure to meet targets of pupil attainment and pupil progress.[x]

In short, schooling is at many levels ‘governed by data’, subject to what Jenny Ozga calls highly centralised system steering.[xi] Decisions over such matters as how pupils should be grouped how teachers should be managed, and who should own an academy[xii] are arrived at and justified with reference to ‘what the data tells us’. The processes through which data is collected and reported are increasingly called into question. ‘It’s hard to put numbers on to knowledge’, writes the blogger Jack Marwood, ‘but that hasn’t stopped people trying to do just that’, and since the National Curriculum was introduced in 1988 children have been assessed as being at different levels based on what knowledge, skills and understanding various experts have said they should have. Once possessed of such ‘numbers’, Marwood goes on, government agencies have processed them in statistically disreputable ways – treating schools with very different populations as if they are comparable.[xiii]


Recent research by Merryn Hutchings reports the effects of this data-driven system on pupils. Schools have to maximise their scores, in the narrow range of subjects that policy prescribes. Teachers spoke to Hutchings of a primary timetable ‘dominated by Maths and English lessons, plus daily spelling/reading/mental maths’; Year Six pupils in one primary school did no subjects other than Maths and English in the months between their return to school in September and their SATs tests the following May. Secondary teachers made similar comments: ‘ultimately, if you are going to put in an accountability system … you’re going to have other aspects that are not accounted for, and I’m talking holistic development of a child.’[xiv] The much-discussed problems of stress and unhappiness among young people stem in important part from the priorities of the school system.

Teachers, operationally central to this system, are themselves under great pressure. Whatever they demand of children, is demanded of them first. Hutchings’ report is full of their testimonies: ‘There is a real sense of fear and we are driven by SLT [the Senior Leadership Team] to work harder and harder and push the pupils harder and harder’; ‘I am totally exhausted all the time. I work 60–70 hours a week just to keep up with what I am expected to do … Many teachers in my workplace are feeling permanently stressed and demoralised. More of us are looking to leave as more and more workload is being given with no regard to its impact on teachers or the children.’[xv]

For governments, the capacity of managements to exert pressure on teachers to improve test scores is central to school improvement. The Conservative government, like every other government this century, has expanded this capacity, with an armoury of incentives and punitive resources. Under the Coalition, the national pay system was dismantled, and managements were given greater discretion over pay levels. All pay progression is now linked to performance, in a salary system based on individualised decision. Likewise, there are no effective limits to the working day. Teaching remains one of the most strongly unionised occupations, and unions have in some schools been able to hold in check the demands of ‘senior leadership teams’. But the overall shift in power is unmistakeable – away from a professionalism centred on notions of expertise and discretion, and towards a conception of teachers’ work based on the effective implementation of procedures determined by management.


In the current school system, questions of educational value are non-negotiable. Value is measured in test results, which provide the data for arguments about the respective effectiveness of different types of school, different styles of teaching and so on. The initial training and later professional development of teachers is discussed from a similar standpoint. This is one reason why universities, which historically have been places where education has been discussed in wider terms and the meaning of ‘effectiveness’ has been up for debate, are being pushed out of a central role in teacher education. Increasingly, what counts as knowledge is supplied from other sources. The Education Endowment Foundation, funded partly by government and partly by a private trust, is dedicated to ‘extending the evidence base of what works’ and making it available to teachers[xvi]. It compiles reviews of largely quantitative research into strategies for improving attainment, and rates them for effectiveness. Other organisations – the Teachers Development Trust, the emergent College of Teaching, local Teaching Schools Alliances – convey a similar message: teachers should ‘draw upon (and contribute to) readily-available sources of leading evidence-based approaches, confidently engaging with high quality research and evaluation’.[xvii]


The growing involvement of the private sector and the strengthening of the central apparatus of government are parallel developments in a coherent reshaping of the governance of English schooling. The logic of the ‘state form’ of English schooling has unfolded over nearly 30 years, and now reached a new level of intensity. The powers of the central apparatus to shape educational process through the identification, collection and management of data are stronger than ever. Equally, unrestricted is the capacity of the school leaderships of autonomised schools to micro-manage the work of teachers.

Yet the system which they help constitute exacerbates rather than resolves long-standing problems of education. Most evidently, it imposes a set of constraints that prevent schools from innovating at any level of depth. The curriculum enforced through tests and exam syllabuses is narrow and in some subject areas flagrantly regressive – it sets aside, for instance, most of what researchers know about language and learning, in favour of a ‘naming of parts’ approach focused on grammatical understandings that were popular early in the previous century.[xviii] An anachronism even at the time of its birth, it is hard to see this codification of knowledge surviving for long.

The rigidities of the curriculum are matched by other features of the system which may well prove equally problematic. The harsh discipline inflicted on teachers may produce compliance in the short term, but as a means of encouraging engagement in educational improvement it will be ineffective. Likewise, the incessant pressure on students, especially in the upper years of schooling, will not continue to produce generations of diligent exam-takers. Education and training up to the age of 18 have become compulsory precisely at the moment when the promise that educational success will be rewarded with career security has plainly become impossible to deliver. If it is reasonable to think that the precarity of social life in the long transition between ‘youth’ and ‘adulthood’ will lead to explosive protests, then it will equally be unsurprising if they do not spread to 16 year olds.

In the school, as elsewhere, the very inventiveness of neo-liberalism may have now have created an unsustainable system.

Ken Jones is Senior Policy Officer at the National Union of Teachers. He was previously Professor of Education at Goldsmiths, where he is now Emeritus. The second edition of his book, Education in Britain, will be published by Polity Press in December.


[i] For a concise (ten-page) explanation of the different types of school in the English system, see the New Schools Network (2015) ‘Comparison of Different Types of School: a guide to schools in England’ http://www.newschoolsnetwork.org/sites/default/files/Comparison%20of%20school%20types.pdf

[ii] House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper ‘Education and Adoption Bill 2014/15’ 17th June 2015


[iii] Department for Education (2015) Schools, Pupils and their Characteristics: January 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/433680/SFR16_2015_Main_Text.pdf

[iv] DfE (2015) ‘Sponsor an Academy: Guidance’ https://www.gov.uk/sponsor-an-academy

[v] Hutchings, M., Francis, B. and de Vries, R (2015) Chain Effects: the impact of academy chains on low income students. London: Sutton Trust.

[vi] Carolina Junemann and Stephen Ball (2013) ARK and the revolution of state education in England Education Inquiry, 4(3), 423–41.

[vii] Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, Speech to the National Governors Association, Manchster 27th June 2015.

[viii] www. http://dashboard.ofsted.gov.uk/index.php

[ix] https://www.raiseonline.org/login.aspx?ReturnUrl=%2f

[x] Schools Week (2015) Coasting School Definition revealed by Nicky Morgan 30th June http://schoolsweek.co.uk/coasting-school-definition-revealed-by-nicky-morgan/

[xi] Ibid. Jenny Ozga Governing education through data in England: from regulation to self‐evaluation Journal of Education Policy 24 (2) 149-162 2009

[xii] http://michaelrosenblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/who-owns-academies-have-we-been-robbed.html

[xiii] Jack Marwood, ‘RAISEonline is contemptible rubbish’ http://icingonthecakeblog.weebly.com/blog/raiseonline-is-contemptible-rubbish  17th March 2014

[xiv] Merryn Hutchings, Exam Factories? The effect of accountability measures on children and young people National Union of Teachers, 2015.

[xv] ibid

[xvi] https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/

[xvii] Teacher Development Trust Our Mission http://tdtrust.org/about/mission/ 2014

[xviii] Michael Rosen Lies about Spelling, Punctuation Grammar Test http://michaelrosenblog.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/lies-about-spellingpunctuationgrammar.html

6th April 2013