School type does not affect children’s ability to succeed, review suggests

27 August 2014

There is no evidence that government investment in particular school structures or types – for example, academies, free schools or faith schools – has been effective in improving the performance of pupils from poor backgrounds, according to a review published today by the Institute of Education (IOE).

While there are differences in the performance of different types of schools, the findings suggest this is largely accounted for by the socioeconomic backgrounds of children in their intake. Children who attend schools with a greater proportion of pupils from advantaged backgrounds are more likely to perform better than similar children in schools with a high proportion of pupils from poor backgrounds.

Department for Education figures show that just 35 per cent of children in receipt of free school meals gained a minimum of five A*–C GCSEs in 2012, including English and maths, compared to 62 per cent of other children.The review of evidence by IOE researchers (commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation), which draws on findings from the 1958 National Child Development Study, the 1970 British Cohort Study and the Millennium Cohort Study, as well as other research, aims to explore why poverty is linked to low educational attainment, and what can be done about it.  

Key findings and recommendations include:

  • There is no evidence that increased parental choice and school autonomy are effective ways of improving the educational attainment of children from poor backgrounds. The focus on school structures needs to be replaced with a greater focus on school and classroom processes.
  • There is far more variability in performance between individual teachers than between schools. Therefore, attracting effective teachers to schools serving poor children is likely to be vital to closing attainment gaps. Evaluations of the Teach First programme, which encourages bright graduates to work in schools in disadvantaged areas, show positive results, but there are likely to be limits to the expansion of this scheme unless the status and quality of the teaching profession overall can be raised.
  • There is evidence that poor children have less access to a demanding curriculum and high-value subjects. Pupils in Britain are allowed to choose to drop certain subjects at a young age, and this has the potential to exacerbate both gender and socio-economic differences in achievement, as they may not be equipped to see the long-term consequences of their decisions.
  • It is vital to promote reading and learning outside of school, including in the home and through libraries, especially among children who come from families with few books.

The researchers emphasise, however, that many other non-school factors have an impact on children’s attainment. Wider social policies, including health, welfare and housing, are likely to have a key role in overcoming educational inequalities.

Read the full report

Primary and secondary education and poverty review’, by Roxanne Connelly, Alice Sullivan and John Jerrim, is published today by the Institute of Education, University of London.