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Hierarchy, markets and networks: analysing the 'self-improving school-led system' agenda in England and the implications for schools

Greany, Toby; Higham, Rob


Rob Higham


This report analyses how schools in England have interpreted and begun to respond to the government’s ‘self-improving school-led system’ (SISS) policy agenda, an overarching narrative for schools policy since 2010 that encompasses an ensemble of reforms including academies, multi-academy trusts (MATs) and Teaching School Alliances (TSAs). Based on a large-scale, four-year, mixed-methods study, the report asks whether or not the models of co-ordination and school support emerging locally since 2010 represent a genuine basis for an equitable and inclusive ‘school-led’ system. It explores the factors that support and hinder such developments as well as the implications for schools and school leadership.

The analysis draws on governance theory to evaluate the reforms, which are conceived as an attempt to mix and re-balance three overlapping approaches to co-ordinating the school system: hierarchy, markets and networks. This shows that while one popular interpretation of the SISS agenda is that it requires inter-school partnerships to ‘self-organize’ their own ‘school-led’ improvement, this is in fact a partial account that underplays the dominant influences of hierarchical and market mechanisms on the thinking and actions of schools and school leaders and the networks they are developing.

The report includes important new empirical findings, for example on the impact of MATs of different sizes and on the relationship between Ofsted inspection outcomes and levels of socio-economic stratification between schools. It also combines the perspectives of multiple case study schools across four different localities to provide rich insights into leadership decision-making and agency in the context of local status hierarchies and rapid policy-driven change. As a result, while focusing on changes in England, it provides a unique set of insights into how different governance regimes interact across different local contexts to influence patterns of schooling and school-to-school collaboration – insights that will have relevance for research and practice on school system governance more widely.


Greany, T., & Higham, R. (2018). Hierarchy, markets and networks: analysing the 'self-improving school-led system' agenda in England and the implications for schools. London: Nuffield Foundation and Education Development Trust

Report Type Research Report
Publication Date Jul 3, 2018
Deposit Date Sep 20, 2018
Publicly Available Date Sep 20, 2018
Publisher UCL IOE Press
Pages 1-116
Public URL
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