Two-thirds of school leaders say DfE has too much power


24th May 2023

Almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of leaders across primary and secondary schools in England say The Department for Education (DfE) has too much power over decision-making in their school, new research has shown.

In comparison, only one in five (20 per cent) feel their local authority has too much control, according to over 400 school leaders’ responses to questions posed by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) through its recent Teacher Voice Omnibus Survey, on behalf of think and action-tank The Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY).

The DfE urgently needs to turn towards genuine localism. When it comes to ‘Levelling Up’ in education, Whitehall needs to stop pretending that it knows best – Joe Hallgarten, CfEY CEO

The findings come at a time of prolonged industrial action in the education sector. Meanwhile, the DfE’s own research revealed in April that a quarter (25 per cent) of teachers and leaders were considering leaving the state school sector in the next year, with government initiatives or policy changes cited as a significant driving factor in the decision. When asked about workload in the same survey, school leaders reported spending too much time responding to government policy changes.

Joe Hallgarten, Chief Executive of CfEY, said: “These findings firmly refute the myth that the DfE has freed schools from its control, and affirm what so many headteachers, MPs, peers and even ex-civil servants have recently claimed. Our school system is possibly one of the most centralised in the world; current reforms (from the drive towards an ever-greater number of DfE-controlled Multi Academy Trusts, to increasingly prescriptive, tightly contracted ITT and CPD programmes) risk even greater centralisation, at a moment when failures during Covid and in the National Tutoring Programme have undermined schools’ faith in the DfE’s competence to deliver.

“The DfE urgently needs to turn towards genuine localism. We must nurture local, place-based solutions to school improvement and teacher supply and development that create purposeful alliances between MATs and other groups of schools in a locality to improve outcomes for all pupils. When it comes to ‘Levelling Up’ in education, Whitehall needs to stop pretending that it knows best.”

Vic Goddard, Co-Principal of Passmores Academy and CEO of Passmores Cooperative Learning Community, said: “The autonomy that was promised in the rush to push all schools to become academies has been shown as little more than a thin veneer. The nature of accountability in England means that leaders are being asked to choose between what is best for a positive Ofsted outcome versus being free to do what is right for the whole community.

“At a time of catastrophic funding decisions by the DfE, the rewards for those schools and leaders that are compliant means that we are often left with little to no choice about key decisions around curriculum and assessment. The continual failure of the government to recruit enough teachers to meet our needs is the final piece of the perfect storm that many of us are struggling to navigate. I can assure you that none of it feels like a choice.”

Previous CfEY research has also pointed to schools’ desire for greater control over decision making, in the context of increasing centralisation and the managed decline of local authorities over recent decades. While the DfE continues to encourage academisation, a February report found schools seeking out opportunities to form their own local partnerships, which play a key role in school improvement and in some cases wider outcomes such as community cohesion or support for vulnerable young people.

Janice Allen, Headteacher of Falinge Park High School, said: “The importance of place-based decision-making and local practice has been lost. Schools serve their local community – decision making should have one eye on the national agenda, but its feet firmly rooted in local context and practice.”

These findings form part of the second phase of CfEY’s research into Area Based Education Partnerships (ABEPs), in collaboration with the Association of Education Committees. You can read the report of the findings from the first phase of the study here.

The second phase of this work will produce two key outputs:

  • An interactive map that captures the different forms of collaboration that exist at LA-level. CfEY is conducting both desk-based and direct data gathering to gain insights into ABEPs and other forms of collaboration that exist at the LA-level, such as teaching school hubs; cultural education partnerships; regional or sub-LA partnerships.
  • A school leader survey focused on issues such as how schools already collaborate with other schools in their locality; what enables or prevents local collaboration; and what role these local organisations play in supporting school improvement and wider outcomes.

For further information about the second phase of our project, please contact [email protected].