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How external factors affect school performance

9 September 2013

There is little variation in the performance of maintained schools in England once the characteristics of their pupils are taken into account.

That is one of the key conclusions of a research review published today by the education research charity RISE. Its author, Will Cook, found that the strongest determinants of variation in pupil attainment are at the level of the individual pupil and the family and that there is a limit to what can be done to break those links with interventions directed at whole school improvement.

This latest RISE Review, How intake and other external factors affect school performance, is a clear and accessible review of research evidence, addressing the question: How much of a school’s performance is directly within its control?

Will Cook teaches social statistics at the University of Manchester, is an associate fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and previously worked as an economic adviser to the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. He commented:

Pupil attainment is influenced by a variety of factors that operate within the family, in the community and at school. Extensive research into the drivers of variation in pupil attainment consistently finds that school level factors are only part of the story. Getting serious about breaking the link between pupil background and attainment requires recognising that action needs to be taken early and often, and focusing on factors both within and beyond the school.

The Review’s main findings are:
• School performance is strongly related to the prior attainment and socio-economic background of a school’s intake. Once intake characteristics are controlled for variation in school performance is not large.
• There is a limit to what can be done to break the link between pupil background and attainment by interventions directed at whole school improvement.
• Some pupil interventions have been demonstrated to produce gains in attainment for disadvantaged pupils. For example there is robust evidence of the efficacy of pre-school interventions in breaking the link between background and attainment. However, effective teaching and learning is a complex activity that cannot readily be reduced to simple interventions.
• The most effective interventions are those that start early and are sustained over the course of the pupil’s school career.
• There are some wider influences on attainment such as maternal health, family income and the socio-economic mix of peers, which indicate measures that are much wider than the current focus of education policy.

Notes to editors

1. How intake and other external factors affect school performance can be downloaded now from the RISE website

2. RISE is the Research and Information on State Education Trust. It is a charity that commissions reports and provides information on state education. RISE reports have covered many issues of particular interest to parents, such as class size, home-school agreements, parental involvement in Ofsted inspections, school complaints procedures, parent governor representatives, parents and new schools, and school admissions.

3. As a charity RISE is dependent on donations to carry out its work. RISE trustees are keen to commission more RISE Reviews on education issues. To donate please follow this link.

Read summary or download full review