Mixed blessings for the best
New research claims that although it raises pupil intake and improves the quality of education in some schools, it also puts pressure on heads, staff and school budgets and is a threat to interschool co-operation.
The Open University survey, conducted as part of the Impact of Competition on Secondary Schools study, analysed responses from secondary heads in six education authorities and showed that nine out of 10 had placed greater importance on exam results since the introduction of league tables in 1992. Despite government rhetoric underplaying competition, seven out of 10 heads had increased the use of setting and banding and over half had lowered the range of GCSE subject options to boost results. Almost all heads felt parent power had influenced this, with league tables making them more aware of the alternative schools available.
Just under half thought competition had had a positive impact on pupil intake. One head said: "Competitive pressures have brought about many improvements in schools: exam results, teaching and learning ethos, standards, environment, resourcing and staff expertise."
Yet many heads experienced negative effects, with both staff and children under unwelcome pressure due to the competitive ethos. "I've put them in blazers and ties, reduced the number of GCSEs to push up results, had to "get rid" of staff (by various means) and publicise everything - when I could be doing something useful instead", one headteacher said. The demoralising affect upon children who were not accepted by their chosen school was another concern. Over a third of heads said that their budgets had suffered from increased competition.
Forty per cent of heads at highly-competitive schools found little or no co-operation between local secondary schools, suggesting it had led to more guarded inter-school relations.
A head from a grant-maintained secondary said: "We have become more secretive about sharing successful practice with local schools."
The report said that heads from the grant-maintained sector had entered into the race more whole-heartedly than those from local education authorities, and were more likely to see competition as beneficial.
Of GM schools, 56 per cent saw their schools as highly competitive, against 33 per cent from LEA-controlled schools. More GM heads also saw competition as positive for pupil intake.