Raising attainment in schools: changing school accountability policies in England and Wales
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Bristol
Unit of AssessmentEconomics and Econometrics
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Education: Specialist Studies In Education
Studies In Human Society: Sociology
Summary of the impact
School accountability is a crucial part of most education systems. The UK
is a world leader in the use of school accountability and Professor Simon
Burgess's research at Bristol has had a significant impact on national
policy on school accountability in England and Wales. He has also provided
advice on this policy internationally. His research showed that the
abolition of comparative school performance information in Wales
significantly damaged pupil attainment, and widespread public reporting of
his results contributed to the reversal of this policy in 2011. In
England, his work influenced changes in the content of the school `league
tables' in 2011, leading directly to an improvement in their usefulness
for parents in their school choice and government in its role as funder
and regulator. In both cases, pupils are likely to benefit from the
changes following Burgess's work by achieving higher grades in their
crucial GCSE exams and thereby from higher lifetime income.
The research was published initially in two University of Bristol CMPO
Working Papers,  and . Together these papers showed that school
league tables play a key role as an accountability mechanism in regulating
the market for schools. Paper  showed that the removal of comparative
performance information from the public domain had a substantial negative
effect on pupil attainment, while paper  showed that the nature of the
performance information significantly affects its functionality. This
research is part of a substantial ongoing programme of research and policy
engagement on schools markets led by Burgess, and funded as part of the
ESRC's Centre grant to CMPO . Burgess joined the University of Bristol
a. The impact of abolishing school league tables in Wales
The initial research  was carried out in 2010 with Deborah Wilson, a
Reader at the University of Bristol, and Jack Worth, then a Research
Assistant at CMPO, now a Research Manager at NFER.
When control over education was passed to the Welsh Government in 2000,
one of their first acts was to abolish `school league tables'. This reform
provided an opportunity to test decisively for the first time the theory
that such information is important to school performance. Burgess and
co-authors collected data on all secondary school pupils over a decade,
before and after the reform, in both countries. The data included GCSE
performance, prior attainment, pupil demographics, school expenditure, and
neighbourhood characteristics. The analysis involved taking each secondary
school in Wales and comparing its performance to a very similar school in
England, both before and after the reform. It found significant and robust
evidence that the policy change substantially reduced school effectiveness
in Wales, on average by about two GCSE grades per pupil. The strongest
effect was on schools in more disadvantaged neighbourhoods. So the policy
resulted in both lower overall school effectiveness and greater
This research was subsequently published in 2013 in the Journal of Public
b. The functionality of school league tables for parents
The initial research  was carried out in 2010 with Rebecca Allen, a
Reader at the Institute of Education, University of London (both authors
were equally responsible for the initiating idea and for the empirical
The debate about the best metrics to use in school performance tables has
largely been conducted by assertion. In 2010, Burgess and Allen set out a
model to determine the answer statistically by asking which metric was
most useful to parents trying to decide which school their child would do
best in academically. They used the entire cohort of more than half a
million pupils who chose secondary school in 2003 and tracked their
progress. The results showed that some school performance metrics were
very useful, significantly and substantially producing better choices than
choosing at random, while others were much less helpful.
The research has subsequently been published in a technical form  and
has also been incorporated in a broader discussion of the merits of
different forms of performance table, . This latter paper proposes some
new metrics that were incorporated in the published league tables from
References to the research
The high quality of the research is corroborated by the quality of the
journal publications and the high amount of associated peer-reviewed
competitive grant funding.
 Burgess, S., Wilson, D., and Worth, J. (2013). A natural experiment
in school accountability: the impact of school performance information on
pupil progress. Journal of Public Economics 106, 57-67. DOI:
10.1016/j.jpubeco.2013.06.005. Listed in REF2.
 Allen, R., and Burgess, S. (2013). Evaluating the provision of school
performance information for school choice. Economics of Education
Review 34, 175-190. DOI: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2013.02.001
 Allen, R., and Burgess, S. (2011). Can School League Tables Help
Parents Choose Schools? Fiscal Studies 32, 245-261. DOI:
 Burgess, S. (PI): ESRC CMPO Centre Grants, RES-343-28-3001 and
RES-343-28-0001, £4.8m, 2004-2014.
Details of the impact
a. Broad and sustained influence on national and international policy
Simon Burgess has had a broad and sustained influence on policy for the
schools market in the UK, of which the two specific cases on school
accountability are leading examples. Carole Willis, Director of Research
and Analysis at the Department for Education writes [a]: "Simon Burgess's
work on school accountability has had a major impact on thinking in the
Department on this issue over a number of years. His research was cited in
the "Importance of Teaching" White Paper, and has fundamentally changed
Ofsted's risk assessments of which schools to inspect."
This influence is ongoing. Tim Leunig, Special Advisor to Secretary of
State Michael Gove, writes in September 2013 [b] "On the basis of his
research leadership in this field, we asked Simon Burgess to contribute to
the development of the new pupil progress measure, and the school floor
targets that will form the basis for interventions in schools". Burgess
was also asked to talk at the Permanent Secretary's Seminar on school
markets in May 2013. Strengthening school accountability is also a key
policy issue in many other countries and Burgess was asked to present his
results to the Spanish Minister for Education and Secretary of State for
In addition to school accountability, Burgess's wider research on
education has also influenced the thinking in the Department for Education
on key policy issues including teacher effectiveness, school choice,
school financial decisions and teacher performance information through
briefings, seminars, presentations and reports.
b. Impact of the research on the abolition of performance tables in
Publication of  was the lead item in the main evening news on BBC
Wales, 2 November 2010. The next day, questions on the research were put
to the First Minister of Wales on the floor of the Assembly. The findings
were described as a "slap in the face with good data" by the Senior Policy
Advisor to the Welsh Assembly, Professor David Reynolds [d]. The research
was further reported in other news and documentary programmes for BBC
radio and television, in the Financial Times and in The Economist (twice).
In February 2011, the Welsh Minister for Education announced a major
change of policy, to reverse the decade-long policy of not publishing
performance information [e]. The new system was introduced on 8 December
Burgess's research was influential in this decision as David Reynolds
confirms [f]: "I can testify to the major impact that the research of
Simon Burgess and colleagues had on our educational thinking in general
and specific policies in particular. The Minister Leighton Andrews found
the research chimed with much of his own thinking about the need for
transparency on school performance and there was much internal discussion
within WG after the publication of the particular paper in October 2010.
The research helped to prepare for the introduction of the Banding system
we launched in 2012 which of course involved the publication of school
results. It was for us quite seminal research."
Burgess's research suggests that this policy reversal will have a major
impact on pupil attainment and life chances in Wales. For pupils on the
margin of achieving 5 good passes, the reform will raise them above this
crucial threshold, bringing them an estimated 25% earnings increase. The
policy change will also reduce educational inequality in Wales. The
research showed that the greatest fall in attainment following the removal
of league tables was for low-attaining pupils in deprived areas; hence the
reinstatement is likely to show the greatest benefit there too, leading to
greater earnings gains at the lower end of the distribution.
c. Impact of the research on the design of school performance tables
Initial discussions between Burgess and Allen and officials at the
Department took place in February 2010 on reforming school league tables.
Graham Stuart MP, Chair of the House of Commons Education Select
Committee, requested a meeting with Burgess and Allen in November 2011.
In November 2011 new league tables were released that adopted key
components of their proposal. Carole Willis states [a]: "Specifically, his
work with Rebecca Allen of IOE was very influential in the re-casting of
the school performance tables from 2011. Their findings on contextual
value added (CVA) led directly to the Government withdrawing CVA from the
tables and the wider school accountability framework. Their thinking also
contributed to new measures of GCSE performance for pupils of different
levels of prior attainment alongside other expert views"
The new tables included a measure showing the GCSE performance of
students with differing levels of initial ability. For each school the new
tables report the percentage of pupils attaining at least five A* to C
grades separately for low-attaining pupils, high attainers and a middle
This change improves pupil attainment directly and indirectly. The new
form of tables will allow parents to make a better-informed decision on
where to send their child to school. Better matching between child and
school will raise attainment. The new measure also gives schools more of
an incentive to focus across the ability distribution, which benefits
students at the top and bottom of the ability distribution as well as
those near the crucial threshold, who were the focus of the previous
accountability system. Higher attainment will lead to higher incomes and
better life chances for individuals, and at a macro level will raise the
skill base of the economy.
Sources to corroborate the impact
[a] Factual statement, Director, Department for Education.
[b] Factual statement, Ministerial Policy Advisor, Department for
[c] Education in the 21st Century: International Experiences,
1-2 July 2013, Madrid.
[d] Wales Online article by Gareth Evans, 3 November 2010.
[e] Written Statement by the Welsh Assembly Government, 2 February 2011.
[f] Factual statement, Senior Policy Advisor, Education and Skills
Department of Welsh Government.