December 2018


  • Divergent Pathways
    Education across the UK is heading in different directions and one day, says Geoff Barton, we'll look back and see that we've all been part of an extraordinary educational experiment. More
  • You're not alone
    Managing a school can be the most rewarding and the toughest role of your life, says one headteacher. Here he describes the support he received from ASCL in helping him through a low point in his career. More
  • Lead from the middle
    Headteacher Andrew Clay explains the evaluation and planning model he uses at Coundon Court School to help middle leaders develop their critical thinking and evaluation skills, and produce effective departmental improvement plans. More
  • Planning for PSHE
    CEO of the PSHE Association Jonathan Baggaley sets out the implications of mandatory health and relationships and sex education, and shares tips on how schools can prepare. More
  • A year in review
    Chief Social Scientist Angela Donkin reviews the research carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in 2018. More
  • Mark my words
    Latest research by Oxford University Press (OUP) has revealed a significant and increasing word gap in schools. To help address this, two OUP experts share some teachers' practical steps. More
Bookmark and Share

Chief Social Scientist Angela Donkin reviews the research carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in 2018.

A year in review

It has been another year of change and continued challenge for education, if reports by our researchers are anything to go by. Starting with the appointment of a new Education Secretary, 2018 continues to be an interesting time for England’s education system. 

The hardy perennials of education funding, accountability, and teacher recruitment and retention feature heavily throughout the year, and NFER has contributed to these discussions with an evidence-base that reflects the trends, patterns and concerns facing the education system. 

Careers Education, Information, Advice and Guidance (CEIAG) 

A busy year for us kicked off with a look at the future of careers education, with the publication of our London Ambitions Research: Shaping a successful careers offer for all young Londoners ( study, which examined the strategies used in five schools and how well they prepared young people for the workplace. 

The study found that careers education should not be an add-on but rather something embedded in the wider curriculum and fundamental to it. It recommended more meaningful work experience opportunities and mentoring, and information about apprenticeships as a viable option post-16. 


Our researchers looked at funding levels since 2010 and how changes to these may affect educational outcomes. Our report on School Funding in England Since 2010 – What the key evidence tells us ( noted a reduction in government investment in schools after 2015, with freezes in per pupil funding expected to 2019. The study also drew together the evidence on what impact spending changes may have on pupil attainment. 

It found that the consequences of changes to spending varied across different schools and pupils. Given that children in schools in disadvantaged areas benefit from additional funding, regardless of their own family circumstances, the report concluded that this group would be impacted the most by cuts. However, across the whole system, the report found that while financial resources were important, what money was spent on was considered equally important. 

Teacher supply, recruitment and retention 

Teacher supply has been a constant theme running through the education system in recent years, and in October we published Teacher Workforce Dynamics in England ( – the complete report in our Nuffield Foundation funded series to gain a more detailed understanding of the factors associated with teacher retention, turnover and returning to teaching in the state sector. Following the release of a series of research updates since 2017, this complete report looked at a number of key factors driving teacher retention, suggests actions that school leaders can take to better retain teachers in the profession and policies that government can develop to support them to do so. 

One key finding suggested that when faced with reduced pay in return for job satisfaction, teachers were prepared to take a financial hit. On average, the study found, teachers earned 10% less after leaving the profession, but felt happier, suggesting that the policy responses to tackling teacher recruitment and retention needed to focus on what makes teachers happy – cutting workload and working hours, and a better work–life balance – alongside improved pay and conditions.

It also suggested that primary schools may be better at managing teachers’ expectations of a sensible work–life balance by being more flexible about part-time working. This willingness to respond to primary teachers’ needs, which is less evident in secondary schools, also helped to bring back professionals who had previously left. 

Free schools 

2018 was also an opportunity to review the government’s free schools programme, with many of the early schools now well-established in their communities having seen an entire intake go through. We looked at the extent to which free schools have met their original policy intentions – to be established in areas of need, to raise standards through innovation and to make it easier for parents to set them up. 

Our study, Free for All? Analysing free schools in England, 2018 (, published jointly with the Sutton Trust, found that only one in five schools had been set up with parental involvement in their inception, and this proportion was declining as the policy continued. Free schools also had less pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds than maintained schools but larger proportions of ethnic minority pupils. The report concluded that they needed to be representative of the communities they serve. 


School accountability is never far from the minds of those working in schools, and this year saw renewed calls from headteachers for a review of the functions of Ofsted, as well as claims that the inspection system wasn’t contributing positively to schools’ performance. 

In September, we completed an analysis of reports and insights into the 25-year history of performance tables and school inspections, a valuable contribution to the current debate about their future in the UK. Our literature review, What Impact Does Accountability Have on Curriculum, Standards and Engagement in Education? (, identified and evaluated research evidence on the impact of different types of accountability systems, with the aim of providing objective evidence for policymakers. 

Carole Willis, Chief Executive of NFER, said at the launch of the document: “Overall, our review demonstrates that there are pros and cons in all accountability systems, including those in high-performing countries. Different elements of accountability need to complement each other in order to minimise unintended consequences, and consideration given to how professional accountability can play a greater role in school improvement. 

“Transparent information on school and pupil performance can be used to improve education and to provide information to parents and the wider public. But it is essential that there is a level playing field where performance is judged fairly, and that there is a focus on doing what is right for all pupils to succeed.” 

The findings of the report added weight to the recommendations of ASCL’s own review of primary accountability, published in March (see: These included the need for a clear set of aims for primary education against which schools should be judged, less focus on SATs results and a broader recognition of the importance of the wider curriculum. 

As we hurtle towards 2019 and onwards towards a new decade, it seems inevitable that many of these will remain areas of contention

Sign up for the latest news

Keep up to date with the latest NFER research and news by signing up to NFER Direct – a monthly newsletter:

Angela Donkin
Chief Social Scientist, NFER