Education policy-makers in the UK have repeatedly stated their central aim as transforming British education into a ‘world-class system’. Over the last 20 years, several large-scale education reforms have brought radical changes to the school curriculum, teacher professionalism and educational leadership. Explicit in these reforms, is the deployment of measurable standards of pupil attainment as a lever for achieving school improvement. However, despite this proliferation of policies, the claims to educational improvement made by policy-makers have been contested. Concerns about the unpredicted and damaging long-term effects of these policies can be linked to the limitations of systems thinking which underpins much of this education reform. A significant flaw of systems thinking is the level of simplification at which policy-makers operate on abstract categories such as standards, as if they were reality. Based on case study research conducted in two primary schools, this paper suggests that the systemic approach adopted by policy-makers may be contributing to an erosion of educational quality and placing potentially damaging expectations on children.