An investigation by the Times revealed how some schools have been manipulating the system in order to maintain a higher league table ranking. It found that “almost 13,000 teenagers did not have results recorded in league tables last year despite appearing on their schools’ rolls a year earlier.” The paper went on –
“The number of pupils removed in the months before exams had been just over 9,000 in each of the previous two years. The rise in exclusions means that more than 7,000 students who have just completed their GCSE year did so in pupil referral units. This is more than double the number of any other school year.”
In effect, the removal of ‘problem children’ and those deemed unlikely to pass their exams tend to have a positive impact on the school’s pass rate and eventual standing on the league table.
The league tables were meant to be a way of holding secondary schools accountable for the performance of their pupils at public exams. The schools where performance of pupils is poor can face sanctions and even be taken over under special measures as a failing school. However, while a high performing school might get a high-profile ministerial visit, it can nevertheless be assured of parents wanting to get their children through its doors. With more students coming with more funding, it is no surprise that a race up the ladder is a priority for school Heads – but at what cost and why should we care?
At this point, I must state that having served as a School Governor first at a secondary school and later at a Further Education College, I have no doubt whatsoever that the vast majority of our schools act appropriately after much deliberation before taking the hard but necessary decision to exclude a pupil. Additionally, my personal experience with Heads of schools have been that they take a very holistic view on education though they’re under no illusion that they are ultimately judged based on grades achieved by their pupils.
That said, I can’t help but wonder if this is the absolute best we can do in holding schools accountable for how well they are teaching our children and taking care of their overall welfare. Admittedly, OFSTED inspection and reports help to paint a more rounded picture of a school, but I fear a somewhat perverse incentive may have been inadvertently created which encourages the ‘win at all cost’ approach we saw in the financial sector pre-2008.
The offloading or ‘off-rolling’ (as is the technical term) of children from schools to boost results is illegal and must be clamped down on by the Department for Education. I first learned of this practise last year from a close friend who left the teaching profession to work in the booming private tuition industry. I recall her saying no school would exclude a very bright, but thoroughly disruptive pupil. However, a student that’s equally disruptive but with little chance of “making the grades” will get a different treatment. On that basis, she comes in to tutor such kids to help them avoid exclusion.
I am not fundamentally against league tables. As someone who runs a business in a very competitive environment, it is vital to have a way of measuring and comparing value derived from inputs of scarce resources. It is also very difficult to effectively improve performance if it is not measured over time against other factors. My concerns are, however, with the values being measured and the door these leave open for abuse if unchecked.
Given that the GCSE pass rate of students sent to the Pupil Referral Units is a mind numbing 1.5%, this increase in referrals and exclusions should trouble anyone who cares about the socio-economic future of Britain.
There is evidence to suggest that a level of disproportionality exists in this area. For example, with secondary schools accounting for four fifths of all exclusions from State schools, a quarter of these were in Year 10, the time when pupils start studying GCSE subjects and preparing for their exams. A child receiving support for special educational needs is seven times more likely to be excluded while those from low income families are four times more likely to be permanently excluded. Black-Caribbean pupils were three times more likely to be permanently excluded from school than the average population of students.
To address this flaw in the system, schools should be required to report the number of students excluded in Years 10 and 11 alongside the reporting of their GCSE results. Furthermore, they should also be required to keep track of the excluded pupils academic or vocational progress up to the age of 16 and report this. This potentially provides the schools concerned with the opportunity and incentive to be part of the educational journey of each student enrolled with them, not just their GCSE experience.
While the above suggestions are by no means a silver bullet for resolving this multi-faceted issue, it does however go some way in discouraging the use of off-rolling to improve school performance indicators. It can also help ensure that schools are incentivised to be part of their pupils’ education journey during the good and bad times. What parent wouldn’t want this?