An academy trust asked its staff to ignore “ethical considerations” when considering whether it could boost its league table scores by taking low-achieving students off school rolls, Tes can reveal.
The idea of removing these so-called “anchor” pupils to improve performance on the Department for Education's Progress 8 measure is one of several options examined in an internal GORSE Academies Trust document.
The document reveals that the approach of staff looking at the issues was to: “Come at the problem with no preconceived ideas or ethical considerations; we simply want to test curriculum models to see which tend to generate the highest P8 scores for the academy.”
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Ethics were to be considered by the trust's board at a later date, according to the document from the Leeds multi-academy trust, which runs five secondaries, four primaries, a sixth form and an alternative provision free school in the city.
Last night GORSE chief executive Sir John Townsley said the report seen by Tes "was a theoretical discussion paper which sought to examine a range of acceptable and totally unacceptable practices" which were at that time taking place across the country. But "at no point did we implement any unacceptable practices" from the paper, he added.
However, a leading Leeds city councillor has claimed that GORSE has followed through on the report's suggestions by "off-rolling" pupils into a new alternative-provision school.
Fears of off-rolling
Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council's executive member for schools, described the document as “deeply disturbing” and revealed that the council already had major concerns that GORSE was "off-rolling" pupils from its academies into the Stephen Longfellow Academy alternative provision.
But Sir John said that while pupils were put into the alternative provision in January 2018 and January 2019, this did not constitute off-rolling and had been "done in full partnership with the DfE".
The Gorse document from November 2016 says that issues surrounding taking pupils off a school’s roll were “tricky” but that this would become simpler once it opened Stephen Longfellow – its own alternative-provision free school.
“Currently, if we wish to remove a Year 11 student from the roll now, for them not to count in this year's results they must be redesignated as Year 10," the report says.
“This has to be done by the January census. We would, of course, have to provide for them (by negotiating with parents that it is in their best interest to take an extra year to complete their GCSE studies).”
Moving pupils to alternative provision
It adds: “With Stephen Longfellow Academy starting in 2017, we have an opportunity to move students to an appropriate provision before they become an issue in KS4.”
Mr Pryor said: “I am intensely concerned that the GORSE Academies Trust appear to have implemented the suggestions made in this 2016 document in the subsequent three years.
“Leeds City Council has previously raised serious concerns with GORSE around their off-rolling of pupils, particularly before GCSE exams.
"I am troubled to see that their motives for this were not in the best interest of the children, but in the best interest of the multi-academy trust.
"The concerns about off-rolling are predominantly about the way in which pupils have been moved to the Stephen Longfellow alternative provision from GORSE academies in January of the past two years and we have made this clear to GORSE.
“We do not object to the alternative provision but the pupils should not be taken off the roll of their original school.”
Leeds City Council told Tes that 26 pupils were moved off the roll of GORSE academies into its alternative provision in January of last year, meaning they would not be included in the league table scores of their original schools.
It said it believed the figure being moved off the roll of GORSE schools into its alternative provision was almost twice as high in January of this year.
Sir John accused the council of seeking to undermine the work of the trust and its alternative provision at "every turn".
He said the trust had never operated in a manner that places the institution ahead of the child.
The GORSE Academies Trust report describes how removing 10 low-achieving pupils from the data for one of its academies would boost its progress score by 0.15.
The report says: “This was a truly staggering revelation, but completely understandable, since they are underperforming across the piece.”
It recommended that alternative provision be provided for “vulnerable students” at the Stephen Longfellow Academy, which opened the following year.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Any school ‘off rolling’ on the basis of academic results is quite simply breaking the law and we do not endorse the behaviour identified in this document.
“If there is any evidence to suggest that pupils are being transferred or excluded to manipulate exam results at a school or trust, we would investigate these allegations fully.”
GORSE looked at cutting languages and boosting BTECs for Progress 8 league table score
Trust report suggests pupils doing BTEC coursework 'under skilled supervision' could score better than at GCSE
An internal multi-academy trust report reveals how it considered improving Progress 8 scores by dropping foreign languages and moving towards all pupils being entered into a BTEC in which they could complete coursework under “skilled supervision” to earn higher grades than at GCSE.
The Leeds based GORSE Academies Trust runs five secondaries, four primaries, a sixth form and an alternative provision free school, the Stephen Longfellow Academy. The document, which Tes has published today, shows how the academy chain took part in a modelling exercise exploring different strategies to maximise its Progress 8 league table scores in 2016.
BTECs an 'easer option'?
The report shows staff considered a number of options for improving progress scores.
- The removal of “anchor students” by taking them off the roll of schools and moving them to the trust's new alternative provision.
- Use of the European Computer Driving Licence – despite the report acknowledging that there were concerns about the qualification's credibility.
- Moving from GCSE art, business and PE to equivalent BTECs.
- Moving modern foreign languages students on to another EBacc option.
- Removing modern foreign languages or identifying the right number of MFL students to minimise the damage it could do to Progress 8 scores.
The document recommends that vulnerable pupils be placed in a new alternative provision free school, and also puts forward a model for a curriculum that would result in all students sitting a BTEC and only 30 per cent being entered in modern foreign languages.
It also says that a reliance on languages could jeopardise Progress 8 scores.
The document says: “This investigation tied into our musings regarding the required size of a MFL cohort in order to minimise damage to P8. We were mindful of trying to retain the EBacc percentage as a headline result.”
The report says its forecasts were based on the predictions that pupils would achieve better grades by sitting BTECs.
In a section of the report entitled 'How Easy are BTECs?', it adds: “The coursework-based nature means that students can, under skilled supervision, achieve grades higher than they may get at GCSE.
"The applied nature of the syllabus could also be an advantage, giving a more interesting feel to the course for many students.”
It says that merits and distinctions can be achieved at BTEC by students who would be achieving C to F grades at GCSE.
The report concludes: “Whilst the word ‘easy' is disingenuous, the point can be made that [BTECs] facilitate a higher level of performance.”
One of the curriculum models it recommends is for all students to sit a BTEC.
It adds: “We may expect students such as HAL ( high-ability) students to do exceptionally well with such courses because of their skill set.
"Traditionally, we would never have entered these students for such courses because of the restrictions of a specific academic pathway.”
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'Deeply disturbing' GORSE Academies report lays bare exactly how the pressure to get results can influence thinking in our schools system
A year or so ago, I attended a headteachers' conference where one of the speakers said something that stuck with me.
He told his audience to make sure that they “don’t get good at a bad game”.
I think this phrase sums up the concerns that will be raised by a Tes story today which shows how a multi-academy trust explored different ways in which it could boost its Progress 8 scores.
It would be naive to think that schools and trusts are not massively focused on hitting targets.
Many would argue they have to be. This is, after all, the way in which the accountability system has measured success and failure for decades.
And schools and their trusts can be lauded or penalised accordingly for the outcomes they achieve.
But there is something unnerving about the way in which this GORSE Academies Trust document addresses the issue.
The trust's chief executive Sir John Townsley says this report, seen by Tes, was a theoretical discussion and that none of the "unacceptable" practices that were discussed by its staff as a way of improving results was actually implemented.
However, Leeds City Council has described the report as a "deeply disturbing document" and has accused GORSE of now following through on a plan to remove low-achieving pupils from school rolls.
What is perhaps most alarming about this report is the way in which it frames education.
It says from the outset that staff should set aside ethical considerations when coming at this problem – these would be a matter for the trust board at a later date.
It then outlines a series of ways in which it could boost its results.
This includes the removal of low-achieving “anchor" students – those who are weighing down the scores – from a school’s roll and even goes into detail about how this can be achieved.
But it all seems to be about the trust. There is almost no mention of what is in the pupils’ best interests, their wellbeing, or what the trust wants education to achieve for its students.
Regardless of what GORSE did with this document, the fact is that a trust with a successful track record for school improvement identified practices – which its own leader has since described as "unacceptable" – as possible ways of achieving further success.
Doesn't that suggest something has gone wrong with our education system?
The GORSE Academies Trust statements in full:
- Sir John said: "The GORSE Academies Trust is beyond reproach regarding the integrity and rectitude of its work in communities across the Leeds city region, particularly those who face lives characterised by privation. At no point since the formation of our trust have we faced anything other than direct opposition from the Leeds local authority, which is itself characterised by political division, incompetence and dissembling.
"It is correct to say that the paper, which dates from the point at which the new Progress 8 measure was being introduced, and which has been sent through to the Tes, was a theoretical discussion paper which sought to examine a range of acceptable and totally unacceptable practices which were at that time taking place across the country.
"We fully accept that as a part of that theoretical exercise we looked at how such practices could impact upon our own work as a trust. At no point did we implement any unacceptable practices arising either from this theoretical discussion paper or in our work thereafter.
"The GORSE Academies Trust has never operated in a manner which places the institution ahead of the child. Consequently, we are very distressed about the nature of this article and exceptionally confident that our work with children and young adults will always stand up to the most intensive scrutiny possible. We fully embrace, for example, the work of Ofsted led by Her Majesty’s chief inspector in overtly challenging practices around gaming and off-rolling.
"The local authority has sought to undermine the work of our trust and our alternative provision, the Stephen Longfellow Academy, at every turn. It is a school now in its third year of operation and we are very proud of it. We look forward to it being inspected this year, as all free schools are before the end of their third year, and being able to display in the clearest terms possible the absolute integrity of its work and the manner in which it is transforming the lives of young people from right across the Leeds city region who would otherwise have been in danger of significantly underachieving on many fronts.
"Our work at the Stephen Longfellow Academy fulfils the clear and approved objectives of our original free-school application. This includes the transfer of pupils on to the roll of the Stephen Longfellow Academy during key stage 4. Our work in this area has been tightly and robustly monitored by the Department for Education.
"The excellent performance of our schools in 2019 is based upon the hard work, integrity and commitment of our students, our professionals and our families who give us such exceptional support. Our curriculum structures are robust, challenging and inclusive and we are fully confident that they would stand up to scrutiny at the highest level."
- Sir John said: "It is correct to say that pupils from a wide range of schools, including schools not within The GORSE Academies Trust, were put onto the roll of the Stephen Longfellow Academy in January of 2018 and January 2019. We wholeheartedly refute the suggestion that this constitutes off-rolling and have done this in full partnership with the DfE and ESFA [Education and Skills Funding Agency]. The movement of pupils on to the roll of The Stephen Longfellow Academy is set out in our funding agreement as a part of our original application.
"Pupils are moved on to the roll of the Stephen Longfellow Academy because it is felt by those connected to the educational provision of the child that it is in their best interests. We have compelling evidence that pupils with us at the Stephen Longfellow Academy have done exceptionally well as a result of their time with us; much better than they would otherwise have done. This does not constitute off-rolling."