Changing schools has less effect on young children's educational performance than factors such as family income and whether English is their second language, newly-published research suggests.
In a study of the relationship between mobility and attainment, Dr Steve Strand of educational publishers NFER-Nelson analysed the key stage 1 test results of more than 6,000 pupils in one inner London authority.
He found that the children who had joined schools part way through the key stage - 25 per cent of the sample - usually had lower test scores than those whose schooling had not been disrupted. For example, in the key stage 1 reading test the scores of children who had changed schools within the LEA were on average 0.132 of a level lower. Children new to the LEA or to the United Kingdom fared even worse.
However, mobile pupils were more likely than the rest of the sample to qualify for free school meals, to have special educational needs, to be frequently absent and to lack fluency in English.
New entrants to the local authority, many of them refugees, were especially likely to need support with their English. When the relative impact of these background factors was considered, the difference between the performance of mobile and stable pupils narrowed dramatically.
To establish whether switching schools affected pupils' progress between the ages of four and seven, Dr Strand compared the baseline assessments and key stage 1 test results of those who had had a full three years of education in the UK. He found that after controlling for background factors, mobile pupils made less than expected progress only in maths and that changing schools had little effect on their progress in reading or writing. "This reflects the fact that English is more likely to be learnt at home and influenced by background factors in the environment such as the media, while mathematics is more directly influenced by the input of the school," Dr Strand observes.
Even for maths the impact of mobility compared to other factors was small, equating to no more than around two months' progress.
Dr Strand also points out that some schools and local education authorities have latched on to mobility to explain why they are not doing as well as they might be.
"What this paper says is that there are social and other disruptions (associated with mobility)," he told The TES. "But we shouldn't necessarily be saying we have found the holy grail for explaining low attainment."
"Pupil mobility, attainment and progress during key stage 1: a study in cautious interpretation", by Steve Strand, British Educational Research Journal Vol. 28, No. 1, 2002
* find out and record the reasons pupils have switched schools;
* assess their attainment, set them clear targets and monitor their progress, especially in maths;
* show sensitivity to the emotional and social problems that can result from changing schools;
* recognise that these problems are often short-lived - and that high levels of pupil turnover do not necessarily explain low attainment.