Ofsted has called on its inspectors to crack down on schools that are "gaming the system" and improving their overall results at the expense of pupils.
Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director of education, has said that schools are entering large numbers of pupils for inappropriate qualifications, narrowing the curriculum or taking underperforming pupils off the roll entirely.
In a letter to inspectors, published today, Mr Harford said: “We would like to remind inspectors of the critical importance of following up any unusual examination entry patterns, to ensure schools have made the right decisions for their pupils…
“We have continued to monitor how well we inspect and report on leadership of the curriculum and, on rare occasions, what is frequently termed as ‘gaming the system’.”
Mr Harford told TES that he was aware that these practices were becoming more common. "The use of them has been increasing quite a lot over the last few years," he said.
Pupils 'not served well'
In particular, he said, he was concerned about the following:
- Schools which enter large numbers of pupils for qualifications that are not core subjects or do not reflect a school's specialisms. These were "often of a technical or vocational nature not suited to the majority of pupils";
- "Double entry in qualifications that overlap in content. For example, statistics and free-standing mathematics qualifications; GCSE English and IGCSE English as a second language qualifications for pupils who have English as a first language";
- Schools which enter pupils for GCSEs in English language and English literature, without teaching the latter properly. Pupils sit the exam purely to ensure that the language result is counted doubly towards Progress 8 scores.
Mr Harford added: “These entry patterns may indicate that the qualifications are being used to improve overall performance data, for example Progress 8 scores, and may not have been in the best interests of the pupils…
“These entry patterns do not serve pupils well, and in some schools they inhibit positive outcomes for pupils and curtail opportunities for their future.”
He also said that it was critical to determine whether schools were moving underperforming pupils into alternative provision, so that they would not bring down results: a practice known as “off-rolling”.
As TES reported earlier this year, research by Education Datalab suggested that 125 schools would see their GCSE pass rates drop by at least five percentage points if they included early leavers’ results.
The letter says inspectors who came across such behaviour should "consider the impact in judging the effectiveness of leadership and management and outcomes for pupils".
Mr Harford also urged inspectors not to ask schools to provide predictions for cohorts of pupils who were about to sit exams. “It is impossible to do so with any accuracy until after the tests and examinations have been taken,” he said. “So we should not put schools under any pressure to do so – it’s meaningless.
“Much better to ask schools how they have assessed whether pupils are making the kind of progress they should in their studies.”