Ofsted’s annual report, published today, makes for deeply concerning reading: 19,000 children are disappearing from school rolls in their GCSE years, and only about half of these are resurfacing elsewhere in other state schools. Some 10,000 children have just vanished. Clearly, they aren’t all being home-schooled, so what’s going on?
The truth is that we all know of schools where the difficult kids are shipped out for the day when Ofsted comes calling. We all know of schools that look for the easy route to a set of qualifications, regardless of whether those qualifications will be of any actual value to their students. We all know there are shady practices such as these going on, but none is more pernicious than the deliberate and calculated step of pruning year groups so that exam results look as bountiful as possible.
You know you’ve got a problem when an education story has caught the attention of Coronation Street scriptwriters. And it is a problem – a big problem. I’m not talking here about one or two students disappearing off the role, but instead swathes of students who have been persuaded to go elsewhere. And as some would have it, this is now happening in some schools on an industrial scale.
Yet, how can this be in a student’s best interests? I’m not talking here about a student who has struggled to settle and would benefit from a fresh start elsewhere. Or the student who genuinely would benefit from specialist education in an alternative-provision school. But when 9,700 of our Year 10s and 11 are just falling out of the system altogether, something has gone badly wrong.
No more turning a blind eye
It’s time to say enough. Enough to the schools and trusts that have lost their way and lost sight of who matters in all of this. In their pursuit of ever more lavish plaudits and praise, shortcuts are taken and yet another blind eye is turned to poor practice.
Turning difficult schools around is really hard. It cannot happen overnight, and you need talented and committed professionals who are in it for the long-term. I know that better than most – when I joined Academies Enterprise Trust (AET), I joined a largely dysfunctional organisation. It has taken – and continues to take – a gargantuan effort to turn that ship around. And while, as a trust, it was wholly right and proper to get rid of numerous former staff who simply weren’t performing or up to the job, that same logic cannot, and should not, apply to school pupils. This is not to say that exclusions shouldn’t happen – sadly, there will always be situations where there is no other option. But this should be the last resort, not an easy way to smooth results.
The bottom line is that we have a moral duty to educate the children in our care. And that means every child in our care. Even the difficult ones that sometimes, if we’re honest, we would far rather went to the school down the road. At AET, we talk about our purpose being to help young people go on and lead remarkable lives. We want every single pupil to discover what that means for themselves, and then feel equipped to follow that path. That approach cannot, nor ever will, be measured by our prowess in a league table.
Yes, of course good exam results matter – they open doors and they can make life a heck of a lot easier. But a school’s position in the league tables should never come at the cost of an individual’s education. Especially when it would seem that, for many of these young people, that marks the premature end of their school days.
At a time when school accountability has never been more intense, not only should schools and trusts pause for thought on this issue, but the Department for Education should perhaps also look a little closer to home. There is just a whiff of the law of perverse consequences in the air – with the stakes so high and reputations constantly on the line, one can see how these behaviours creep in, until they start becoming normalised (if stealthy) practice.
So, while today’s report is alarming, it can only be a positive thing that Ofsted has now cottoned on and – hopefully – will crack down on these practices. Those in the sector who place the interests of their school or trust above that of individual pupils should be recognised for what they are doing, not celebrated for clawing their way to sparkling results at any and every cost.
Julian Drinkall is chief executive of Academies Enterprise Trust