Conquering the 'churn' challenge

3rd February 2012 at 00:00
A high level of pupil turnover is disruptive, but there are lots of ways to lessen the impact on your class

Across Britain, thousands of children are on the move, arriving in classrooms at short notice because of chaotic lives, immigration or their parents' careers. Teachers sometimes have only a matter of hours to prepare to welcome them, often with no idea of their special educational needs (SEN) or previous academic achievements.

There is surprisingly little official guidance on how to deal with high levels of pupil turnover. Yet such "churn" affects schools in every part of the country, in rural as well as urban areas, and mobile children often have specific and extreme educational needs.

These pupils can have parents serving in the armed forces or can be from transient families that frequently move between temporary housing. Some schools, particularly in urban areas, have to take refugee or foreign pupils who have recently arrived in Britain. Other pupils turn up part way through the year because they have been excluded from school or move around because their parents' jobs are seasonal.

Teachers can go out of their way to help pupils make extraordinary leaps in achievement, but this will not be recognised by any "value added" league tables compiled by the government if the children are only recent attendees.

Helping transient pupils is not easy for teachers. Their time with other pupils is eroded by the individual attention new pupils require - they need to be assessed and have targets set. Stability that has taken months to create can be shaken, with friendships fractured and children unsettled by strangers in their classroom.

The educational progress of transient pupils - some of whom have been to as many as 13 different schools by the age of 11 - may be delayed. They may underachieve and be confused or frustrated by the trauma of moving, which can also result in bad behaviour.

Ofsted research on more than 4,300 schools in 2002 found that pupil mobility levels in primaries range from 0-80 per cent, with an average of 11 per cent. The average pupil turnover in inner London secondary schools was 14.2 per cent.

A 2005 study by the Association of London Government (now called London Councils) said that the impact of the additional demands of mobile children can be "critical" for schools and pupils. The research found that high mobility further reduced equality of opportunity for pupils in primaries and secondaries with high levels of educational disadvantage and could "help perpetuate" underachievement for all children.

In the study, Professor Steve Strand, now at the University of Warwick, looked at 6,400 inner London pupils from 56 schools. He found that, on average, mobile pupils had lower attainment at the age of 7 than those who spent all of key stage 1 in one school. But when he included other factors - such as low family income, lack of fluency in English, SEN and poor attendance - the difference between the mobile and non-mobile group was significantly reduced.

Another study, by Dr Steve Gibbons from the Centre for the Economics of Education at the London School of Economics and Political Science, found that immobile pupils in year groups that experience high pupil entry rates progress less well academically between the ages of 8 and 11 than pupils in year groups with low mobility rates - even within the same school.

Mitigating the risks

Luckily there are ways - often simple ones - in which teachers can cut the risk of low achievement among mobile pupils.

Those with experience of transient pupils say that it is crucial to develop a good relationship with parents, to have a well-organised induction, and to obtain key information about the child.

Professor Strand says that teachers should first understand why a pupil has moved to their school. "For example, in one school I studied, this was because it was near to a home for battered women," he says. "It's also important that teachers have a conversation with parents about what the implications of mobility are. Ask what the school can do for them."

At Brompton-on-Swale CofE Primary in Richmond, North Yorkshire, a quarter of the pupils are transient, having moved to the area because their parents serve in the armed forces.

Headteacher Michael White has produced a welcome guide for mobile pupils and parents that fits on a single page of A4. It sets out what teachers expect of pupils, how the school day works and what will happen in the next week and month.

Mobile pupils now settled at the primary have produced a DVD with even more information about the school. Pupils also get pastoral support that is designed to help them settle in as soon as possible.

"Children don't learn if they don't feel loved or secure," White says. "We've found that children react differently to a move; some are boisterous and loud at first, but then this disappears within two to three days. My teachers tell me personalities don't come out for at least a week."

White prefers to see children before they arrive in the school to help them become less wary of their new start. Then, on their first day, they are met by their class teacher. When they get to the classroom, they are paired with a buddy, who looks after them for the next two days and introduces them to the other pupils. Teachers also get their class to sign a welcoming card, complete with a picture of everybody.

"Strong communication with families is essential," White says. "We have a meeting with parents soon after arrival, where the teacher and pupil sit in, too. We want to find out how their first day has gone."

White recommends that the administration involved with a mobile pupil is completed before they arrive - simple things such as ensuring children can log in to a computer straight away are important to help them feel settled and to avoid disruption.

Janet Dobson, from the Migration Research Unit at University College London, believes that being organised is key. "The best way to manage the arrival of a new child is for teachers to sit down and decide who should do what and how those tasks are going to be carried out in an organised way," she says. "For example, there might be particular foods the children can't eat, and this has got to be passed on to the school kitchen.

"It must be clear who will be responsible for welcoming the child, what information they take from them, what information they get from parents and what information is given to their class teacher."

Mel Ainscow witnessed much successful work of this kind with mobile children when he was the government's chief adviser for the Greater Manchester Challenge, a three-year scheme to raise standards in schools in the region.

"For schools that experience transience for the first time, it comes as a bit of a shock," he says. "We used schools that had knowledge as a hub of advice for others. We found that the biggest help was if these schools were inclusive, and if child-to-child support was used. You need to see this situation through the eyes of a child."

Professor Ainscow is now co-director of the Centre for Equity in Education at the University of Manchester. "If you get a sudden influx of children from a particular community, it can be a good idea to employ people from that community as support workers," he says. "You also need a balance of catch-up work for the child and for them to work with other children or there is a danger of isolation."

Emotional detachment

Of course, dealing with children's administrative needs is much easier than helping them emotionally. "I've met children who have been to 13 or 14 schools by the time they are 16," says White. "For some, it's a benefit because it means they are used to the process. For others, it becomes more of a knock - every group of friends they meet they have to say goodbye to. Secondary teachers say that this means older children can tend not to try as hard if they know they won't keep friends for long.

"Detachment is something our teachers really have to fight against. Pupils who are about to move tend to have arguments with friends. They can also become disloyal to the school, telling others they hate it. It's all about preparing to leave."

Dr Dobson says that schools should work hard to avoid an "us and them" attitude and must ensure teachers see new pupils as equally "real" to their classmates.

"Every child deserves a positive experience, even if they only attend for a short time," she says. "But there is also a danger the teacher will get children's backs up by spending too much time with newcomers - particularly in areas with recent immigration. If there is racism in the community, then parents may allege their children are suffering in school."

Serving service families

Le Cateau Primary is based at Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire, the largest British Army garrison in the world. So it is no surprise that the school has a special "welcome board" for new pupils or that teachers are used to getting books and coat hooks ready at short notice.

"We have some children in Year 6 who have been in 13 different schools who cope very well," headteacher Grahame Shepherd says. "Other children move two or three times and find it difficult - it's an individual thing.

"Record keeping is key to success, especially for children who haven't been educated in the English system," he adds. "If you don't get what you want from the child's previous school, be persistent."

Le Cateau also supports pupils preparing to move on to other schools. Children are helped to research the location of their next home online and parents fill out a leaving survey about how their child settled in.

In North Yorkshire, there are 3,000 children in local authority schools from service families - 3 per cent of the total roll in the county. "We consider these children to be a significant vulnerable group," says Matt Blyton, education development adviser with North Yorkshire County Council's quality and improvement service.

Blyton, an educational consultant for the Ministry of Defence and a former deputy head of a school for children from service families, now advises schools on how to help them.

"Schools have to identify gaps in learning and they have to do this quickly. There has to be rigorous chasing of records from previous schools and a good dialogue with families," he says. "A specific problem teachers face is that families think information such as deployment dates is classified, so they don't share important information about children's lives with them, which can cause stress and turbulence."

The art of assessment

It can be hard for a school to maintain exam standards and Ofsted ratings when they have a turbulent pupil population. Raw data simply does not do justice to the achievement of pupils and teachers.

Matt Blyton advises that schools should assess pupils to get an understanding of their ability, but that this should be done sensitively. "Don't put children in a room alone and test them as soon as they arrive. This may upset them; they may not do well and may be put in the wrong set," he says. "They need to build confidence, so do ongoing assessment and have a dialogue with their previous school."

Head Michael White says that the biggest problem he faces is the lack of information given to his school about new pupils. "Some records we get are very good, but some are very inconsistent. We get a significant number of children arriving in the school from Germany. If records don't come with parents, it can take two weeks for them to arrive by post."

Ofsted has found that the need to settle children in quickly can work against attempts to deliver the curriculum and individual education plans. A false start can have serious consequences for both the pupil and others in the class.

Another challenge for teachers is making sure that new arrivals have a varied curriculum - they might have covered aspects before in previous schools. "We find this especially in maths," White says. "Some children have been to four different schools and have done modules on time four times, but they've never done division. We are constantly having to fill in the gaps."

Professor Strand's research suggests that, while pupils may be able to pick up the basic skills of primary English and maths at home, the content of the secondary curriculum is more difficult for them to acquire outside school. As a result, "filling in the gaps" can take teachers away from their work with the whole class. "There can be a disruptive impact on non-mobile pupils. Unless there is support, it is inevitable that teacher time will be skewed by the high needs of those who have just arrived," he says.

Dr Gibbons advises heads to distribute newcomers to different teachers, rather than putting them all in the same class. "It's very important that teachers look at the impact of transience on non-mobile pupils. If they don't have one, they should introduce a system that records and analyses how they are performing. But, of course, it may also be hard to make judgements about these results because they go up and down every year," he says.

While data and organisation may be key to working with transient pupils, it seems that the most important tools teachers can use are empathy and friendliness.


Dobson, J.M. and Henthorne, K. Pupil Mobility in Schools: final report (2000). The former Department for Education and Employment.


Gibbons, S. and Telhaj, S. Mobility and School Disruption (2007). Centre for the Economics of Education, London School of Economics and Political Science.


The Educational Performance of Children of Service Personnel (2010). Department for Education.



- Give a member of staff responsibility for administration - they should check if the child is eligible for free school meals, collect emergency contact forms, home-school agreements and classroom codes of conduct signed by parents and pupils. Most importantly, they should get hold of the child's educational records from their previous school.

- Decide who will welcome the child - the head or the class teacher. A teaching assistant could be given responsibility for monitoring how they get on during their first days and weeks at the school.

- Provide parents with a welcome pack and school prospectus and give them clear information about the school day, uniform or dress code, PE requirements, parental rights, subjects taught, meal arrangements and access to teachers. A tour of the school is also a good idea.

- Prepare other children in the class - explain the new pupil's background and say that it is normal to feel shy when meeting new people. Ask for ideas about how to welcome the new arrival.

- The teacher should read the educational records carefully, but also do their own assessment. Try not to test the pupil as soon as they arrive as they might not perform to their best ability if they are unsettled. Instead, use an ongoing assessment.

- Make sure that the child has a coat peg, drawer, seat and books and can log on to school computers.

- Set up a buddy scheme in which new pupils are paired with another child who can sit with them at lunch, look after them in the playground and help them get used to school routines and settle into class groups. Check this system is working - get regular feedback from all involved.


- Do not assume that pupils with English as an additional language need to be put in low-ability sets - they might be high achievers, particularly in subjects such as maths.

- Keep staff informed - including meal-time assistants. Alert them to the possibility of bullying and racial harassment, especially for children who are new to the country or have regional accents.

- Decide if pupils should sit with a peer who speaks their own language - who might make them feel at home, but could also isolate them from the rest of the class - or somebody who is articulate in English.

- For those who are not confident in English, make your lessons visual - use aids, artefacts, videos and photographs.

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