Heavy toll of human traffic;Briefing;Analysis

5th February 1999 at 00:00
Janet Dobson reports on headteachers' response to her call for information on how pupil mobility affects performance

Pupils come and go - in some schools much more than others. In October I wrote a short piece on the importance of this "mobility" and requested views and information from TES readers. The response was immediate, large and illuminating. It came from local education authorities, governors but most of all, headteachers.

Given the continuing debate on league tables and the evaluation of school performance, it seems important to share what the heads had to say.

First, it is clear that there are schools with high pupil turnover in many different localities, perhaps in a corner of every LEA.

There is no doubt that Greater London has the most extensive and complex patterns of movement, partly because of the high level of international migration both into and out of the UK.

Details of pupil admissions (other than the normal intake at the youngest end of the school in September) sent in by London heads and LEAs showed many entrants from areas of conflict like Kosovo, but also a vast spread of origins.

This reflects the position of London as a world city, European capital and hub of a former empire. Around seven out of 10 children aged between five and 15 moving into London in the year preceding the last census had been living overseas a year before.

Figures from London schools showed substantial movement by pupils within as well as into and out of Britain, often within London, sometimes between schools in the same London authority. There were significant numbers of transient pupils who came and went from schools within a matter of months, as well as others who enrolled but never turned up.

Information from Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester, Salford and Bristol confirmed the existence of high-mobility schools in other conurbations. Homelessness and family break-up seemed to loom large. There was evidence of families in areas of social deprivation changing home and school several times in a short period.

Perhaps more surprisingly, a similar pattern was reported from a declining coalfield area, with families moving from outside the immediate locality into cheap housing, sending their children to the local school and then moving on again. Schools in seaside resorts as far apart as Blackpool, Bridlington and Bournemouth described the same kind of movement. A number cited anonymous examples of children having attended a string of previous schools, as well as having to cope with instability in their home lives. One head from a school on the East coast wrote:

"Our seaside catchment area contains a large patch of cheap-rent accommodation which attracts families going through a period of crisis of one kind or another. Such families often move on after a few months, either into better housing or to run further from their problems!" Workers on fairgrounds and other seasonal employees were also mentioned.

Schools close to armed forces' bases were described as having distinctive mobility characteristics, in that large numbers of children could join or leave together at a particular time at the behest of a single employer and did so recurrently. In addition, individual families came and went for promotion or other reasons.

Some schools in towns in the South-east, built or expanded to house London over-spill, also reported high mobility. An LEA in one such area said:

"There seem to be two main factors: upward social mobility, as people arrive and move onwards and upwards after a short time, and family upheaval, as families who lack networks of extended family and friends within the town break up".

The location of a school in relation to different kinds of housing or employment was often significant. Thus, schools near a university or hospital might take in the children of overseas students and staff who come for limited periods and then depart. Schools near short-stay accommodation used by homeless families and women's refuges also have a high turnover.

Some changes of school did not, of course, involve a change of home. Exclusions, bullying and the belief that the grass was greener elsewhere were all cited as reasons for pupil transfer. Travellers took their homes with them.

Almost all the schools who made contact (setting aside the particular circumstances of armed forces' families) were coping with a high turnover of pupils who included disproportionate numbers of children with English as a second language, special educational needs andor high levels of social deprivation. Poor households comprising children, mother and changing male partners appeared to be a significant group among the mobile.

We know that there are schools in affluent areas which experience pupil movement resulting from parents moving between company locations and other factors: however this was mentioned only once by an LEA. Perhaps it may be inferred that the volume of such movement in individual schools is never at the highest end of the spectrum; less often takes place mid-term or mid-year, and imposes fewer demands than in deprived areas because most children are not behind their peers in achievement.

Some LEA-wide information seemed to confirm that the highest mobility was in poor areas.

Hard data were supplied by a number of schools and LEAs on the comparative performances of mobile and non-mobile pupils at different key stages. In virtually all cases, the average performance of mobile pupils was below that of the non-mobile, often substantially so. Given the degree of educational and social disruption experienced by some children and the language difficulties of others, this seems unsurprising - setting aside evidence which exists that school transfer per se can set back performance, at least in the short term. As one primary head put it:

"I am not a defeatist. I do have high expectations. But there is no way I can get some of these children up to level 4 in the time they are with us."

Data from individual schools showed clearly how good performance by children who had been taught in the same school from the beginning could be hidden in aggregate school achievement figures which included many recent arrivals. The head of an inner-city junior school produced a detailed analysis of a Year 6 cohort of pupils. Of the 47 children in this year group, only 27 had been in the school for the full four years and the percentage of these achieving level 4 was at or above the national percentage in every subject. However, the school' s aggregate performance was much lower. Because of pupil turnover, staff had actually taught 86 children in this cohort over the four years, many of whom had come and gone, to be replaced by others. Reporting these facts to governors, and anticipating the imminent publication of league tables, this head observed:

"We should brace ourselves for the usual dispiriting and morale-lowering exercise in public misinformation about school effectiveness that these represent."

One of the identified problems with mobility was the sheer volatility of test results. At one school which had achieved unusually good key stage 2 results because the Year 6 cohort had been fairly stable, the head was not looking forward to the following year when she would have to explain the drop in performance by a very turbulent Year 5. At the same time, several people acknowledged that pupil turnover could sometimes enhance the performance of a particular year group - it all depended on who joined and who left.

Schools with large numbers of children from forces' families expressed a particular concern about benchmarking as it currently operates. Not only did they have to cope with high levels of mobility and other aspects of family disruption associated with service life but their low-level of free school meals meant that their performance was compared with schools which they perceived as being both more stable and more affluent than their own.

The complex relationship between socio-economic factors, pupil mobility and achievement requires systematic investigation. However, the responses to my earlier article point to one simple conclusion: a poor child with continuity of schooling and strong parental support may do well; a poor child with three dads and six schools by the age of nine probably won't.

Children from the following countries were enrolled in one primary school after the start of the autumn term:England 3 Zimbabwe 2 Egypt 2 Ireland 4 Iraq 1 China 3 Japan 1 Hong Kong 1 Iran 5 Afghanistan 1 Portugal 1 Zaire 1 Armenia 1

A research project on pupil mobility, funded by the Nuffield Foundation and the Department for Education and Employment, is being carried out by Dr Janet Dobson at the migration research unit,department of geography, University College London, 26 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AP. Tel 0171 380 7568; fax 0171 380 7565

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