Attitudes have changed toward the problem of children who join and leave school outside the normal times, says Janet Dobson
IT IS exactly three years since I first wrote about pupil mobility in The TES. My contention then was that pupil mobility was generally ignored in education policy development in this country, and nowhere more so than in league tables and funding formulas. So what has changed?
Quite a lot. At school, local authority and national level, there has been a growing recognition that pupil mobility - that is, pupils joining and leaving a school at points other than the normal ages of joining and leaving - affects most schools to some degree and needs to be considered in a variety of contexts to do with raising achievement and measuring success.
The Office for Standards in Education has shown an increasing awareness of the issues. Pupil mobility is now something which inspectors are expected to take into account, as the current paper on future arrangements for school inspection explains: "Inspectors are required to discuss with schools important factors such as the characteristics and previous achievements of pupils, pupils' mobility, the amount of staff movement and pupils' progress. These factors, as well as absolute levels of attainment, enable inspectors to identify key issues for the school."
Last year's chief inspector's report, Improving City Schools, noted pupil turnover as one of the difficulties faced by schools in deprived areas and flagged up implications for staffing and funding. The Department for Education and Skills has taken the issue on board. Whereas the White Paper Excellence in Schools (1997) carried no mention of it, Excellence in Cities (1999) noted its potentially disruptive effects for both children and schools and some of the beneficiaries of EiC funding have been high-mobility schools and their pupils. The recent White Paper, Schools Achieving Success, proposes a pilot project for eight secondary schools in the most challenging circumstances, such as a combination of high levels of deprivation, pupil turnover and numbers of children with English as a second language.
Consultation documents on many different topics now consider mobility aspects. The current one on school admissions mentions those arriving outside the normal admissions round and proposes a brokering role for admissions forums in ensuring that all schools share responsibility for new arrivals. This is a crucial issue for the future. If more and more schools acquire a "special character" and the ability to select some or all pupils on particular criteria, the deprived and dispossessed may become even more heavily concentrated in particular schools. On past experience, the forums will have a hard job brokering places in some schools for migrants who are low achievers or non-English speakers.
The Draft Guidance on Educational Development Plans from 2002 document gives explicit recognition to the difficulties of target-setting where children come and go: "Some schools may, after targets have been set, experience a degree of turbulence in the pupil population which is inherently unpredictable, and could not reasonably be taken into account in the target-setting process".
The Consultation Paper on Publication of School and College Performance Tables in 2001, discussing the development of value-added measures, had a section on the treatment of pupils who move school, with an outline of options. It stated that: "The Secretary of State proposes that all pupils who take their output tests or examinations in a particular school should have their value-added scores attributed to that school. He is minded to provide a pupil mobility indicator in the performance tables."
The paper recognised the inevitable by proposing that, where there were no comparative test scores to enable value added to be measured for a particular pupil, the pupil should be disregarded from the value-added calculations altogether.
These last examples are illustrations of the difficulties of fitting inconvenient anomalies into standard frameworks of analysis or action. Unfortunately, this means that teachers will get no credit for the value added to the "inconvenient anomalies" who have come and gone. It appears impossible to take account of such things in a simple, systematic way which lends itself to tabulation.
So, what of the raw performance data? Three years on, we still have the league tables, though pupils recently arrived from overseas with little or no English are now discounted if they meet specified criteria. The Government seems to see these tables as tools, but they can also be used as weapons. For many schools struggling to do their best for the homeless and rootless, the use to which published tables are put often feels like being beaten about the head with a heavy object.
In respect of resources, LEAs are increasingly looking at the costs of managing mobility. However, there is as yet no recognition of mobility in national funding, except in the context of special projects.
Overall, education ministers should be congratulated on listening to what schools, LEAs and researchers have been saying about pupil mobility. However, there is still some way to go on policy.
Janet Dobson is a senior research fellow at University College London's migration research unit