Some secondaries are engineering moves of their most challenging students to neighbouring schools, in order to boost their own GCSE league table scores, research suggests.
The tactic has been uncovered by an analysis of government data, which indicates that academies, particularly in London, are disproportionately more likely to ask pupils to move to another school before they sit GCSEs than local-authority-maintained schools.
Education Datalab, which conducted the research, is calling for an overhaul of the government’s GCSE performance measure to better reflect the entire educational experience of individual students.
It wants pupils’ exam results to contribute to the league table scores of every secondary that educated them. The proposal would re-weight each school’s GCSE scores according to the number of terms students spent there, which Education Datalab says would paint a dramatically different picture.
The organisation looked at the 74,000 pupils – 6 per cent of the entire cohort – who moved school before sitting their GCSEs. It found that these pupils were more likely to be in receipt of free school meals, and less likely to hit the benchmark of five good GCSEs.
Dr Rebecca Allen, a director at Education Datalab who led the research, said the moves were a “significant issue” in some parts of the country and were causing “great damage” to the educational opportunities of many of the most vulnerable pupils.
She said the data revealed a clear pattern of children moving from particular schools before taking their GCSEs.
“When we reran the performance data based on a student’s time in school, there were enormous changes to some schools’ performance,” Dr Allen said. “This was overwhelmingly a London problem and it was happening much more frequently in academies.
“Those schools that saw a massive fall in the proportion of students gaining five good GCSEs were almost all academies,” Dr Allen added.
Under the re-weighted approach, the 2014 GCSE results of one academy, which was not named, would have plummeted from 61 to 44 per cent of students achieving five A*-Cs including English and maths.
According to the research, 57 per cent of children who transfer between schools are eligible for free school meals at some stage of their education, compared with 13.9 per cent of all secondary pupils, while just 25 per cent hit the government’s benchmark of five good GCSEs, compared with a national average of 56 per cent.
Dr Allen’s study looked in detail at the 50 secondaries with the highest numbers of pupil transfers, finding that they were disproportionately academies. She undertook the research after hearing that local authorities were finding it difficult to place pupils who had left a secondary after a relatively long time, because other schools didn’t want to be responsible for their GCSE results.
“We also spoke to secondary heads who had concerns their schools weren’t doing well in performance tables,” Dr Allen added. “They said that schools in another local authority nearby were asking children to leave, and giving their families numbers for other schools where there were spaces.
“I looked at the data and you could indeed see a pattern of children moving to these schools. It was enough to persuade us that this was a really significant issue.”
Keith Grainger, principal of Garth Hill College in Berkshire, said the research raised “important questions”. But he was concerned about schools being scored on the GCSE results of pupils who left before starting key stage 4.
The approach could also lead to “unintended consequences”, such as schools focusing on the students that they would receive a full weighting for, Mr Grainger added (see panel).
The Department for Education said it did not recognise the tactic portrayed by the research. A spokesperson claimed that schools were held to account for the performance of pupils who left in their final year.
“There is no incentive for schools to encourage lower-performing pupils to go elsewhere,” the spokesperson added.
A headteacher’s view: a case of ‘unintended consequences’
Keith Grainger, principal of Garth Hill College in Bracknell, Berkshire, writes:
Clearly, there are concerns about disadvantaged and vulnerable children who need to make secondary school moves at non-standard times. If schools are not taking them, then that is a serious issue.
A weighting system based on the number of terms that a pupil is on roll in a particular school would reflect time invested but not the relative value of the school’s contribution to that child’s education.
What is being proposed would apply to all 15 terms of a child’s secondary school career. It would be possible for a pupil to enrol in a new school in the middle of Year 8 or 9, complete a full programme of GCSE study in that school, and yet the school would be credited for only part, and possibly less than half, of that child’s GCSE performance.
I note that Education Datalab regularly reflects on the unintended consequences of the accountability system, but might there be some unintended consequences of its research proposals? Might schools be accused of focusing on the performance of pupils with a full weighting at the expense of those pupils with a lesser weighting?