Election 2019 – what the new government must act on to remove the incentives to exclude

by

11th December 2019

This is a the second in a series of blogs focusing in on specific priorities that CfEY called for in this year’s election manifestos.

In this piece, Philip Nye, Researcher with FFT Education Datalab, argues that the new government must implement the long-promised pledge to hold schools accountable for all pupils performance, including those who are excluded or who have an unexplained exit.

By and large, secondary school league tables work quite straightforwardly: if a pupil is the roll of your school in January of Year 11 they’ll count in your results.

There are some exceptions to this. New arrivals to the country can be excepted in some cases. Where a child is permanently excluded but doesn’t join the roll of another establishment, the excluding school has the option of asking for that pupil’s results to be attributed to them. And where a pupil has been permanently excluded from one school in the last two years, a school that accepts them can decide whether or not it wants the pupil’s results.

But for the vast majority of pupils the Year 11 rule will apply.

This brings with it the possibility of league table gaming: lose a pupil before that point and they won’t count in your results. This could be by way of permanent exclusion, or off-rolling.

The FFT Education Datalab and CfEY are calling for the next government to urgently implement a reweighting of pupil results in secondary school league tables. Click To Tweet

 

Who’s Left

It’s worth saying a few things here. At FFT Education Datalab we think it’s very much a minority of schools who would be motivated to act in this way. But Ofsted’s work on off-rolling bears out the fact that there are schools where this goes on.

At the start of December, we published the latest iteration of our Who’s Left work, looking at the pupils who leave mainstream secondaries – and the destinations to which they go.

We found a number of things:

For the majority of schools the effect would be that their published disadvantage gap would look quite different. Some schools would “perform” better: one would have seen its disadvantage gap decrease by 13.9 percentage points, but another would have seen its gap increase by 24.4 percentage points. For the majority of schools the effect on the disadvantage gap would be somewhere between a decrease of 2.5 percentage points and an increase of 5 percentage points.

Only counting pupils who remain on the roll of a school towards the end of Year 11 makes for an unfair comparison between schools, as schools with highly inclusive practices are compared to schools that will have lost more of their pupils along the way.

To be clear, we’re not equating all pupils moves off the school roll and out of the state system with off-rolling, but that undoubtedly plays a part in it.

It’s also worth stating that our concerns about the pupils we see leaving the system aren’t limited to educational attainment: safeguarding is a concern too.

These approaches would give schools more of an interest in ensuring that those who leave go on to places where their needs are best met, whether another mainstream school, a special school or alternative provision (AP) Click To Tweet

 

Solutions

So, what can be done about this? Three solutions have been suggested.

  1. Make schools accountable for the outcomes of permanently excluded pupils

This was a policy that the Theresa May government committed to in its response to the Timpson review of exclusions. There was to be a consultation on how this would be implemented this autumn, before May’s resignation and the general election torpedoed those plans.

But while the government also committed to a number of other actions on exclusion and alternative provision, our concern with this plan was that – in limiting itself strictly to formal exclusions – it could in fact increase incentives to off-roll, which a minority may have been inclined to act upon. That’s because schools would take on accountability for permanently excluded pupils, but not off-rolled pupils.

  1. Make schools retain accountability for pupils who leave, until they’ve joined the roll of another school

Labour’s manifesto commits the party to making schools accountable for the outcomes of pupils who leave their rolls, and when it’s talked about this in more detail previously it’s said the results of pupils would be attributed to a school until that pupil had another permanent school place.

While probably better than the status quo, we’re concerned that pupils could still be encouraged out and on to the roll of another school operating below capacity.

  1. Reweight league tables to take account of all pupils, in proportion to the amount of time they spend on roll

This is the proposal that we’ve made here at FFT Education Datalab in our Who’s Left work, a recommendation which received the backing of the Education Select Committee last year as well as support from The Centre for Education and Youth. Under this plan, schools’ results would be reweighted – the amount of time that a pupil had spent at a given school would determine how much that pupil’s results would count towards that school.

If a pupil spent four full years at a secondary school – 12 terms out of the maximum 15, or 80% – their results would count towards that school with 80% of the weight of a pupil who had spent their entire time from Year 7 to Year 11 there.

Others favour variants on this idea: the Headteachers’ Roundtable have talked about all pupils who start off at a given school in Year 7 automatically being counted with a weight of 40%, with this increasing with each additional term that they spend on-roll, for example.

All reweighting approaches come with pros and cons.

They undoubtedly make school performance measures more complicated. But in reality, how much of the general population know how the government’s current headline measure, Progress 8, works?

These approaches would give schools more of an interest in ensuring that those who leave go on to places where their needs are best met, whether another mainstream school, a special school or alternative provision (AP). This would probably need to go hand-in-hand with schools being given responsibility for commissioning AP places.

Others have said that, under our approach, the minority of schools who engage in league table gaming could be inclined to lose pupils earlier in their school career. That is a risk, but there would still be less of an incentive to lose pupils than there is under the status quo, and Ofsted’s work on off-rolling should help mitigate this risk.

Only counting pupils who remain on the roll of a school towards the end of Year 11 makes for an unfair comparison between schools Click To Tweet

 

What next?

The FFT Education Datalab and CfEY are calling for the next government to urgently implement a reweighting of pupil results in secondary school league tables. In order to make our reweighting approach, or some variant of it, work, a number of things would be needed.

  1. Better information on pupil mobility. The government would need to gather better information on the pupils who legitimately leave the school the population, for example through emigration. The next government also needs to go ahead with the register of pupils being home educated that Damian Hinds accepted was needed earlier this year, and to require alternative provision that is currently unregistered to be registered with the Department for Education as a condition of schools, local authorities or academy trusts being able to use of it.
  2. Investment in AP. Reweighting league tables would also not be a complete solution on its own. Schools in all parts of the country would need to have access to high quality AP, where currently there exist cold spots. This would involve more investment in AP, as well as efforts to increase the attractiveness of working in AP, such as the work that The Difference is doing.
  3. Greater clarity on assessment in AP

There is also a question about how pupils who leave mainstream education to AP would be assessed, if their results were to count at least partially towards a school that they had left. This would require careful consideration, and consultation with the sector. Judge pupils in AP on the same measures as those in mainstream education and in many cases their outcomes would look very poor; come up with a basket of measures that were considered too easy to perform well on and some mainstream schools may be tempted to over-use AP.

None of these issues is insurmountable, however. And, given the number of pupils leaving our schools, and the poor outcomes which they have, whoever is in power by the end of this week needs to take real action in this area.