When ex-headteacher Linda Morris saw coverage last year about one of her local schools in a national newspaper, she was outraged. Here was a school being lauded for a seemingly dramatic improvement in its pupils’ exam results. But there was no mention in the article about the history behind the rise, which Morris (not her real name) and local teacher friends knew was interesting and – as they saw it – very concerning.
Morris had evidence that part of the school’s improvement was a product of its practice of removing some of its pupils, often lower-achievers, from its rolls and having them educated elsewhere, meaning these youngsters simply did not show up in its figures any more.
The school itself, Oxford Spires academy, serving one of the tougher catchment areas of the university city, has scrapped this practice from this academic year and the academy chain running the school, as well as its principal, say they will no longer be taking pupils “off roll”.
But the concerns of Morris, and a group of fellow educationists in Oxford, prompted Education Guardian to do some statistical digging, and we uncovered figures that raise questions about changes in pupil rolls at many other schools. In fact, our data analysis of the official school rolls of thousands of schools reveals for the first time how some successful schools are seeing the number of pupils they educate in a particular year group shrink by up to 20% as students progress from the early years of secondary towards the end of compulsory education at 16.
During 2012, our figures show, about 1,730 secondaries lost a combined 7,500 pupils from the academic year group that would go on to complete its GCSEs in summer 2013. But with the other 1,000 mainstream secondary schools gaining only 2,000 such pupils, the question is, where did the missing 5,500 go?
We have no evidence that any school is removing pupils deliberately to improve its league-table standing. Many pupils do benefit after leaving mainstream education to be educated either in specialist “alternative provision” settings, including pupil referral units, or, in some cases, in colleges.
However, the schools may be benefiting from the reduction if the pupils leaving their books are lower-achievers, as only those on their rolls in the January of the year before pupils are due to complete GCSE courses are counted for league-table purposes.
Two of England’s largest academy chains, the Harris Federation and Oasis Community Learning, have several schools each on the list of those whose 2013 GCSE year group shrank the most over the period 2010-2013, and especially during 2012-13.
It is now possible to use the Department for Education’s official school census data, completed in January each year, to track the size of individual year groups in 2,785 state schools across England over the years 2010-13.
The January census data is particularly crucial for schools in relation to pupils who turn 16 during the academic year, as the number recorded as on the roll at this time is the number whose results are counted against the school in league tables.
Our analysis shows that 67 schools in England saw the particular year group of pupils who finished their GCSEs in summer 2013 – last year’s year 11 – shrink by at least 10% between 2010, when the pupils were in year 8, and last January, when they were in year 11.
In 10 schools, the year group shrank by at least 15% over the period, while in four schools, it was 20% smaller in 2013 than in 2010.
At Oak academy in Bournemouth – formerly Oakmead College of Technology – 188 pupils are recorded as having been at the college as 12- to 13-year-olds in 2009-10. By the time the year group took their GCSEs last summer, the number had fallen by 24% to 142, with the year group shrinking from 194 pupils to 142 during 2012-13 alone.
The academy explains that the drop is the result of a re-organisation, with some pupils now being educated within a new “studio school” on site, focusing on workplace preparation, performance and sports. Executive principal Annette Minard says: “The children have not gone; they are just working within a separate school within our federation.”
At Harris academy South Norwood, in south London, pupil numbers in the year group that took GCSEs last summer dropped by 22% between the time they were 12- to 13-year-olds and last January, with the year group’s roll falling from 197 in January 2012 to 169 a year later, in the lead-up to GCSEs.
Overall, six Harris academies feature in the list of the 50 schools with the largest drop in pupil numbers for the 2013 GCSE year group between 2010 and 2013, with all shrinking in size by at least 10%, while Oasis Community Learning has three schools in the top 50 largest reductions on this measure.
A spokesperson for the Harris Federation said: “Everyone knows and accepts that London is a particularly turbulent part of the country and that many of its schools have to deal with this on a year-by-year basis. When families move away from an area we always do our best to make sure their child can remain in school, but this is not always possible.”
David Wolfe, a barrister who has worked with parents who feel their children have been unfairly treated by schools, says the school-by-school cohort figures “do not surprise me in the slightest”, and that schools did sometimes put pressure on parents to get their children to leave.
He says: “There is an incentive for schools to [reduce their year group before the January of GCSE year], in that their results are likely to look better. Whether the year groups are reducing for this reason, though, is another question.”
Oasis Community Learning says in a statement: “[At] Oasis … we care deeply about each and every one of our young people. Many of the communities we work in are subject to a number of circumstances that cause them to have a higher degree of transience than average. This, in turn, can and does cause fluctuations in numbers as a cohort progresses through an academy.” The Oasis spokesman emphasised that none of its pupils are excluded, officially or informally, on the basis of their academic performance.
Nationally, 30 schools had year groups shrinking by at least 10% while pupils were in the middle of key stage 4: between the January of year 10 and the January of year 11.
It is not easy to be sure exactly why pupil numbers should have shrunk in these schools for these particular year groups, but the reduction in the rolls of successful schools – eight of the schools with the largest falls in pupil numbers between years 8 and 11 are Ofsted-rated good or outstanding – in particular seems surprising.
Permanent exclusions are not being used on a large scale to exclude pupils. Some pupils may be heading towards non-mainstream provision, including in pupil referral units, colleges, studio schools and university technical colleges.
At Oxford Spires, which was feted in the Independent last April for an “astonishing” transformation in results, one factor contributing part of that statistical improvement is now relatively clear.
The academy, run by the CfBT (Centre for British Teachers) education trust, replaced the struggling Oxford community school in January 2011. The proportion of pupils achieving five or more GCSE A*-C grades including English and maths rose from 31% in 2010 to 58% in 2012.
Morris and her friends, mainly retired local teachers who do not want to be named, found out from the DfE census data that the Oxford Spires year group that took GCSEs in summer 2012 had shrunk from 124 pupils as of January 2011 to 98 the following year. Similarly, the year group below had 185 pupils as 14-year-olds in 2011-12. But by January 2013, this had fallen to 167 pupils.
For at least 12 of the “missing” 26 pupils from the 2012 GCSE group, and all 18 the following year, Oxford Spires arranged for them to be educated at a nearby private alternative education centre, Include Oxfordshire, which was also run by CfBT. None of the missing 26 appear to have achieved five or more A*-C grades including English and maths in 2012 – data is not available for 2013 – but this was not counted on the school’s record. If these pupils had been counted, the school’s headline figure would have decreased from 58% to 49%.
Morris says: “The whole thing just looked like a device for shifting kids off roll. Schools should be competing on a level playing field. But when you are losing 20% of your lower-attainers from the year group, it clearly is not that.”
Steve Munby, chief executive of the CfBT trust, tells Education Guardian that the practice has now ceased. Only three Oxford Spires Oxford Spires pupils were currently on the roll at Include Oxfordshire. And all were still being counted on the academy’s roll. Ofsted inspectors had been told about the 2012-13 arrangements at the time of the school’s last inspection.
He adds: “The Include provision is high-quality provision [as backed up by its Ofsted report]. The issue was with these pupils being taken off the school’s roll. That is no longer the policy of Oxford Spires or of any CfBT school.”
Sue Croft, Oxford Spires’ principal, says: “Include … was the right provision for these students [in 2012-13] as agreed by the students and parents. It was always a temporary measure. We understand the importance of a level playing field.”
The question remains, however, whether such practices are going on elsewhere and about the wider reasons for the fall in some schools’ pupil cohort numbers.
A spokesman for the DfE said: “Under no circumstances should a school remove a pupil from its roll on the basis of their academic potential or results. All schools must follow clear regulations when removing a pupil from their roll.”
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