As the festive cheer begins to fade, schools start up again this month. Staff and pupils arriving in the dark and often going home in it as well. Following Christmas, the January pay day can seem a long, long way away. But, it isn’t all doom and gloom; schools can look forward to the annual performance tables later this month.
A while back I sent out a tweet with a reference to the “third Thursday in January”. I was asked what the significance of the date was. Ask any secondary school headteacher and s/he will tell you that it is the date of the census that determines which Year 11 pupils you will be held accountable for, in the Summer examinations. These pupils’ results will appear in the performance tables the following academic year.
For all pupils on roll at this point in time, the school – and consequently the school’s leaders and teachers – will be held 100% accountable. This is irrespective of whether the young person started the school in Year 7 or arrived the previous week, having been educated for over four years at another school(s). It’s one more thing in education that fails the common sense test. There are far too many perverse incentives for the unscrupulous, the fearful or the uninformed to knowingly or unknowingly game the system; it’s the off-rolling problem in its widest sense.
Ofsted has belatedly woke up to the issue – it has been around since performance tables were introduced in the 1990s. With no legal definition of off-rolling; Ofsted proffered the following:
“The practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without a formal, permanent exclusion or by encouraging a parent to remove their child from the school roll, when the removal is primarily in the interests of the school rather than in the best interests of the pupil.”
Unfortunately, the inspectorate’s attempt to stop off-rolling shows a naïve understanding of the problem. It’s more a view from the ivory tower than an understanding of what is happening on the ground. By definition a child or young person is not off-rolled if they are permanently excluded. The permanent exclusion is highly unlikely to be in the best interest of the child or young person; however, it may be necessary to ensure good discipline is maintained at the school and to keep other pupils safe.
Imagine the following scenario: two schools in the same area, with almost identical intakes and above national average levels of disadvantaged children, choose to take different approaches to discipline.
School A has had, on average, two or three permanent exclusions a year over the past five years. Given the number of adverse childhood experiences, so many of its young people have experienced, it took a particular approach to discipline. For the relatively few, deeply troubled, high needs pupils; it supports them through their difficulties at a personal, social and emotional level to great effect. This took money, time and the patience of a saint. Despite all this, these pupils achieve limited academic success at GCSE. The school retains 100% responsibility for these pupils in terms of accountability. Performance tables and Ofsted, over the years, have not always been kind to this school.
School B takes a different approach: it’s no exceptions; no nonsense; consequence or reward system has led to twelve to fifteen pupils a year being permanently excluded for the past five years. A total of between 60-75 pupils for whom the school is no longer accountable for at all; the school has taken an extreme position. The data tells us the permanently excluded young people are predominantly those with low prior attainment, the poor and those with special educational needs and disabilities. None of these young people will appear in the school’s examination results; they were all permanently excluded before the third Thursday in January of their Year 11. The national peak in Summer Term Year 10 and Autumn Term Year 11 of permanent exclusions is reflected in the school’s data. Unsurprisingly, the performance tables and Ofsted laud the school’s high quality of education.
The system is driving the wrong behaviours. The comfort blanket of the permanent exclusion process eases our middle class consciences; the poorest in our society often lack the capacity and in some cases the capability to navigate the unfamiliar and frightening quasi-legal processes we have in education.
The third Thursday in January of Year 11 all or nothing approach and failure to contextualise data (the myth of the “soft bigotry of low expectation” is statistically pulled apart by Education Datalab) has made the league tables a farce. Add in rising numbers of secondary pupils entering elective home education and pupils and parents under pressure to move their child to a different school – there is always a school at the bottom of the local food chain – it’s time for change; it’s time for proportionate accountability.
Headteachers’ Roundtable Summit is on Friday 7th February 2020 at the ETC Venue, Westminster. Please join us; more details here.