The issue has been raised in a series of recent blogs by Education Datalab, a group of expert researchers who carry out quantitative educational analysis.
The first (entitled Who’s left: Three questions for the Department for Education from our work) asks the Department for Education (DfE) if it is satisfied that enough is being done to prevent the gaming of league tables.
It states: “We believe that losing pupils is one of the ways in which secondary league tables are still susceptible to gaming. Our research has found considerable variation in the number of pupils who leave secondary school rolls – with very large impacts on league table results in some cases.
“Given this susceptibility to gaming, we would ask the DfE to consider whether they are satisfied that pupils moves are not being used to boost the league table results of schools in a minority of cases.”
Two further posts look at the impact of Progress 8 in this context. Progress 8 has shifted the accountability focus from the C/D grade borderline to the progress all pupils make during their time at secondary school.
However, it is suggested that this may actually increase incentives to “manage out” pupils because of the disproportionate impact some individuals can have on overall Progress 8 scores.
A blog entitled Outliers in Progress 8 explains that under Progress 8, the half a grade positive progress made by 27 students in a form class can theoretically get wiped out by three others who, for a number of reasons, might fail to sit any GCSE exams.
The author, Rebecca Allen, director of Education Datalab, suggests that a cap on individual student’s Progress 8 scores is the simplest solution to this problem.
She writes: “The stories that headteachers share suggest that these underperforming children are usually experiencing overwhelming difficulties in their lives outside school and that the schools invest considerable time trying to get them into school regularly.
“So it isn’t that their future attainment is entirely outside the control of schools, it is more that schools simply do not have the resources to manage the situation adequately.
“We need these students to be included in Progress 8. If not, then schools are not rewarded for the efforts they go to in trying to ensure they regularly attend school. One simple option might be to cap the scale of Progress 8 so that no student can fall below (say) -2.5 or above +2.5.
“The story we tell about most schools would not materially change. But for 87 schools their Progress 8 score would improve by more than a tenth of a grade. And, based on this provisional data, we think around 50 schools would escape the floor standard.”
However, without this safeguard in place, a third post, entitled Who’s left: Will Progress 8 reduce incentives to lose low-attaining pupils?, suggests that these pupils may become targets for managed moves.
It states: “If gaming is something that has gone on, with schools previously most strongly incentivised to lose pupils who would not achieve five A* to C GCSEs, schools will now not have the same incentive to lose these pupils – they will count no more than any other child.
“There would, though, still be an incentive to lose certain pupils. The emphasis would just switch in fact – with pupils who are likely to have made poor progress those who there would be an incentive to lose, in the small number of cases where a school was motivated to try to boost its performance.
“And, in fact, there is a slightly inconvenient fact. In some ways, the results of individual pupils are more important under Progress 8 than they are under the previous system, and as such the incentives to manage-out a pupil are greater.”
Commenting on the issue, Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said there was a role for Ofsted in scrutinising schools in this regard. He also called on the government to end the practice of academies acting as their own admissions authorities.
He added: “The NUT has long heard anecdotal evidence that some academy chains are ‘managing out’ pupils to boost their position in league tables. This research from Education Datalab demonstrates categorically that these practices are rife.
“The government has created an unaccountable and fragmented school system in England through its academy and free school programme, in which thousands of schools now manage their own admissions and there is precious little oversight of what goes on.
“In addition, huge cuts to local authority budgets – some 40 per cent since 2010 – mean that local authorities have little or no resources to follow up school exclusions as they once did when the Education Welfare Service was properly funded. Coupled with a draconian accountability regime in which a school’s league table position is rapidly becoming the be-all and end-all of educational ‘success’, the government has created the perfect storm of conditions for ‘gaming’ the system in which our most vulnerable children are the losers.”
Elsewhere, calls have been made this week for councils to be given the power to force academies to take in “hard-to-place” students, including those excluded from other schools.
Currently, councils only have the power to tell maintained schools to admit excluded pupils. If they think an academy is the best place for a child, councils must apply to the Education Funding Agency, which takes the final decision.
The Local Government Association (LGA) is raising the issue and points to government statistics showing that nine out of 10 hard-to-place children end up being refused entry to an academy; only 15 of the 121 students put forward to the EFA have been accepted.
An LGA statement said: “The decision to require a school to take in a particular pupil is made following careful local discussion and is made in the best interests of the child in question.
“Councils are now becoming increasingly worried that their advice to the EFA is being repeatedly ignored. They believe that civil servants in Whitehall should not be allowed to second-guess local decision-making.”
Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, added: “Councils have a statutory duty to ensure that all children have a school place and are receiving a good education. By ignoring local council advice the EFA is allowing academies to effectively choose the children they want to admit. There are far stronger safeguards in place to ensure maintained schools do not cherry pick their pupils and the same measures should be in place for all academies.”