Education: Alex doesn’t come here any more

by
14 June 2019

Dennis Richards tackles the latest league-tables trick

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“OFF-ROLLING” is a term much in the news in the education press of late. It is a new feature in the annual parlour game in which schools are either praised or pilloried for their performance in the school league tables.

This is the time when schools are also taken to task by OFSTED for the number of official permanent expulsions and exclusions, almost entirely made up of students who will have a negative effect on a school’s league-table performance.

“Off-rolling”, some commentators say, is a new underhand tactic used by unscrupulous head teachers to remove troublesome students from school in the final months preceding the GCSE exams. Because no record is kept, the school can avoid an adverse OFSTED report on its exclusion rates.

Students are allegedly being “persuaded” to leave school without going through the legal requirements for a permanent or fixed-term exclusion. The parents are encouraged to “home school” their children, who are then quietly removed from school registers.

It is no surprise that most of these young people are of low academic ability, and their behaviour may well be challenging and disruptive. Their attendance is also likely to have been patchy, at best. And, sadly, many of their parents are not concerned or savvy enough to object.

A former Conservative Education Minister, Ed Timpson, has produced a review of the problem, given the widespread concern about the thousands of children who do not complete their period of compulsory attendance at school. In addition, there has been much angst about the rise in knife crime among excluded children, and their recruitment to deliver drugs from one region to another — a practice known as “county lines”.

The off-rolling practice adds a significant number of students to the official statistics for expulsions and fixed-term exclusions. Figures from the Department for Education (DfE) show that there was a 15-per-cent rise in the number of students expelled between 2015-16 and 2016-17: from 6685 to 7720. The majority occurred in secondary schools. Fixed-term exclusions remained at almost 400,000 in the same period.

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The Timpson review’s eye-catching proposal is to compel schools to include the results — or more likely the non-results — of these students in the annual school league tables. The consequence would be, so the review concludes, that schools would endeavour to keep these children in school rather than find some subterfuge to kick them out.

 

THE review is certainly right to conclude that, like it or not, the league tables are now the key driver for school policies and practice. They are on less certain ground in believing that tampering with league tables can be used to persuade schools to improve their educational practice.

The track record is not good: quite the reverse, in fact. Two past attempts come to mind. At one time, there was an anxiety that schools were not sufficiently improving their students’ numeracy and literacy. The suggestion was that schools should be awarded double points for English and maths in the annual league tables — a sort of Tesco-club-card-points approach to reward schools that could demonstrate rapid improvement in these two areas. It was concluded, however, that the end result could be that students found their school timetables evolving away from art, music, and drama, to be replaced by an endless diet of spelling tests and sums.

When there was a similar anxiety about the gross disparity of esteem between so-called academic and technical/vocational subjects, extra GCSEs were awarded for BTEC vocational qualifications, which would count in the league tables. The going rate was generous: four GCSE passes for each BTEC course. The end result was that schools bused their students for two weeks to a specialist BTEC centre that offered four GCSEs in a fortnight: a sort of Aldi pile ’em high, get ’em cheap approach.

When it was discovered that some students were achieving the equivalent of 24 GCSE passes, it was quickly abandoned. Technical education is now back where it started: at the bottom of the pile.

There is a further significant flaw in Timpson’s simplistic remedy. Ask any teacher. After a bit of a whinge about poor communication on the part of the management, together with complaints about an unreasonable workload, most teachers will put student behaviour at the top of their dissatisfaction list. It is all very well, they will argue, asking me to keep Jenny and Jimmy in my GCSE class, when one is continually aggressive and disruptive, and the other, for some unexplained reason, spends most of the lesson in tears.

But what about the other 28 biddable and well-behaved students in the class? Is it fair for their education to be so severely disrupted in this way? And what about their results? And their parents’ feelings?

It is this aspect of the DfE’s cack-handed approach to ill-discipline in schools which, more than any other, is driving so many teachers to distraction — and, sadly, out of the profession.

 

THE solution is relatively straightforward. Although government ministers will groan — and cynics may do so, too — they will have to accept that only extra money can bring any kind of improvement. How about mentors on the minimum wage? Or recent graduates, maybe, who are willing to offer a gap year to work on a one-to-one basis with the disaffected and the disturbed — term-time only, to cut costs, and, for the successful, guaranteed passage on to a teacher-training course.

If we cannot have that, how about the new kid on the block: a “well-being” dog (see review overleaf)? The students would clamour to be in school to look after the school pet. We’re ready to give anything a go, Mr Timpson . . . except league tables. Give us a break.

 

Dennis Richards is a former head of St Aidan’s C of E High School, Harrogate.

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