Academy pupils are fall­ing through the cracks in our frag­mented sys­tem

The Guardian - Journal - - News -

The cracks in the English and Welsh school sys­tem are grow­ing. So is the ev­i­dence that chil­dren are fall­ing through them. Our re­port this week that four academy chains in­clud­ing the high-per­form­ing Har­ris Fed­er­a­tion are los­ing be­tween 5% and 7% of pupils in the run-up to GCSEs raises ques­tions to which the schools, Of­sted and the gov­ern­ment must now pro­vide an­swers.

While the num­ber of chil­dren leav­ing schools when they are aged 15 or 16 is ris­ing na­tion­ally (from less than 0.1% seven years ago to 2% this year), and some large lo­cal author­i­ties have seen rises of 4-5%, acad­e­mies are los­ing more pupils than other types of schools. Guardian re­search this sum­mer showed that the ma­jor­ity of schools that is­sued more than 20% of pupils with a fixed-term ex­clu­sion in 2016-17 were also acad­e­mies.

Three of the four academy chains that have lost most GCSE-year pupils (although not Har­ris) re­sponded to our data. Delta Acad­e­mies Trust said the re­fer­ral of teenagers to al­ter­na­tive pro­vi­sion was a “strin­gent process” in­volv­ing par­ents and al­ways un­der­taken “in the best in­ter­ests of the child”. There is no rea­son to doubt schools’ good in­ten­tions. There are some­times sound rea­sons for a child to move, even mid­way through a GCSE course. In­di­vid­ual chil­dren’s in­ter­ests must in any case be bal­anced against those of other chil­dren and staff.

But the pat­tern of fall­ing rolls, and the high rate of de­par­tures from some acad­e­mies, point to is­sues around in­cen­tives. Are schools max­imis­ing their GCSE re­sults at the ex­pense of other con­sid­er­a­tions such as in­clu­sion and pas­toral care for pupils who are strug­gling? The data also points to the pos­si­bil­ity that school poli­cies and prac­tices have been al­tered by shrink­ing re­sources – the im­pact of which are ex­pected to fea­ture in the BBC’s new se­ries School. They also sug­gest con­tin­u­ing prob­lems with be­hav­iour.

Above all, there is the ques­tion of why it has been left to jour­nal­ists and in­de­pen­dent re­searchers to un­cover the fact that schools are shed­ding pupils at such a rate. Ear­lier this year a study by FFT Ed­u­ca­tion Data­lab sug­gested that up to 7,700 pupils who should have been sit­ting GCSEs in 2017 were un­ac­counted for. In other words, while they had left main­stream school­ing there was no ev­i­dence they had re­ceived an ed­u­ca­tion else­where.

Al­ter­na­tive providers such as pupil re­fer­ral units ex­ist for a rea­son. But since out­comes for ex­cluded pupils are poor, the thresh­old for ex­clu­sions is high and num­bers closely mon­i­tored. The Guardian first high­lighted the phe­nom­e­non of shrink­ing rolls by means other than ex­clu­sions in 2014. Since then, the prac­tice known as “off-rolling” has gained wider at­ten­tion. For­mer Con­ser­va­tive chil­dren’s min­ster Ed­ward Timp­son is con­duct­ing a re­view for the gov­ern­ment that will look at some of these is­sues. Min­is­ters and Of­sted chief Amanda Spiel­man have voiced con­cerns about off-rolling, and Of­sted has de­vel­oped a tool for use by in­spec­tors.

The acad­e­mies pro­gramme was de­signed to break up the mo­nop­o­lis­tic con­trol of state-run schools by coun­cils. While many academy trusts de­liver ex­cel­lent ed­u­ca­tion, the patch­work ar­range­ment has failed to de­liver the promised im­prove­ments, and wor­ry­ing gaps have ap­peared. These in­clude fail­ures in ac­count­ing and gov­er­nance such as those at Bright Tribe, and the “zom­bie schools” left stranded when a chain has folded. They also in­clude the thou­sands of pupils we now know are van­ish­ing from school rolls each year. It is time for Of­sted to call schools to ac­count for these chil­dren. In the longer term, we need a sys­tem with fewer, smaller cracks.

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