Those concerned with “student quality” should be shamed not lauded

In March this year a report was published by a group of consultants, (*Please see below)whom most had never heard of, advising academy schools how to bring about ‘improvement’ to their school. Based on their study of around 160 academies, it provided a checklist of actions that, if followed, would bring about improved league table positions and increase the chances of a favourable Ofsted grading.

If you follow the link to the “Centre for High Performance” report you will note that it is no longer there, there is only a statement advising that it has been withdrawn due to “the wording” leading to “misinterpretation of the findings”. (*Please see below) Fortunately, the writer Michael Rosen copied the list entitled “Learnings for academies” when it was available and reproduces it with comment on his blog site.

(15th July 2016 – Since first publication of this post, it has been brought to my attention that the intention behind the original Centre for High Performance report was not as represented here or in Michael Rosen’s blog. The following explanation, as published in Schools Week in May, puts the report in the right context and I am happy to put this right. Indeed, the researcher’s findings actually reflect the concerns that I outline later in this post:

The researchers “gathered data on 160 schools that converted to becoming academies in 2010 after being in special measures. Comparing that data led to their conclusions of what people were doing to achieve the stated goals.”

They “are not saying this is what, morally, people should do. They were trying to flag to the government what a target culture pushes people towards.”

The full article can be found here:

My thanks to Chris Cook @xtophercook for bringing this to my attention.)

Like me, Mr Rosen was particularly alarmed by the following:

  1. “Student quality – exclude poor quality students, improve admissions”

Later that month, head teacher Vic Goddard wrote an article in The Guardian that shone further light on what that meant. He reported that manipulation of intake and moving students on who were likely to adversely affect exam outcomes was a known and growing issue in too many areas. Worse, he saw no will from those in power to tackle it.

“We have heard much about schools “gaming” the exam system and policies have been designed to control this. But the government is ignoring the most blatant gaming of all.”

Later that month, head teacher Vic Goddard wrote an article in The Guardian that shone further light on what that meant. He reported that manipulation of intake and moving students on who were likely to adversely affect exam outcomes was a known and growing issue in too many areas. Worse, he saw no will from those in power to tackle it.

“We have heard much about schools “gaming” the exam system and policies have been designed to control this. But the government is ignoring the most blatant gaming of all.”

I have written on this topic several times and each time I have been staggered at the apparent lack of desire to do anything about it. Indeed, I believe that the current accountability and inspection regime coupled with a political imperative to make certain schools look better than others is actually encouraging such disreputable practice. Locally and nationally.

What are the benefits of being a non-inclusive school? When accountability measures, and by extension league tables, are based on the number of children reaching the ‘national standard’ in primary SATs tests or 5 A*-C GCSE results, it follows that the more children that you have who are likely to meet that standard the more likely you are to achieve a high pass rate. The introduction of headline progress measures are intended to tackle this to an extent but it is still the case that the home, financial or special needs circumstances of some children can make progress more difficult to achieve then for others with more fortunate backgrounds.

Crucially, there are other aspects that are rarely highlighted. Greater resources may be needed to help some students succeed – perhaps one-to-one support or curriculum tailoring. As secondary schools will soon be held accountable for the progress of students who ‘fail’ their SATs to reach the ‘national standard’ in Maths and English, different and potentially costly provision will have to be made for them too.

Scandalously, there also appears to be a greater chance of being judged a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ school by Ofsted if your cohort contains a significant percentage of high prior attainers. I have used this graph created by head teacher Trevor Burton previously but it illustrates this point vividly:

prior-attain trevor burton

So how do some schools apply the Centre for High Performance ‘learnings’?

“Improve Admissions”

Pupil Admission Number – It is important to keep your PAN to a level that allows as much control as possible over who comes to your school. By setting a lower PAN (as your budget allows) relative to other schools in your area you can maximise your chances of being over-subscribed. This affords good PR – you are a popular school – but also allows you to apply your over subscription criteria (see below). Unknown to many, it also minimises the chance of students being placed with you should they need to move from another school or move into the area.

Selection – There are still areas of the country that operate overt selection by academic ability. As the two MPs currently vying to be Prime Minister are former grammar school girls and known supporters of their extension, we may well have more in the not too distant future. The social make -up of the intake of grammar schools has been well researched and heavily favours those who can afford the tutoring necessary to gain entry. There is a clear knock-on effect to the pool of high attainers likely to join other schools in these areas and, as many grammars increase their PANs to cope with budget cuts, this will be exacerbated.

Over-subscription criteria / SIF – Academies are their own admissions authorities and those who are happy to ignore the need in their funding agreement to cater for all children in their community can manipulate their intake using their over-subscription criteria. They can stipulate a percentage of their intake could have a talent in a certain subject or that they live in a certain area, more usually they can use degrees of religious observance to filter those gaining admission. This usually requires the completion of a Supplementary Information Form (SIF) which in itself can deter certain applicants. I won’t labour this point, Fiona Miller explains it very well in this recent article.

It is important to note that there is no proactive inspection of how these criteria are applied, the authorities will only investigate after a complaint is made.

Uniform – The cost of a school uniform can vary greatly in an area. How inclusive is a school that insists that you purchase a blazer for £75 as is the case in one of our local schools?

Advice to ‘look elsewhere’ – As Vic Goddard explains:

I have heard too many horrific accounts from parents whose children don’t tick the A*-C box, or else have an additional learning need, being told that one academy or another cannot meet the needs of their child. This is normally followed by “but the school down the road can”.

As I have written in two other posts, a comprehensive report on this issue was produced by the Children’s Commissioner, Dame Maggie Atkinson, in 2014.  Entitled “It Might Be Best If You Looked Elsewhere”, sadly the government have chosen to look away too. As some schools choose to reduce their support staff and their SEN provision to save money, this phenomenon is likely to increase without some scrutiny and action to prevent it. I see no will to do so.

children's commissioner

‘Exclude Poor Quality Students’

The aspects of cohort manipulation that are the most hidden but often the most pernicious. The lack of public information or analysis of these means that some schools apply these strategies confident that they will not be held to account for them. Some will do so while publicly claiming to be inclusive establishments safe in the knowledge that the parents of affected students will feel some unwarranted shame or would rather not draw attention to themselves or their children by complaining.

Exclusion – There are times when a school has exhausted all of its options to support a pupil and a fixed term or permanent exclusion is the only course to take. A review of available statistics published by the Department for Education (DfE) shows that permanent exclusions are increasingly rare. Schools know the effect that having a permanent exclusion on their record can have on the prospects of a young person and this is rightly avoided if at all possible. The manipulators do not want to be seen to be moving pupils on when there are non-recorded ways of doing so.

Managed move – This method of moving pupils between schools was intended as being a device to give pupils a second chance without recourse to exclusion. It is a largely positive initiative but it relies on voluntary co-operation between schools in an area to achieve this. There is no central or LA record on how many managed moves are undertaken, when I approached Essex County Council on this matter I was advised that the information would only be available by approaching individual schools. Some schools choose not to participate.

‘Persuasion’ / bullying – And so to the other tactics that are invisible to, or ignored by, the powers that be and are unscrutinised by those who could investigate, including the press. The instances of “gaming”, all too often “horrendous”, that lead to a move to “the school down the road” to which Vic Goddard alludes.

The meeting with parents to suggest that their school is ‘too academic’ for their child and that another in the area would be more suitable.

The headteacher’s advice to the father that their daughter’s lack of enthusiasm for collective worship means that they are not suitable for a school with their ethos.

The forms helpfully already filled in for a college when the mother comes to discuss the struggles her son is having.

The persistence with which the message is delivered until the parent gets the message that they and their children are unwelcome and choose to move rather than insist the school meets its obligation to serve its community.

This behaviour is well known to many heads throughout the country and, make no mistake, it will have been highlighted to many with the power to do something about it. We can only speculate why no action is taken. Perhaps some perpetrators are held up as role models for government policy? Maybe they are ‘superheads’?

What is certain is that practicing exclusion while claiming to be beacons of the opposite is not compatible with the drive for social justice that we are told is central to the government’s education policy. Furthermore, as Fiona Miller wrote following the recent referendum result, schools are the best vehicle we have to bring people together and challenge the increasing promotion of division in our society.

Action must be taken by the government or promised by opposition parties if this practice is to be curtailed. While proactive inspection with proper sanction may be the obvious solution, it is doubtful that it would be financed in current circumstances. Ms Miller suggests a creative, workable solution:

Rather than clamping down on complaints to the adjudicator, we should be giving schools incentives to behave differently. One idea might be to limit Ofsted outstanding grades to schools whose intakes are representative of their local communities in terms of free school meals and prior attainment. Or, as the Headteachers’ Roundtable suggested here last year, locality targets could be introduced, so every school in an area would be jointly responsible for the performance of all pupils.

Whatever the approach, the frankly immoral practice of manipulating “student quality” should be exposed as a cause of shame not congratulation. By extension, those schools who are truly open to their communities should be celebrated and encouraged.

I passionately believe that schools with truly inclusive intakes provide a fuller, more rounded education than those that don’t. Those concerned with “student quality” may be feted, they may have an “Outstanding” banner on display, but they are not providing their students with the preparation for the rest of their life that they deserve.

Manipulating your cohort may improve your headline outcomes, it cannot improve your school.

Stephen Mayo






  1. Pingback: Parents need to know their school admissions rights – let’s help them | Educating Brentwood

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