More than 10,000 pupils left England’s mainstream state secondary schools in the run-up to their GCSE courses, according to an analysis of official data by the Guardian. The figures come amid concerns league-table pressures are incentivising institutions to move students who are unlikely to do well off their books.
In the two years prior to summer 2015, thousands of teenagers were excluded, shifted to special schools or put into units for children with behaviour problems, while the number of pupils educated in conventional state secondaries and academies shrunk by more than 2%.
The findings come from exclusive analysis of individual school rolls, carried out as the 2015 GCSE school league tables are published, showing little improvement in school results with 329 schools falling below the government’s performance floor targets – an improvement of only one school compared with last year.
Last year, the respected Education Datalab thinktank published research concluding that some schools were moving “challenging students” in order to boost results. It recommended reweighting league tables to reflect the number of terms a pupil spent in each school.
Rebecca Allen, director of Education Datalab, said: “It seems likely that league-table pressures are playing a part in encouraging schools to do what they can to take some pupils off their books, which is why we recommended the change.”
Nancy Gedge, a teacher and expert on special educational needs, has argued that pressures on schools to improve results were contributing to an increase in permanent exclusions.
National figures demonstrate a trend by secondary schools to exclude pupils in the years leading up to GCSE. DfE figures show 2,880 year nine, 10 and 11 pupils were expelled in 2013-14, the latest year for which figures are available, with the numbers peaking in year 10. Some two-thirds had special needs.
Some schools are also thought to use “unofficial exclusions”, where children are asked to move school before they are excluded, to change roll numbers.
A government source said that the DfE was taking note of the rise in exclusions, and was interested in looking at ways schools could be held to account for the results of pupils they had moved on.
A DfE spokesperson said: “Schools cannot simply offload a pupil because it suits them. Moving a child in school is a decision made by the parent with the best interests of the child in mind. There are also clear rules in place regarding exclusions, which cannot be done on the basis of academic performance.
“We are determined to raise standards so every child has access to a good school place and there are already 1.4 million more children in good or outstanding schools compared to 2010.”
The national data come from figures published in the DfE’s annual school census, which make it possible to follow the size of year groups in each school.
Among the year group of pupils who took their GCSEs in 2015, data is available from 2,913 mainstream state secondary schools, including comprehensives and grammar schools, whether academies or run by local authorities.
The figures show that mainstream school rolls fell by 12,193, or 2.3%, from 524,093 to 511,900, between the time these pupils were aged 13 to 14 – in year nine – to when they were aged 15 or 16 – in their GCSE year of year 11.
By contrast, the total number of pupils educated in pupil referral units or “alternative provision” schools – generally for those with behavioural problems – grew by nearly 5,000, rising five-fold from 1,174 year-nine students in 2013 to 6,144 year-11 youngsters in 2015.
The number of youngsters educated in special schools rose nearly 3,000 over the same period, from 8,240 to 11,170.
The remainder are likely to have moved outside the state sector to private schools, which saw their rolls increase by 2,000 pupils in the same period, and to university technical colleges and studio schools, new types of state institution with a vocational focus which take pupils from the age of 14.
Malcolm Trobe, assistant general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the increase in special school places could be attributed in part to the review of special needs pupils that takes place in each year nine, while pupils moving to specialist behaviour units was most likely a result of their age.
“Problems with youngsters with significant behaviour difficulties may have come to a head, as their behaviour at school has more of an impact on other learners,” Trobe said.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “The government sends a constant message to schools that data will decide their future. This has the consequence of some schools excluding children in order to drive up results.
“Sponsored academies are statistically more likely to do so, and it overwhelmingly impacts on poor black or mixed race boys with special educational needs.”
The latest league tables published on Thursday showed a widening gap in GCSE pass rates between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers, with Labour pointing out that the gap was now worse than when the Conservatives took power in 2010.
The latest figures also revised upwards the proportion of pupils who passed the government’s benchmark of five GCSE subjects, including English and maths. Some 57% passed last summer, a percentage point higher than originally thought.
The analysis shows that one of England’s most successful academy chains, the Harris Federation based in south London, has seen student rolls in particular year groups at a high proportion of its schools fluctuate dramatically as pupils progress through secondary education.
Seven of 16 Harris secondaries for which full data is available saw their pupil numbers falling by at least 10% from year seven cohort in 2010, to when the same group reached year 11 in 2015.
In one Harris secondary, Harris Academy Beckenham, in Bromley, the group taking GCSEs last year was 25% smaller than when the cohort entered the school, while in another, the nearby Harris Girls’ Academy Bromley, numbers were 23% down.
Overall, Harris schools saw an 8% reduction in the size of the year group taking GCSEs last summer compared to the numbers starting in year seven in 2010.
A Harris Federation spokesperson said: “Both intakes you refer to were particularly turbulent because they were the last cohorts of schools replaced by Harris academies, with large catchment areas and a high proportion of students travelling into school from outside the borough.