HC Deb 04 November 1998 vol 318 cc830-7 12.29 pm
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

In Birmingham, on average, one in five children will change school each year other than at normal transfer times, but averages hide some salient statistics. In my constituency, the turnover rate is 29.6 per cent. in the Bartley Green ward, 22 per cent. in Edgbaston, 18 per cent. in Harborne and 19 per cent. in Quinton; in other words, the rates in all my wards are above or well above the average for the city.

Some of the schools in my constituency have significant problems. I shall use four schools in the Bartley Green ward to illustrate the tremendous range. At Ley Hill school, the turnover is 50 per cent.; at Nonsuch school, 45 per cent.; and at Kitwell school, 42 per cent. However, St. Peter's Roman Catholic school, which is 500 yd down the road from Nonsuch school, has a turnover of just 9 per cent. Averages can be deceptive and we must look at the problems faced by individual schools.

Why is mobility a problem? Children who change school frequently are at greater risk of under-achieving academically. They tend to have a poorer attendance record, poorer concentration and poorer motivation. They are also more likely to have special educational needs. High mobility in any school affects continuity and progression, and children find it difficult to catch up when they change school. That, in turn, tends to lead to low self-esteem, behavioural problems and exclusion. The children who change schools are not the only ones affected; the children who attend a school at a time of high mobility suffer knock-on effects. Those children who are not absent are still affected when new children have to catch up, and that damages their educational experience.

Some research has been carried out in Birmingham. In March 1997, the Ladywood consortium of schools carried out a survey on pupil mobility. The results were most enlightening. Moving house accounted for some 72 per cent. of children changing schools. However, some 18 per cent. of those in Ladywood remained in the area but still changed schools. In certain parts of Birmingham, there has been a fall in the birth rate, so schools have vacant places. It has become almost a habit that, when children encounter difficulties in one school, they are simply moved to another. Rather than facing up to problems and trying to solve them, moving is seen as a solution, but it tends to aggravate the problems.

How can we reduce and manage mobility? It is accepted that it is a cross-agency problem and that no one agency can address it. In Birmingham, additional resources have been provided through the local management of schools formula. There are also pilot projects on unique pupil identifiers to ensure that pupils are not lost in the system. There is an increased focus on inclusion, which involves giving schools additional support when children move to ensure that their records and work are passed on.

Extra funding is not sufficient, however. The extra resources given as a result of mobility tend to have a negative knock-on effect on the funding for free school meals. Therefore, rather than gaining twice as they really should, some schools tend to lose out by the trading off under the formula. It generates some extra funds, but they are not sufficient.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be aware that, although the English average for claiming free school meals is 22 per cent., the average for Birmingham is 37 per cent. In some schools in my constituency, entitlement on the basis of drawing income support would suggest figures of 60 to 70 per cent., but the benefit is not claimed. There is still a perceived stigma to claiming free school meals, so official figures underestimate the true problem.

I should like to draw on the experience of two head teachers in my constituency who described the problem more accurately than I can. Mrs. Pat Cook from Kitwell primary school wrote to me about resources, saying: The trend over the last three years shows a pupil turnover rate of 42.5 per cent. The present system of funding does not fully take into account extra consumable materials the school has to purchase … additional teacher time, secretarial time, Special Needs Co-ordinator time in general administration of records"— which change continually— discussions with previous and receiving schools, telephone and postal charges"— to communicate with new parents and the additional workload when statemented pupils transfer. There is a tendency for pupils who move very frequently to have special educational needs. She also makes this important point: Pupils who join us after form 7 (January) but leave before September bring no funding at all". The funding formula is not sufficiently sensitive.

Other than resources—it could be argued that it is for individual local education authorities to come up with formulae that address their needs—there is also the problem of setting targets. The Government have asked schools to set targets for 2000 in respect of key stage 2 and GCSEs.

Let me make it clear that none of the head teachers with whom I have spoken is against setting targets or in any way lacks commitment to raising standards. Pat Cook wrote: We are committed to raising standards—we are happy to set targets—but please take into account pupil mobility. She said that 30 of her current year 6 will sit an exam by the end of the year, but 10 of them have only just joined the school.

The second school in my constituency to which I make direct reference is Ley Hill primary school. The head teacher, Roger Cunningham, told me last week that he had 380 pupils on the roll and that, last year, he admitted 174 and lost 154. Although he accepts that the figures include some year 6 students and some reception students, pupil turnover averages 50 per cent. His particular concern is that the Government's system of target setting is, in his words, at best gazing into the crystal ball in a school with a mobility of some 50 per cent. He writes: The circular 11/98 'Target Setting in Schools' does not allow for targets to be adjusted for mobility once they have been set. It argues that mobility can be positive as well as negative. While that is true it does seem that Ley Hill is subject to Social Mobility with our better families being rehoused. Since carrying out our annual tests in May, we have lost five children from the 2000 target group. Three of them would have been certain Level 4 children. We have admitted into the year group a child with learning difficulties who has arrived complete with Integration Support.

Roger Cunningham and other head teachers face the difficulty that committed teachers and head teachers do their level best to deal with a rapidly moving population, but there is a danger that some of the target setting assumes a linear progression in improving standards that schools such as Kitwell will never be able to achieve by the very nature of the communities that they serve. They have a very real fear that the current targeting system is not sufficiently sensitive to their schools, which should be allowed to renew and review their annual targets much more frequently. I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to reconsider the current system of target setting to take account of mobility.

12.39 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Charles Clarke)

The Government welcome the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on the strong and clear way in which she has put her case. I should like to mention the similar work of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard).

For a long time, central Government have given insufficient priority to high pupil mobility. Unfortunately, the statistics that my hon. Friend has given are not atypical. She mentioned schools with mobility rates of 42, 45 and 50 per cent. and wards in her constituency with a 29 per cent. mobility rate. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney made an analysis of four schools in his constituency—a very different part of the country—where turnover was 31 per cent. Data obtained from six London local education authorities have verified that this is a major issue in many parts of Greater London. Statistics for one inner-London authority show that more than one third of children taking key stage 2 tests last year had not been in the same school at key stage 1. Manchester local education authority also cited high mobility as a key issue in its evidence to the 1994–95 Education Select Committee inquiry on performance in inner-city schools.

The whole House owes a debt to my hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston for raising the issue, because the problem is not just local to her constituency; it has profound implications across the education system, and insufficient attention has been paid to it.

I agreed with my hon. Friend's points about the implications of high mobility for education and the educational problems that arise when it is difficult to manage and address issues of mobility properly. High pupil mobility is one of the many factors that can affect pupil performance and school management. Much more attention needs to be paid to it. However, there is little hard information on the causes and effects. The issues are complex. I shall mention four factors that affect pupil mobility.

The first factor is internal migration. People may move locally because of a change in their job, career cycle, life cycle or housing—in that respect, I was interested in the Ladywood survey to which my hon. Friend referred. There are also particular communities such as travellers who move around and for whom specific provision is made in the standards fund. The second important factor is institutional movement—exclusions, voluntary transfers, people moving between special schools and others and people moving between the private independent system and the state system. Thirdly, there is individual movement—children in care, families breaking up and circumstances changing that result in children moving around. Fourthly—this is not a trivial issue at all, particularly in our great cities—there is international migration, as people move to and from this country; that can happen as a result of making job changes, seeking refugee status or moving around as a student.

A complex series of factors play their part in determining what happens, but our information is very patchy. My hon. Friend mentioned the contrast between two neighbouring schools, one with a 9 per cent. level of mobility and the other with 42 per cent. My Department is co-operating with a new research project to be conducted at the migration research unit at University college, London by Dr. Janet Dobson, who wrote an interesting piece on the subject in The Times Educational Supplement two or three weeks ago. With funding from the Nuffield Foundation, the study will look at the nature and causes of pupil mobility and the implications of high mobility for current national strategies to raise educational standards and achievement.

In particular, the project will review the current state of knowledge on child migration, which is patchy. It will establish what is currently known about the implications of high pupil mobility, developing a better understanding of the incidence of high mobility and the policy issues deriving from it and painting a detailed picture of the scale and nature of pupil mobility in some high mobility schools and the implications for strategies to raise achievement. We are considering additional funding support to accelerate the project, which will begin next year, so that it can be more comprehensive and achieve more accurate results more quickly. We look forward to the results with great interest.

We would welcome more concrete evidence on mobility, such as that produced by my hon. Friend, to clarify how issues arise between different schools in an area and the implications for educational performance. The subject has not been sufficiently discussed. I hope that the research project with which we are co-operating will provide a focus for proper debate and discussion of the issues.

The research project will also provide the basis of any policy changes that may be needed to take account of the problems caused by mobility. Many issues are involved, of which my hon. Friend raised several. Record keeping is important. Records are not passed on in a way that assists education as people move from school to school. There is a lot of evidence that the performance advance of children at the beginning of secondary school in particular is not as fast as at other times. One reason is that school records are not passed on as efficiently and rapidly as they should be. As a result, secondary school teachers do not understand their pupils' educational history as well as would be beneficial to them as teachers and to the pupils. That is highlighted by what my hon. Friend has said about mobility between schools, not just at the primary-secondary transfer. My Department will produce new guidance later this year to tighten up on the approach so that our system of records will ensure that past educational achievement is properly understood.

My hon. Friend also mentioned exclusion and truancy and the general framework of social exclusion that affects some schools more than others. She will know that, at the start of October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a major new programme of £493 million of expenditure over three years.

Ms Stuart

Some schools in my constituency have pupils with dual registration. A pupil may have been excluded from one school and be then registered in a special school, and a mainstream school is prepared to take that pupil on dual registration. If that student has to be expelled again, the forecast GCSE results will count towards the targets. That provides a disincentive for schools to take the risk of bringing students back into the mainstream.

Mr. Clarke

That is an excellent and valid point, which I entirely take. I shall comment later on certain reviews; perhaps I may address my hon. Friend's accurate and correct point in that context. As with her other points, it has general applicability across the system.

Our social exclusion policies seek to achieve a multi-agency approach, in which schools work with the police, the probation service and particularly social services to try to ensure a much more supportive, less professionally segmented, more positive and constructive atmosphere in which to try to address the problems. We are specifically putting resources into the education of children in care, which has been very much neglected over a long period. Although those measures do not directly address the issue of mobility, I hope and believe that the coherent Government programme will reduce the incidence of some of the factors that lead to mobility and problems in schools in my hon. Friend's constituency.

My hon. Friend referred to target setting, which is an exceptionally important aspect of the subject. As she knows, the Government believe that setting specific, measurable targets for pupil performance is a very powerful lever for raising educational standards. I was very glad that she mentioned the commitment to that approach of head teachers of the schools that she described. Their commitment is shared throughout the teaching profession. People acknowledge the benefit of setting targets to focus attention on how we solve problems.

Setting pupil performance targets is also an essential tool in school management, as it adds clarity and focus to the school planning process, allowing a school to address issues and problems internally. Higher standards will be achieved only if schools take responsibility for their improvement and feel that they have ownership of the target-setting process. My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston rightly pointed out that some head teachers feel that they do not own sufficiently the target-setting process in their school when external factors are hitting them over the head. Just as they need to feel ownership of the process, we need to be able to respond constructively.

There is no doubt from research and inspection evidence that target setting raises pupil performance. There is no doubt either that our new statutory targets are in line with other targets that the Government are setting, to achieve coherence between schools and LEAs' educational development plans, and nationally, as we seek to move the process of achievement forward.

It is important that schools set targets based on past trends, benchmark data, national targets, LEA targets and teacher forecasts, which aggregate pupil results. It is therefore entirely reasonable that, in schools where there is high mobility of the kind to which my hon. Friend referred, that factor is taken into account when setting targets and deciding how to move forward.

High pupil mobility makes it difficult to aggregate school targets on individual pupils. As the schools that are affected are so wide ranging—I have been surprised by it—it is important that we consider detailed research in deciding what guidance to offer on how mobility can be taken into account. I regret that, in past years, there has not been detailed research into the matter. That is why I am glad to be able to announce today our co-operation with the research projects at University college, London.

Schools with high pupil mobility should certainly seek to make similar progress toward national and LEA targets to other schools, as the head teachers of the schools in Birmingham, Edgbaston have acknowledged. It is obviously highly desirable in so doing to take account of a school's circumstances, including high mobility. We are reviewing the target-setting process for 1999. It would not be appropriate to revisit the arrangements for this year so late in the process, although we shall draw on this year's experience in reviewing the working of regulations governing target setting. We shall obviously take into account a wide variety of issues as well as, to the extent that that is possible, pupil mobility issues.

I should make one important qualification. We shall not, even this year, properly understand what causes mobility and why its incidence is so selective and partial in schools in the same LEA, constituency or ward. Before we come to firm, long-term views on how we should properly take pupil mobility into account, I am keen to see evidence generated by the research projects to which I referred.

Ms Stuart

It is interesting that, because of the different reasons behind mobility, the social problems associated with it do not arise in the nearby constituency of Birmingham, Selly Oak, where the university population causes a high turnover. I therefore welcome the detailed research.

Mr. Clarke

I appreciate that remark. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) tabled a written question on the matter earlier in the year, in which she focused on similar points. The difficulty is that the issue is so complex; there is such an interplay of factors. Before giving clear guidance, we need to establish how such factors relate to each other. One very important thing that we need to do nationally, in schools and through LEA educational development plans is to identify the causes of high mobility properly and develop strategies to reduce its adverse effect on pupil performance.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I thank the Minister for his positive response to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who has raised a very important subject. She raised one issue on which he has not touched—the tracking of pupils. Will he comment on the Government's thoughts on the matter? I am sure that he is aware of concern about the fact that we have no idea where some pupils who leave a school go. Such tracking data would have been very helpful, for example, in the appalling and tragic Fred West case. Have the Government any plans to implement a tracking mechanism?

Mr. Clarke

I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I mentioned the transfer of records. The awful West case was one of the aspects that informed our approach. We must consider not only educational issues, which I have sought to address, but those concerning lost children, which can be, and have been, deeply tragic. We are taking on board the hon. Gentleman's comments. We are looking at ways in which to introduce unique pupil identifiers—UPIs—to which my hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston referred. There are significant information technology issues, too, as schools begin to move forward in that respect. We are conscious of the fact that, as we try to work out the best way to adopt a much more effective system of tracking pupils, which is needed, we must not place additional burdens on teachers. My Department is looking closely at the matter and will provide detailed guidance later this year on record keeping and the transfer of records. More substantially, we shall be making proposals on this very important issue. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston asked how head teachers and schools should explain to local communities the implications of mobility figures for their performance results. I should emphasise that it is entirely appropriate and right for performance tables and results to be published in the proper context in annual reports, so that parents and the local community may understand the circumstances in which the achievements were made, and, should head teachers or governors deem it appropriate, the specific impact of high pupil mobility on examination results is explained.

I hope that, on the evidence of the research project that I have mentioned, and the steps that we are already taking to review target setting, my hon. Friend will accept that we take the issue seriously. We would also encourage governors and head teachers to explain to parents and the rest of the community the precise impact that high mobility has on exam results. I thank my hon. Friend for introducing the debate, which gives the first real airing to an important subject that is not well understood.

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