Six ways to improve managed moves

This is the introduction to a longer post (yet to be written!) about how we might improve the poor outcomes of those predominantly disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils who experience managed moves. According to research undertaken by Dave Thomson at the FFT, only 17% of managed move pupils achieved 4-9 in English and Maths in 2019, compared to a national average of 64%.

Whilst the numbers are difficult to pinpoint with any precision because managed moves are not formally reported, we know that they are widely deployed, the EPI estimating that there were around 9,000 moves in 2016/17. Clearly, it’s an area of practice which deserves closer scrutiny, given the vulnerability of the cohort and the negative impact on outcomes.

However, addressing the matter of high pupil mobility is absent from the dominant educational discourse around ‘levelling up’ – which prefers to focus on areas such as ‘cogsci’, curriculum, discipline and now from our social mobility tsar, irresponsible parenting. There is subsequently no shared understanding of what best practice in managed moves looks like and no healthy critique of the strategy’s efficacy.

When school leaders and their staff are able to make such transitions work, securing positive outcomes, we see from the bleak data that this is significant. It represents a double win for vulnerable pupils because it’s likely that those settings will not themselves have to rely on managed moves as a behaviour management strategy; the support provided to help the incoming pupil succeed will apply just as well to their own ‘at risk’ young people. (More on this in the next post.)

With educational outcomes for mobile pupils very poor and the gap widening, this steadying of the churn matters and an inspectorate focused on improving the system as a whole would recognise those school leaders who mitigate the impact of high pupil mobility, rather than applauding net exporters, our “miraculous turnaround” leaders.

In Lincs, we asked our pastoral leaders to survey those pupils who successfully made a success of the ‘fresh start’, partly so that we could understand and celebrate effective practice. In the follow-up post, I’ll draw on that qualitative data (a couple of years old now) as well as reference an interview with a pupil who ‘failed’ two managed moves before flourishing in her third school. She is quite clear about what made the difference.

However, the first of my six recommendations, this introduction, applies more to the DfE than to school leaders. There is currently a troubling gap where coherent and robust guidance on managed moves should be and this does nothing to promote transparency. The lack of clear parameters can also create difficulties between headteachers who may not always be on the same page.

There would appear to be a lack of understanding about what a managed move actually is at the department, so addressing that is the first step. The recent Call for Evidence on behaviour management exposes and indeed generates some real confusion. The section on managed moves begins by confirming that there is no legal definition, quoting from statutory exclusions guidance (2012 not the 2017 update, but that’s a minor quibble) as the closest thing we have to that:

“A school can also transfer a pupil to another school – a process called a ‘managed move’ – if they have the agreement of everyone involved, including the parents and admissions authority of the new school.”

If the explanation had ended there, I would be less concerned. It’s thin, but at least the fundamental principle, that this is a voluntary arrangement which respects the parent’s legal right to choose a school for their child, is foregrounded.

However, the footnote then conflates managed move guidance, such that is is, with the headteacher’s right to direct a pupil into alternative provision (AP) in order to improve behaviour, which is something altogether different:

We are aware of managed moves providing a permanent fresh start for a pupil at a school, sometimes with a built-in trial period. We also know some moves are intended to be short term with the intention of the pupil receiving targeted upstream (early) support form another school, which could be AP.

Whilst many will be concerned about the wellbeing of the poor child who is to exist in a state of exhausting ‘permanent fresh start’, the serious issue here is that any clarity we had established in practice about managed moves is thrown into uncertainty. For example, there is always the trial period, isn’t there? Not just sometimes. Isn’t that in essence what puts the ‘managed’ into ‘move’?

But that’s small-fry next to the problems created by bringing AP placements into managed move scope. The managed move as we thought we knew it ensures that if a pupil does not make sufficient behavioural progress during the trial period, they have the safety net of return to the home school. Access to mainstream education is not at risk, at least not at this stage. When a pupil is directed into AP in order to improve behaviour, on the other hand, that reverses completely and the return to mainstream school is frequently conditional upon progress being deemed good enough.

Whilst one process seeks to respect the rights of the parent and child and maintain a pupil in mainstream education, where life-chances are optimised, the other prioritises the rights of the headteacher and places a condition on that educational opportunity. It is at best confusing for families and at worst misleading to conflate these pathways, particularly given their potentially life-defining implications.

The direction off-site may be in the child’s best interests, and parents may well agree to it when that is the case, but they need to be clear about the legal framework, which is as set out in statutory alternative provision guidance where the term ‘managed move’ does not feature. The framework ensures regular review and end date, but if the transition is erroneously framed as a ‘managed move’, it may not be applied because of course the whole purpose of the managed move is to find a solution for the long term. ‘Out of sight and out of mind’ is heightened as a risk when pupils move into AP under the guise of the managed move, and legal rights are obscured.

Remarkably, the questions within the Call for Evidence succeed in muddying the waters still further:

A managed move into special school? An option perhaps for those who may wish to disregard the Children and Families Act 2014 and SEND Code of Practice, but not one that we should expect to find within a government consultation document.

The lack of legal definition would seem to have allowed the managed move, as first introduced by the DCSF in 2008, to become a loose umbrella term covering a much broader range of practices than was originally intended. “We are aware of…” suggests to me a laissez fare attitude on the part of the DfE. This doesn’t feel consistent with high level concern about off-rolling and it does nothing to safeguard school leaders against legal challenge or families against poor practice.

Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

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