Schools could do considerably more to support in-year admissions and high-mobility learners, explains Rob Webster

The lives of many vulnerable children and young people are defined by turbulence and instability.

For those living in care, the much-needed but taken-for-granted steadiness and normality their peers experience is in short supply. Announcing last week’s annual Stability Index, the children’s commissioner Anne Longfield revealed that more than 3,000 “pinball kids” as she called them moved home at least four times in the past two years, and about 2,500 children moved five or more times in three years.

As these moves are usually some miles apart, relocation often means transferring to a new school during the school year.

Looked-after learners and other regular movers, including children from gypsy, Roma and traveller communities, refugees, and those with parents in the armed forces, are disproportionately represented in the statistics for in-year admissions. Sixty-one per cent of in-year movers are either eligible for the pupil premium, are identified as having special educational needs, or both.

Children in care who move school mid-year are twice as likely to move again the following year.

Some moves are, of course, necessary and successful, but research suggests the impact of repeatedly relocating and moving schools at non-standard times is acute. High-mobility learners are less likely to achieve in their formal key stage one assessments, compared with children who stay put. And only 27 per cent of pupils who move schools three times or more during their secondary school career achieve five good GCSEs, compared with the national average of 60 per cent.

Whenever admission takes place, schools can unwittingly compound the effects of being a high-mobility learner by treating them as guests to be hosted before they move on again and become someone else’s responsibility. Uncertainty over their length of stay may cause schools to withhold efforts and resources to address the educational, emotional and social effects of constant uprooting and resettlement.

So what can schools do to support high-mobility learners and ease the process of mid-year transfers?

1. Own the transfer process Take responsibility for overseeing transfers. Create a checklist of essential documentation you require from the child’s current school and a timeline against which key actions must be completed. Develop a similar handover process to assist the transfer of children from your school to another setting.

2. Be proactive

Relocation means families can go temporarily off grid. It takes time to sort out a new landline and redirect post. Get as many means of contact as possible early in the transfer process. Make regular contact with any updates.

3. Appoint a transfer champion Establish a principal point of contact for everyone involved in the transfer: the family, the pupil’s current school and, where appropriate, social services. Clusters of schools could share someone and co-fund their time using pupil premium.

4. Acclimatisation

Where possible, organise frequent pre-transfer visits. Begin by meeting the child in their current setting. This is important for those who experience anxiety, have an autism spectrum condition or who may have difficulty trusting new adults. Consider making a short video introducing your school to share online. Ensure newcomers can access well-being support and maybe buddy them up with another pupil who can show them the ropes.

5. Build the learning and support package

Ask the child’s current school for workbooks and assessments so you can construct a learning package to meet their attainment profile. Move anxiety can affect outcomes, so if you need to carry out any formal assessments, allow time for settling in. Take advice from your staff about how new starters are coping and plan accordingly. Make provisions for secondary-age learners to continue studying qualifications they have already started.

School is an essential constant in the lives of disadvantaged learners. It is important to recognise that high mobility means even these environments can become unstable. Every day these pupils do not attend school is as critical to their life chances as the days that they do. Robust routines can limit the worst effects of relocation and ensure these learners thrive and achieve – however long they stay.

Rob Webster is a Senior researcher at the UCL Centre for Inclusive Education