Off-rolling: One in 12 students ‘disappeared’ from mainstream schools

Written by: Chris Parr | Published:
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The practice of removing difficult or underachieving pupils from school rolls in order to artificially inflate GCSE results is – unfortunately – well documented, but a recent report has brought the true scale of so-called “off-rolling” to light. Chris Parr reports

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) think-tank has published what it says is the “most comprehensive analysis to date” of unexplained pupil exits from English schools.

The report – Unexplained pupil exits from schools: A growing problem? – reveals that 49,100 students from the cohort set to have finished year 11 in 2017 disappeared from school rolls with no explanation given, the equivalent of one in 12 pupils (or 8.1 per cent).

What is more, the rate has been increasing in recent years, according to the researchers. Some 7.2 per cent of the 2014 cohort and 7.8 per cent of the 2011 year group were found to have been off-rolled.

Ofsted defines off-rolling as: “The practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without a formal, permanent exclusion or by encouraging a parent to remove their child from the school roll, when the removal is primarily in the interests of the school rather than in the best interests of the pupil.”

For the first time, the EPI research takes into account pupils removed from school rolls for family reasons, such as moving house, meaning that the figures show the exits that are more likely to have been carried out by schools looking to boost their GCSE results.

Off-rolling tactics can involve a managed change of school, whereby another institution is found to take a pupil on, while some families might be encouraged to home-school their children.

This latter tactic was highlighted by the children’s commissioner Anne Longfield in her recent investigation into home-schooling. Published in February, her report – Skipping school – reveals stories of schools that have pro forma letters declaring a decision to home-educate and parents who have signed up to home education without realising it (SecEd, 2019).

The EPI found that a small number of schools had particularly high rates of pupil exits, with six per cent of secondary schools in England accounting for almost a quarter (23 per cent) of the total number of unexplained moves.

“These schools with very high exit rates have removed the equivalent of an entire classroom of children from a single year group, as they have moved through secondary school, from 2012 to 2017,” the EPI said.

This is a similar finding to that in Ms Longfield’s report, which also suggests that the majority of student moves to home education are coming from a small number of schools: “Roughly nine out of 10 schools only saw zero to two referrals into home education a year, but for a tiny minority of schools it can be more than 15 a year.”

The Skipping school investigation estimates that in 2018, 60,000 children were being educated at home – a 27 per cent rise on 2017. Furthermore, from 2015/16 to 2017/18 there was a 32 per cent increase in the number of primary pupils moving to home education, compared to a 71 per cent increase for secondary students.

What is particularly concerning is that pupils with certain characteristics are disproportionately represented among those exiting school rolls, with the EPI finding that a third of off-rolled pupils are in the social care system and one in seven are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

One in eight are from Black ethnic backgrounds, with the same proportion identified as having “low attainment” at primary school, while one in three pupils who have experienced an official permanent exclusion had also been off-rolled at some point.

Analysing the EPI research, Pat Thomson, professor of education at the University of Nottingham, told SecEd that until inclusion becomes valued in national accountability processes, some schools would continue to take the “actuarial decision that it is less risky to off-roll someone than to see their results suffer”.

She added that it is not enough for schools simply to cease the practice of off-rolling, they need to ensure that additional support is also in place for vulnerable pupils.

“Young people who have been pushed to the edges of education need their schools to do more than keep them on the roll,” she said. “They usually need individual attention and encouragement and often specialist remedial support or holistic welfare services, things that cash-strapped schools may find increasingly hard to provide.”

Prof Thomson said there was “great inclusive practice we can learn from” in some schools. However, she added, “the problem is that we just don’t seem to willing to make inclusion the priority in all schools”.

Jo Hutchinson, report co-author and director of social mobility and vulnerable learners at the EPI, said her research “provides important evidence on unexplained pupil exits in the school system”.

“For the first time, we begin to see the full scale of this problem, having stripped away cases where family decisions have led to school moves,” she said. “Our estimate is that one in 12 children are being pushed around the system, and that this has risen in recent years.”

The EPI report comes after the education secretary, Damian Hinds, unveiled proposals to require guardians of home-educated children to register them with their local authority (DfE, 2019).

Amanda Spielman, chief inspector at Ofsted, said the plans for a new register – which are currently out for consultation – would “make it easier to detect and tackle ... serious problems” such as off-rolling.

“These proposals offer an important opportunity to make sure that all children not attending school are safe, and receiving an education that prepares them for adult life,” she added. “Ofsted has long had concerns about the increasing numbers of school-age children not attending a registered school, many of whom may not be receiving a high-quality education or being kept safe. We are especially concerned about children off-rolled from schools, and those in illegal schools.”

A second EPI report,which will examine the local areas in which off-rolling appears to be happening most prevalently, is to be published in the summer. The children’s commissioner has also promised to publish a follow-up to her research “identifying which schools have high numbers of children being withdrawn into home education which may suggest practices of off-rolling”.

  • Chris Parr is a freelance journalist.

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