Off-rolling – the saga continues

Professor Trevor Male from University College London’s Centre for Leadership in Learning provides an update on the status of the phenomenon of ‘off rolling’ in English state maintained schools.

For those of you who may have missed my earlier blogs on the topic of off-rolling (July & August 2018) here is a quick working definition:  off-rolling is an illegal practice where a student is moved off the roll of a mainstream school in a form of exclusion in which the school’s best interests exceed those of the pupil.  Not surprisingly the most disadvantaged students are typically those who are off-rolled as schools seek to maintain high levels of academic attainment and their perceived status as effective educators.

The last time I talked about this on this blog site I finished with the statement that I suspected nothing would be done to progress a call from a parliamentary sub-committee for a bill of rights for school students in England as our government would be pre-occupied with BREXIT.  Well, here we are nearly a year on and guess what?  Neither have we achieved BREXIT nor developed a bill of rights.  Meanwhile the problem of off-rolling seems to have got worse, with it being highlighted by a series of reports in recent days.

The Education Policy Institute, an independent research body, have just published a report (sponsored by the National Education Union) which made use of data drawn from the Department for Education over the last 10 years to highlight unexplained pupil exits from English schools.  Such unexplained pupil moves take place both between schools and those involving pupils leaving the school system entirely.  Here are key elements of their findings:

Prevalence of unexplained pupil exits from school rolls

  • In the 2017 school year group, as many as 8.1 per cent of the entire pupil population were subject to moves that cannot be accounted for (with over 55,300 exits by 49,100 pupils).  This the highest level to date.

Schools with the most unexplained pupil moves

The trend of pupils moving off school rolls without a family reason is highly concentrated in a small number of schools:

  • Just 330 schools in England – 1 in 20 (or 6 per cent of schools) account for almost a quarter (23 per cent) of the total number of unexplained pupil exits in the school system, in the 2017 cohort.
  • In these 6 per cent of schools, the equivalent of an entire class of pupils (30 children) from one year group was removed from the school rolls with no explanation over the course of secondary school.

Pupil groups most likely to experience unexplained exits from school rolls

Several vulnerable learner pupil groups are particularly likely to leave schools’ rolls for unknown reasons. Such moves are not accounted for by changes in care placements or changes of address. The following have been subject to an unexplained exit:

  • 1 in 3 pupils in contact with the social care system;
  • 1 in 7 disadvantaged pupils (those ever eligible for free school meals);
  • 1 in 8 pupils from black ethnic backgrounds;
  • 1 in 8 pupils with low attainment at primary school;
  • 1 in 3 pupils who have experienced an official permanent exclusion, or 1 in 5 of those who have experienced an official fixed period exclusion;
  • 2 in 5 pupils of all pupils who had experienced a high number of authorised school absences during their time at secondary school.

Reaction to these findings

Teacher unions are reported as saying the findings were “shocking” (Guardian newspaper, 18 April 2019).  For the first time, reports the newspaper, the research takes into account pupils removed from school rolls due to family reasons, such as moving house, or to a higher-performing school, so the figures represent pupil exits that are likely to have been instigated by schools who may be seeking to improve GCSE results or manage pressures on school budgets.  Some students, it seems, leave through a “managed move”, when a school finds another institution to take them on, while others are encouraged to be home-educated. Unlike formal exclusions, there is no requirement to record the reason why these pupils have been removed from a school roll.  The Department for Education response to date is to remind schools of the rules for exclusions and to claim that a minister is commencing a review to see “why some groups of children are more likely to be excluded from school than others”.

What does this show us?

The evidence suggests, therefore, that not only are the most disadvantaged groups of pupils being this commonly affected, but also that there is a concentration of a small number of schools, particularly multi-academy trusts, and local authorities with particularly high exit rates, something the Education Policy Institute report (due summer 2019) will examine more closely.

Multi-academy trusts (MATs) are groups of independent state-funded schools who had been given ‘academy status’ to free them from local authority management.  This move to academisation has resulted in nearly half of the school age pupils in England now being in schools that have become charitable companies and only accountable to the Department for Education through the ‘Academy Agreement’.  Since 2014 the policy move has been to see these academies group together as MATs, with a lead academy being the single accountable trust for all the member schools.  Some of these schools have been forced to become academies (often against the will of parents and staff) because they were deemed to be under-performing.  (You can find more about this in the background briefing paper I wrote in 2017).

It is important to recognise that formal exclusions are a legal option for schools, but the way in which some exclusions are applied suggests they can often be used to manage student attendance in such a way as to improve the interests of advantaged children over disadvantaged.  What we know at the moment is there is a disproportionately high relationship of those missing from school rolls with students from disadvantaged groups.  This is particularly evident with children with suspected or diagnosed special educational needs, with BBC News reporting last December that such pupils can ‘spend years out of school‘.

Next steps

Watch this space to see what EPI reveal in their next report and whether there is any substantive response from the Department for Education.  Meanwhile spare a thought for the thousands of children not being cared for by the school system in England.

Meet Trevor Male:

1 thought on “Off-rolling – the saga continues”

  1. Yes I lead or oversaw five secondary behaviour partnerships for a large UK county for 4 years. The primary factor was the opportunity cost on the school leadership team in finding out the underlying individual’s problem ( divorce, sick sibling, poor attainment expectations etc.) and the impact this had on the school’s culture. many schools have a Head who has at the heart of the school the interest of every learner (every child matters) and not the overarching perception of the school and the impact of an individual’s poor behaviour on performance such as progress 8 and ofsted. Where there is a common moral purpose that drives the culture of a school, many heads can work together in a community to ensure fairness and equity when seeking medium to long term individual solutions or education plans with similar beahvioural difficulties otherwise permanent exclusions (PEs) are not used for extreme cases. The impact of a PE on a child’s life is profound and in most cases they earn less and live in poor housing etc. However, that is not to say that PEs should never be an option but they should be enacted in the rarest of circumstances and putting all PEs together in a PRU has spiral effect that is difficult to overcome.

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