New research has uncovered 55,000 “unexplained” pupil moves in English secondary schools, raising concerns that many of them could have been “off-rolled” in a bid to boost exam results.
According to the study, unexplained exits have increased both in pupil numbers and proportionally in recent years.
And the research found that a small number of schools had particularly high rates of such pupil exits, with 330 schools accounting for almost a quarter of all unexplained moves.
Analysis: What does the EPI research mean?
Need to know: What is off-rolling?
The Education Policy Institute thinktank, which carried out the study, called it the “most comprehensive analysis to date of unexplained pupil exits”.
The report – paid for by the NEU teaching union – follows in the wake of increasing concerns that pupils are being taken off school rolls without formally being excluded as a way of “gaming the system” so they will not be counted in GCSE results.
Unlike formal exclusions, there is no requirement to record the reason why a pupil has been removed from a school roll. This means it is difficult to establish whether such decisions have been taken by parents or by schools, and whether they have been taken for legitimate reasons.
But the EPI said it had developed a methodology that allowed it to discount pupils who had been removed from school rolls due to family reasons, such as moving house or to a higher-performing school, leaving just the pupil removals that are likely to be instigated by schools.
The research looked at unexplained pupil moves that took place between schools and those where pupils left the school system entirely. It tracked three cohorts of secondary school pupils taking their GCSEs in 2011, 2014 and 2017, analysing how many moved for unexplained reasons between Year 7 and Year 11.
The analysis found a “high prevalence of unexplained pupil exits”, with one in 12 (8.1 per cent) of the cohort that finished Year 11 in 2017 being removed from school rolls for reasons that were not accounted for by family decisions.
This totalled over 55,300 unexplained pupil exits, and was larger both in pupil terms and proportionally compared to the 2011 and 2014 cohorts.
For the 2014 cohort, 7.2 per cent of pupils had unexplained moves, with around 49,100 exits.
In the 2011 year group, over the course of five years, 7.8 per cent of pupils had moves that were unexplained by family reasons (over 47,200 exits).
A small number of schools have particularly high rates of pupil exits, with just 6 per cent of secondary schools (330 schools) accounting for 23 per cent of the total number of unexplained moves for the 2017 cohort.
These schools had removed the equivalent of an entire classroom of children – 30 pupils – from a single year group as they moved through secondary school from 2012 to 2017.
The analysis also found that some pupil groups are particularly prone to unexplained exits.
David Laws, the EPI’s executive chairman, said: “The size of unexplained pupil moves is disturbing and will raise concerns about whether some schools are 'off rolling' pupils.
“We need to look particularly closely at the 6 per cent of schools which account for almost a quarter of unexplained moves.
“In a few months’ time, we will publish figures showing the scale of this issue by school group, to allow for greater scrutiny over what is happening in our schools.”
The research was cautiously welcomed by education unions. Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT heads' union said: “It is welcome that EPI has taken the research in this area further; much of the previous data was superficial and this report starts to make headway into what is happening across the system.
“It is important not to conflate and condemn all the different reasons a pupil might leave a school’s roll. Every individual circumstance is different. School leaders make recommendations and decisions in the best interests of individual children and their school, within the constraints of the system in which they work."
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “No headteacher goes into the job to remove a pupil from school - and no headteacher takes the decision to do so lightly. Schools will typically have gone through a number of sanctions before exclusion is considered, taking into account the welfare of other pupils in the classroom.
“It is against the law to remove pupils on the basis of academic results – any school that does it is breaking the law.
“We have written to all schools to remind them of the rules on exclusions, and Edward Timpson is currently reviewing how schools use them and why some groups of children are more likely to be excluded from school than others.”