Analysis: Why are we still in the dark on off-rolling?

Off-rolling is back in the headlines but we are still no closer to knowing the extent of the problem, says John Roberts

John Roberts

Why are we still in the dark on off-rolling?

Two stories broke last week that shone fresh light on the issue of "off-rolling".

And yet somehow it feels like we are still in the dark.

Figures: One in 10 pupils has unexplained exit from school

Background: 'Off-rolling schools'  to be named and shamed

Investigation: MAT accused of acting on 'off-rolling' plan

Off-rolling is understood to be the practice of schools removing pupils from their rolls in order to boost their rating on government performance measures.

Off-rolling: how big is the problem?

The Education Policy Institute think tank revealed on Friday that 61,000 Year 11 pupils – which equates to one in 10 of the cohort – were taken off a school roll during their secondary education without being formally excluded.

Most worryingly, this major piece of research indicated that around 24,000 failed to return to the state education system before the spring term of Year 11. These are children who are being lost to the system or, more alarmingly, lost by the system.

However, as the researchers admit, these figures for "unexplained exits" do not definitely prove that actual off-rolling has taken place.

A day before publication of the figures, a Tes investigation revealed that a multi-academy trust had discussed removing low-achieving “anchor students” off school rolls to boost Progress 8 scores.

Leeds City Council has accused the trust of following up on the measures, which an internal report revealed the trust had discussed – by actually "off-rolling pupils" from its schools in January of the past two years. The students moved into a seperate alternative provision (AP) school the MAT had opened.

The trust in question, GORSE Academies Trust, has accepted that pupils did move into its AP in consecutive Januaries. But it denied that this constituted off-rolling and said it had been done "in full partnership with the DfE".

So two organisations in the same city looking at the same pupil movement are in disagreement about whether off-rolling has taken place.

And that dispute goes to the heart of the problem. What exactly is off-rolling? And who defines it?

Ofsted has provided a working definition. “Off-rolling is the practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without using a permanent exclusion, when the removal is primarily in the best interests of the school, rather than the best interests of the pupil," the inspectorate has said. "This includes pressuring a parent to remove their child from the school roll.”

Ofsted has committed to tackling this by inspecting schools with high pupil movement, of which there are now 340. But to date only a very small number of the schools – six – have been found to be off-rolling.  

The watchdog’s problem is perhaps that it is not in a position to prove whether or not schools are guilty of off-rolling, according to its own definition.

The question of whether a move is in the interests of the child or the school can surely only be answered by speaking to both parties. But Ofsted is unlikely to be able to talk to former pupils as part of its school inspections.

So we are left with figures likes the ones in the new EPI report that suggest a massive national problem on the one hand, but then only a handful of proven cases in inspection reports on the other.

The GORSE story also illustrates how Ofsted’s definition could be problematic because it is ultimately subjective. Someone would have to decide in whose best interests a move has been made, and how can you objectively determine that?

The issue is not going away.  It is high on the agenda of the children's commissioner, Anne Longfield, who is set to publish school-level figures showing the numbers of pupils who are leaving schools to be home-educated.

This may again point to the scale of the issue and it will highlight certain providers as losing more pupils than most but can it identify wrongdoing?

At the moment it feels as if we are told that off-rolling is happening everywhere and nowhere.

To solve this there surely needs to be a tighter definition of what is acceptable on pupil movement and tighter regulation to ensure that bad practice can be identified and stopped.  



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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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