Much of the education debate has been focused on allegations of off-rolling lately, defined by Ofsted as the removal of pupils from school rolls to benefit schools rather than pupils. Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee, calls it a ‘huge problem’ and Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman has asserted that it ‘absolutely could get worse.’
Whether a school removes a pupil for their own gain can only be determined by inspection. However, data can provide us with valuable insight into the scale of questionable movement around the system – and who is most likely to experience it.
The Education Policy Institute has, for the first time, examined exits from schools that are not accounted for by reasons related to pupils’ families. By stripping out moves driven by parental factors or choice – including house moves, moves to higher rated schools, or moves to special schools – we have isolated those that cannot be explained by the data.
What we have found is striking. Pupils finishing Year 11 in 2017 experienced over 55,000 of these unexplained exits during their time in secondary school, up from 49,000 among pupils finishing Year 11 in 2014 and 47,000 among those finishing in 2011. This means that one in 12 pupils out of the entire 2017 year group exited a school for unknown reasons.
Even more worrying, these moves are much more common among vulnerable pupils. A third of children in care, a quarter with social, emotional or mental health needs, and one in seven from disadvantaged backgrounds experienced at least one unexplained exit during secondary school. Our findings echo Ofsted’s conclusions that possible off-rolling is particularly prevalent among these groups.
The situation is clear: a disproportionate number of the most vulnerable children are experiencing at least one removal from a school between Years 7 and 11 – and the data do not tell us why.
What we do know is that these are children already at risk of poor outcomes. By the end of secondary school, children in contact with the social care system, pupils with SEND and disadvantaged pupils all achieve, on average, significantly lower grades than their peers.
We also know that vulnerability is compounding: the more early life adversity faced by a child, the more likely they are to experience poor lifelong outcomes, including worse mental and physical health and contact with the criminal justice system.
Moving around the school system means adding to the instability that already characterises many of their lives. Research by the Children’s Commissioner found that only a quarter of looked after children experienced no placement move, no school move and no social worker change within one year.
Our analysis shows that, although unexplained moves are increasing over time, they have always been concentrated among the most vulnerable. Schools are a source of stable support and community for many pupils, however this is less likely to be the case for those that need it most.
Current trends including school funding and accountability pressures may be playing a role in pupil moves around the system, and more research into what is driving these moves is required.
However, it is clear we also need to ask ourselves more fundamental questions about how we are – or aren’t – supporting our most vulnerable pupils.
Whitney Crenna-Jennings is a senior researcher at EPI