Is the school system failing vulnerable children?

It would appear that it is, writes one researcher. But there are options open to the government that could improve outcomes

Cut out paper figures with one isolated from group

Talk of "off-rolling", particularly of vulnerable pupils including those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), has dominated headlines in the education policy debate in recent years, driven by a great deal of anecdotal evidence of some schools engaging in this practice.

In a report published today, the Education Policy Institute (EPI), where I work, provides the most robust estimate to date of pupil exits from schools which do not appear to be due to family reasons.

Our findings are significant. We find that as many as one in 10 children who completed their GCSEs in 2017 left a secondary school for unknown reasons – moves unrelated to a house move, migration, change in social care placement, or entering a special school.

The large majority of these children – a striking 75 per cent – have characteristics that put them at risk of poor academic and life outcomes. These include a special educational need or disability, coming from a poorer family, having low prior school attainment, being in contact with the social care system and coming from a black ethnic background.

Thousands of these children do not return to state-funded education. They might end up in home schooling, in unregistered provision or they might miss out on education entirely – we simply do not know.

While our analysis does not tell us whether schools are shedding vulnerable pupils due to the higher costs of supporting them or poorer performance in assessments, it does clearly indicate that the social and educational needs of thousands of pupils are not being met by the school they attend. We found similarly high numbers of exits among the year group of pupils finishing their GCSEs in 2014, signalling that this is a long-standing problem, ingrained in the English school system.

Among the groups we identified as being at the highest risk of an unexplained exit were children looked after by their local authority: as many as a quarter of these pupils fell out of school for unknown reasons during secondary school.

Stability in childhood is fundamental for wellbeing and healthy development. But many of the children we identified, particularly those in social care, will lack this – and leaving a school during their secondary education, in some cases more than once, adds a huge dose of instability to their lives.

An inclusive system is one which adapts to the different needs of individuals, rather than putting the onus to adapt on the individual themselves. Forty years ago, the Warnock Report on SEND concluded that the vast majority of children with additional needs could and should be educated in mainstream schools. The subsequent 1981 Education Act enshrined the policy of inclusion.

But how far have we really come? Just how inclusive is a system in which all groups of children with identified vulnerabilities are far more likely to be pushed out of school or education entirely?

What the government should do

It is clear from our findings that action needs to be taken to shed more light on these exits and protect the rights of these vulnerable children.  

Currently, there is a lack of oversight around local processes through which schools – rightly or wrongly – move children out of schools. With pressure mounting to control official exclusion rates, there is a risk that schools will simply rebrand official exclusions into managed moves, leaving these exits to become less regulated and less transparent. We need more far better data collection that tracks managed moves and moves into home schooling, to enable proper oversight of school inclusion.

Second, government policies and guidance must reflect how childhood vulnerabilities are linked, and what drives them – including squeezed child and adolescent mental health services, significant cuts to funding for local family support and early intervention services, and rising levels of mental health difficulties and poverty. It’s time that guidance for schools recognised that the causes of poor behaviour are complex, and can result from trauma, attachment issues, parental health problems and unsupported special educational needs.

Third, school performance measures and accountability should take the vulnerability level of schools’ pupils into account, reward inclusive practices and recognise positive child wellbeing and development. We must move beyond considering academic progress alone.

Finally, the imminent high-needs funding review should base a new funding allocation system around the goal of promoting inclusion and providing early support for children with SEND and those with other additional needs.

The EPI will continue to shine a light on this phenomenon, with further analysis on the processes through which pupils move around the system. As long as the fundamental causes of pupil instability are not dealt with, it is unlikely that this issue will vanish from the headlines anytime soon.

Whitney Crenna-Jennings is a senior researcher at the Education Policy Institute

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