There has been a “sharp rise” in the number of pupils leaving mainstream secondary schools in England before taking their GCSEs, a new analysis reveals.
Researcher Philip Nye found that 10 per cent more children left mainstream secondary schools in England before the end of Year 11 in 2017 than in each of the previous three years.
The number stood at 20,000 in 2016, 2015 and 2014, but last year jumped to 22,000 - a "sharp increase", according to a blogpost outlining the analysis.
And while some of these pupils may have emigrated or moved to independent schools, as many as 7,700 Year 11 students are estimated to have left education entirely before taking their exams last year.
The blogpost states: “We remain concerned that in some cases pupils will have been off-rolled – encouraged off the roll of a mainstream school in an informal exclusion in which the school’s best interests have trumped the pupil’s.”
The researchers add that it is not possible to say from this data alone how many children have been "off-rolled" or whether the increase is due to a rise in "off-rolling" or to other factors such as emigration. But they say: "On the face of it, this is a concerning increase."
'Extremely worrying findings'
Last year, Education Datalab calculated that 125 schools would have seen GCSE pass rates drop by at least five percentage points, if early leavers’ results had been included.
This year, the researchers have not revealed individual school results, but have looked at the impact on the Progress 8 scores of multi-academy trusts. The impact ranged from adding 0.22 to a Progress 8 score, to reducing it by -0.23.
The latest data shows that around 553,000 pupils reached the end of secondary education in 2017.
By tracking pupils from Year 7 onwards, Nye found that the vast majority – 516,000 – were still in secondary school in Year 11.
A further 3,795 had left for a university technical college or studio school, 2,435 were in special schools and 8,700 pupils had moved into alternative provision.
That left 22,000 who were not in the state sector. Of these pupils, just under 7,000 left state school rolls but show up in other school data: these included pupils at independent schools or FE colleges.
But around 15,400 pupils were not recorded as having taken any GCSEs or equivalent qualifications, or had been linked to any type of school or college.
Many of these pupils will have left England, and a small number will have died.
However, the researchers estimate that between 6,200 and 7,700 pupils remain in the country – but do not appear in the data for any school at the end of Year 11.
The government said in 2015 that it would change school league tables to make schools accountable for those pupils sent to alternative provision or excluded, but action has yet to be taken.
The Datalab researchers say that this proposal would not only fail to capture pupils who were off-rolled but could increase the incentive to off-roll.
Instead they researchers say weighting league tables to take into account the amount of time a child had spent at each establishment could incentivise schools to be more inclusive.
This would mean that any pupil who had spent time on-roll at a school would count towards its results, but a child who had been there for longer would count more.
“This group of pupils who leave the rolls of mainstream schools and yet do not take GCSEs or count in school league tables concern us greatly,” Nye said.
“We would question whether the Department for Education can be satisfied that all of these pupils are receiving a suitable education. Despite building a detailed picture of movements on and off school rolls, there are a number of things we are still unable to say about this group.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “These are extremely worrying findings and we need to know more about the reasons why these young people have apparently not completed their schooling or taken exams.
"There are likely to be factors at work which extend beyond the school gates. However, we are aware of anecdotal reports that a small number of schools may be ‘off-rolling’ pupils – a practice which is utterly condemned by the vast majority of school leaders.
"We think ‘off-rolling’ is rare but any incidents at all are a cause of great concern and must stop. These are exactly the young people who most need support to improve their life chances.”
The DfE has been contacted for comment.