Off-rolling casts students adrift

7th December 2018 at 00:00

Ofsted’s annual report revealed that nearly 10,000 pupils had disappeared from the school system as a result of illegal “off-rolling”. It’s an issue that has been widely discussed in the sector over the past year. Here, two behaviour experts give their take on the report and what should happen next.

‘We’ve been complicit in letting it get this bad’

Calling “off-rolling” informal exclusion is like describing a root canal treatment as a dental tissue massage. Let’s not beat around the bush here: off-rolling has been going on for ages in plain sight and no one has done a bloody thing about it.

Children with special educational needs and disabilities (again), vulnerable children, children eligible for free school meals and some minority ethnic groups are more likely to leave schools.

I refuse to believe that anyone in education is surprised by the details included the Ofsted report – and so we’ve been complicit in allowing it to get this bad.

I’ve reported flagrant cases in the past, which has made me unpopular with colleagues, and I will continue to do so when I see them. I know for sure that, in each case, nothing was done.

What has happened to us to lose our perspective so spectacularly? Ofsted says that off-rolling shows where school leaders have “lost sight of their core purpose and put the school’s interest ahead of the child’s”. The inspectorate is right.

Given that Ofsted has shone so much light on the situation this week, I hope and expect to see it place serious emphasis in its future inspections on satisfying itself that schools are not off-rolling. And I hope school leaders will be held accountable for their actions where evidence of this practice is proven.

I have three things to say to the watchdog. First, well done. For too long, I have felt that Ofsted wasn’t interested enough in off-rolling.

Second, what took you so long? Far too many vulnerable children have had their futures blighted by this shameful practice and it needs to be eliminated.

Third, what are you going to do about it? We know how schools respond to perceived or actual demands from Ofsted. This time, use that power for good. If schools know that you will be asking about changes to their numbers, they will need to be prepared with the answers.

Jarlath O’Brien works in special education in London


‘Don’t punish schools for trying their best’

It’s good to see Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman making robust comments on “off-rolling”. Until relatively recently, people barely even admitted that this problem existed, officially.

Off-rolling is a complete failure of the school’s most basic function as a public institution: to serve the community it belongs to. Hospitals don’t turn away patients because they’re too ill. They do their best, and deal with the situations they are presented with as best they can.

Exclusion should be a last resort, but we shouldn’t forget that it can often be the best thing for a student in the long term. I speak to many leaders of pupil referral units, and good alternative provision is exactly the specialist care many of these children need.

But off-rolling has nothing to do with this. It is a detestable dereliction of duty that views children as data points on a scatter graph, valuable only insofar as they serve the school’s figures. This corruption of education’s mission treats children as a means to an end and should rightly be driven from our system.

In our haste to do good, a note of caution: we must also do no harm. Not all children leaving the system are off-rolled. Many leave because schools have come to the end of a very long line and nothing more can be done. In these cases, they need alternative provision. I think there’s a tendency for some schools to hang on to students as long as possible. They mustn’t be punished for trying their best to do what they can.

Many pupil referral units say they wish they could get the most troubled children earlier, when they could have more of an impact on their habits and needs and beliefs.

We need to deter off-rolling without deterring deserved exclusions or genuinely elective home-schooling moves. That will be the dragon to slay before any others.

Tom Bennett was a teacher in the East End of London for 10 years. He is now the government’s behaviour tsar, and is the founder and director of ResearchED


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