children's commissioner

Dame Rachel de Souza has claimed her experience of “putting right” issues with off-rolling, exclusions and SEND support in her academy trust make her a good candidate to be the next children’s commissioner.

de Souza, who is the government’s preferred candidate for the role, was questioned by the education committee this morning about what chair Robert Halfon described as a “pattern of excluding children with SEN, of off-rolling” at the Inspiration Trust, where she is currently CEO.

Last year, the trust was rapped by Ofsted for its “flimsy” response to rises in home education at East Point Academy in Suffolk, following an inspection prompted by concerns over potential off-rolling. Inspectors also found that pupils attending alternative provision were “sometimes removed from the school roll” in year 11.

The chain was also criticised by the watchdog for a “high” frequency of fixed-term exclusions at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy.

This morning, de Souza denied exclusions and off-rolling were a “deliberate part” of her strategy for turning around schools, and claimed she would be able to reconcile her track record on exclusions with her ability to champion the rights of vulnerable children.

“The children’s commissioner must be absolutely unequivocally against off-rolling,” said de Souza. “They absolutely must be saying, no, we want to bring the number of exclusions down. We absolutely must be supporting SEND children properly.

“I’ve had to experience putting those things right and doing that very quickly,” she added.

de Souza also defended the trust’s handling of the problems at East Point.

“We did a full audit of all areas of inclusion externally, and that’s where we found that a very small number of students in East Point Academy that the school was supporting and working with in alternative provision, the school had been advised wrongly to put that very small number of children on the roll of the alternative provision.

“We found that, we had them taken off and put back onto the school roll, and the notes of the inspection show that,” she added.

de Souza also claimed there was “no way off-rolling could happen in our schools now”.

“There was that one small incident that we found. But, you know, I have been through those particular issues. What I can bring to this role is someone who’s experienced it.”

The trust boss was also quizzed about exclusions at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, and a fall of 83 per cent in the number of pupils on its SEN register in the year after Inspiration took over.

She claimed the register had been “reduced by the local authority and the interim executive board” that had oversight before Inspiration took the school on.

When asked why the year group that took GCSEs in 2019 at the school was 22 per cent smaller than the year before, de Souza said that when schools become academies “some parents choose to go elsewhere”.

de Souza said she challenged “absolutely” the charge that there had been a “pattern of excluding children with SEN, of off-rolling”, and said the exclusions picture had improved.

“Most of our schools were at that point below the national average [for exclusions], and now all of them are.

“I just have a worry that you’ve had great success but it’s also been about survival of the fittest,” said Halfon.