There are still too many unexplained exits from schools, at a level that cannot be in the best interests of either schools or pupils, says Jo Hutchinson

Children are being pushed around the school system in England on an industrial scale. The number of anecdotal reports of off-rolling has become deafening, and today EPI has released the most nuanced research to date to shed light on this.

We have uncovered 55,000 unexplained school exits within a single year group; this represents one in twelve children from the age group expected to sit its GCSEs in summer 2017. On average, that is two in every class of thirty.

What we mean by unexplained exits is those which do not appear to have a reason based in decisions made freely by families. Those which are not due to a change of home address or a move to a higher-rated school, and not linked to employment or migration decisions taken by families.

After we have excluded these family-driven moves, and also removed official exclusions and regular school transitions, the remainder of unexplained exits are not evenly spread. Just six per cent of schools account for nearly a quarter these moves, and vulnerable children are at heightened risk.

Aside from the human costs of all these irregular school transitions, there are big implications for the school system of such large volumes of mobility. A giant admissions puzzle is required to fit so many children back into another school or into alternative provision, and some children are being lost into unregulated education, including home education, either temporarily or permanently.

School funding is based on lagged information about how many children are in each school and what the needs of those children are. More than half of the unexplained exits (35,000) occurred in the middle of the school year, often involving children with additional needs for whom schools receive additional funding.

The performance tables provide information for parents about GCSE results in each school, but these do not include the results of children who have left the school, even when the school instigated that exit.

There is a clear relationship between low attainment and unexplained exit

This creates an incentive to remove children whose attainment is expected to be low, and there is a clear relationship between low attainment and a greater risk of unexplained exit in the data we have analysed. We do not know if one caused the other, but how helpful is it for parents to know the results only for a subset of children the school chose to carry forward to GCSEs?

Returning to the human costs of so many exits from school, we have not counted moves to a special school as ‘unexplained’ because it is likely that these are supported by the parents of the children concerned and motivated by the best interests of the child. However, children with special educational needs and disabilities, particularly those with social, emotional and mental health needs, are still at heightened risk of moves between mainstream schools, into alternative provision or out of state education. Too often these children are not successfully integrated and included in school.

Although the number of unexplained exits has risen, the phenomenon is not new; the earliest age group we could track were those children who sat their GCSEs in 2011, and 47,000 unexplained exits were found for this group.

As well as children with SEND, children with school absences for health reasons and children who are looked after by the local authority were at substantially raised risk of unexplained moves.

These children who are already vulnerable in terms of their physical health, mental health and educational prospects are facing additional obstacles in accessing education at the most basic level, and are missing out on the stability of belonging in a school community.

Some degree of school mobility is inevitable, but the level we are seeing cannot be in the best interests of either schools or pupils.