Too many children are disappearing from school rolls

18 Apr 2019, 8:59

There are only limited signs of covid encouraging headteachers to leave their jobs.

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.

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  1. Anne Brown

    A good article, with one small niggle. A child who moves to home education is not ‘lost.’ The LA knows where they are because the school will have told them, and has powers to intervene if an education does not appear to be being provided. I do not think that there should be a presumption that they’ve lost out on education unless you first address the likelihood that they’d already lost out on education because parents don’t tend to remove kids whose education is going well and schools tend to want to keep the ones who are doing well.

    Finally, and speaking as a home educator, this isn’t fair. If between 6 and 10% of schools are potentially offrolling (and it should be innocent till proven guilty) then between 94 and 90% of schools aren’t. That’s why so many teachers find it hard to accept that it’s happening and, I suspect, why it does get a toe-hold.

    School A (possibly with a poor OFSTED and under pressure to improve rapidly and with a new head) decides to take a short-cut rather than go through the exclusion system which can leave them funding expensive alternative provision, justifying it to themselves as being in the wider interest, which, of course, it is. Schools B, C & D are then asked to take on the pupils. If they do that then their academic results drop, putting them at risk of a poor OFSTED, so they come up with reasons why they can’t accept children, then just remove the odd one or two of the existing pupils, for the sake of the others. Then the next year it becomes 3 or 4, and so on. The LA knows it’s happening but there’s nothing they can do…

    How to stop it?
    Proper funding for SEN is a good beginning, especially if it’s ring-fenced and accountable. If we can have a system where PIP is banded (note I’m not saying it’s a good system) then children could be centrally assessed and allocated a budget that goes with them and covers all their extra costs.

    If schools had to provide an annual list of students who’d left their rolls and contact details for parents then you could dip-sample parents where there are unusual trends and deploy OFSTED. Schools would then have a fair chance to explain why they think the students left but be aware that they would have to justify their decisions to someone.

    Finally, there needs to be some decent provision for those who aren’t engaged with the current system and never will be. Something that focuses on practical skills and is a place you want to go to not a dumping ground because you’ve been declared hopeless.

    That way, the 90-94% of SLT’s who do a great job could hold their heads high and the rest could be removed from the profession they’re disgracing.