‘Unexplained exits’ stats have potential to be problematic, misleading and damaging

16 Oct 2019, 14:18

Ofqual's director for standards Cath Jadhav will move to Pearson to become the exam board's responsible officer

Last week, the Education Policy Institute published new research examining unexplained pupil exits from English schools.

While the EPI was very careful in the language used, it is clear from the media and social media that many people have seen the phrase “unexplained exits” as ultimately being the terminology to raise the debate about “off-rolling”.

Let’s be clear, like the vast majority of schools, trusts and local authorities, Consilium applauds any work that addresses practice where school exits are done in the best interest of the school, not the child. Such action has no place in a responsibly led education system – which is why our charter is explicit that off-rolling certainly has no place in a Consilium academy.

But for a topic that is of such importance, we have to ask if the headlines and debate that the report’s publication has created has actually been beneficial?

Critically, the report is clear that it is not possible to specifically identify which unexplained pupil exits constitute off-rolling, and which are legitimate moves to support pupils in accessing the best provision to meet their needs. This reflects the limitations noted in the report itself, most notably that it is impossible to identify “which cases of unexplained exit are more or less in the interest of the child by analysing administrative data, however sophisticated the analysis.”

Does such inconsistency empower the sector to challenge the small minority whose practice undermines the relentlessly inclusive approach of the majority?

This limitation surely, therefore, calls into question the usefulness of the section of the report that attempts to identify trends at a local level. Whilst the national trends raise some important questions, identifying trends at a local level (and particularly identifying trends within specific local authorities and academy trusts) has the potential to be both problematic, misleading and, potentially, damaging.

Of the ten authorities and trusts ranked as those where pupils are most likely to have an unexplained exit, of which we were surprised to find that Consilium was one, only five have data that span at least a full academic year, and only two span the full fourteen terms covered by the analysis.

The data for Consilium, for example, is collected over just one term and is suppressed as it relates to less than ten students. The report, however, extrapolates this data and compares it against organisations where the data has been collected over the full fourteen terms and relates to hundreds of unexplained exits.

It is difficult to see how this presents a meaningful comparison. Furthermore, does such inconsistency empower the sector to challenge the very small minority of organisations whose practice undermines the relentlessly inclusive approach of the majority?

In fact, going a step further, is trying to draw yet another set of league tables actually beneficial for the nation’s students at all?

Let’s take an example. The data surrounding unexplained exits does not include students who have been permanently excluded (on the basis that these exits are “explained”).

So, put yourself in the shoes of a head in a smaller trust. You have a choice of supporting a child with a managed move to a school within your trust to keep them in education, which would be classed as “unexplained”, or them facing an “explained” permanent exclusion. Given that press focus has largely been on the league tables, it could be argued that this report would actually encourage you to consider the permanent exclusion option.

I think that one example proves a point. Ranking authorities and trusts based on unexplained moves has the real potential to penalise those taking a genuinely inclusive approach of ensuring every child has access to the best provision to meet their needs.

The need for a table has taken the focus away from the very valid conclusions that should be at the forefront of the debate. We are not talking about the fact that levels of mobility nationally are a cause for concern, and are disproportionately high for disadvantaged pupils, pupils with identified mental health needs and pupils with identified special educational needs.

We must continue to ensure that the system encourages schools, trusts and authorities to work collectively, in the best interests of all our children, and report writers need to be conscious of that!


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  1. Alan McFadden

    Whilst I understand the argument from the perspective of a named (and shamed?) organisation, that a Chief Executive should be focussing on this issue to “protect the brand” tell us where this whole approach to education has taken us? Too often the right kind of publicity is sought if there is commercial advantage. Competition between MATs is the problem, not which specific MATs are indulging in these indefensible practices……

  2. A Brown

    Report writers do not need to be conscious that “We must continue to ensure that the system encourages schools, trusts and authorities to work collectively, in the best interests of all our children.”

    That is the job of the schools, trusts, authorities, and overwhelmingly, the government who has created the perverse incentives to exclude and offroll and this comment has an edge to it of ‘blame the messenger and then we’ll all go on as before.’

    The sad truth is that schools have been ‘managing out’ unwanted pupils for a long, long time and no one has acted to stop them, or the local authorities who often benefit from reduced costs when the unwanted move into home education.

    It needs to be dragged out into the open, and schools, colleges and academies need to be judged on the number of unexplained exits exactly as they are currently judged on their exam results, OFSTED reports and Progress 8 scores. In fact, I would go further and publish the number of times that each school or college has refused to admit children with EHCP’s because they are unable to meet their needs.