New government survey shows 66% of teachers are aware of ‘off-rolling’ and 21% saw it happen at their own school


Off-rolling. It’s a practice where schools and academies try to boost their academic statistics by forcing out children who they think are unlikely to do well, or who they would rather not teach for any other reason. By off-rolling the weaker or more difficult pupils not only can schools eliminate those likely to pull their exam result averages down, but it also means they can concentrate their efforts on those with the potential to pull their averages up. Fewer difficult and struggling students means better performance in the league tables. It is very common. It is also unlawful.

Ofsted’s annual teacher survey released last week deals in large part with teacher attitudes towards Ofsted. It reveals an ambivalent relationship – 54% of the 1,002 teachers surveyed thought that an inspection will mean ‘a huge amount of unnecessary extra work’; and 83% thought that the inspection process ‘introduces unacceptable levels of burden into the system’ (down by only 3% from last year).

But the survey also uncovers how Ofsted inspections might add to the pressure to off-roll. Worryingly, 37% agreed or strongly agreed that ‘providing schools with half a day’s notice leads to perverse actions, such as children being temporarily excluded, in the pursuit of better Ofsted results’.

When asked about off-rolling directly, 45% had heard of it happening, 10% witnessed it in a previous post, and 11% had seen it happen in their own school. Only 32% had no experience of off-rolling at all.

Last year’s teacher survey is silent on the issue, so it’s hard to know looking at it in isolation if off-rolling on the rise, or if increased attention reflects that it’s only now being taken seriously.

Earlier in June this year Ofsted analysis of school census data showed that more than 19,000 children who were in year 10 in 2016 had disappeared from the school roll by year 11, which is when pupils sit their GCSEs. The analysis highlighted 300 schools with the highest levels of off-rolling. Although majority of the 19,000 reappeared on roll at other schools, around half did not. The concern is that they have fallen out of education altogether. Around a third of pupils who leave between year 10 and year 11 have special educational needs (SEN). London appears to be disproportionately affected.

Who has left? That’s the question Datalab have also been asking in their investigation into the children disappearing from school registers. By their calculations, the number of children who leave mainstream state schools at some point between year 7 and year 11 and who are not recorded in state education again is increasing. For the 2017 cohort it was 22,000. Compared with a steady figure of around 20,000 in 2014, 2015, and 2016, the news is of some concern.

15,390 of this missing 2017 cohort were either not recorded as having taken any GCSE (or equivalent) qualifications (or if they did their qualifications were not counted towards an education establishment).

Results day

Our experience as specialist practitioners in education law shows that children can be (and are) unlawfully excluded throughout their school careers, although there are two key moments when off-rolling occurs: in the transition between year 10 and 11, and again between year 12 and 13.

This year’s A Level results day spawned plenty of good news – students were awarded the highest proportion of A and A*s since 2012. GCSE results are due out on 23 August this year.

But amidst the clamour of A-Level and GCSEs results day there are the more silent statistics. Some schools appear to use (often internal) exams taken at the end of year 10 and year 12 as a tool to squeeze out the pupils that may bring their results down.

How do I know if the school is trying to off-roll my child?

All exclusions must be lawful. The Department for Education has made clear that schools cannot make ‘unofficial’ exclusions. As off-rolling describes a practice that excludes children unlawfully, it by definition is not lawful.

But one of the reasons that the phenomenon is so hard to track is because it does not always take an obvious form.

Refusing to allow children to progress to the next year of their course is now widely recognised as a form of unlawful exclusion. We fought and settled the leading such case last year. Our clients were allowed to continue into year 13 as normal. The Department for Education even issued a statement reiterating the guidance against unofficial exclusions.

We have also known schools to pressure children to move elsewhere by refusing to allow them to continue with their chosen subjects or types of qualifications. Either the pupil must drop the subject she has performed worst in or else swap her GCSEs/A Levels for BTECs, or she must go elsewhere. For pupils with sights set on courses at university which have strict subject requirements this is of particular concern.

The same goes for ‘exclusions’ on the basis of attendance, as well as heavy handed pressure put on parents to ‘withdraw’ their children from school under threat of exclusion, and ‘choices’ to ‘repeat a year or leave’ in circumstances where they know that the child would be unlikely to agree to repeat.

The situation in respect of Academies off-rolling is so bad in some areas that we have even seen local authorities employ dedicated officers to try to deal with the problem.

What can be done?

Having highlighted the 300 schools with the highest off-rolling rates, Ofsted report that there will be a greater focus on the issue when it comes to inspect schools and academies. That is to be welcomed.

Another way of discouraging the practice has also been suggested — that league tables take into account all children who have attended the school, weighted in accordance with how long the child actually attended.

In the meantime, legal advice for individual pupils can be crucial. Off-rolling is unlawful. Further, the ways in which children’s names can be removed from a school’s roll are prescribed in law under the Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006. Anything not in compliance with that will not be lawful.

Unlawful exclusions can also be accompanied by a lack of regard to schools’ duties under equality legislation, failing to take into account pupils’ SEN or mental health difficulties. Advice at an early stage is often very important, as many schools know what they are doing is unlawful and back down when challenged.

If your child is threatened with exclusion or being off-rolled, and you would like assistance please contact Simpson Millar on 0808 129 3320.

Amy Ooi is a paralegal in Simpson Millar’s public law department, and regularly assists the firm’s partners in cases where schools attempt to force children out unlawfully.

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