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“No child should be allowed to simply disappear” – Why it’s time to reckon with off-rolling

Karen McCaul examines the pressures that have led some schools to inappropriately ‘off-roll’ pupils and where those pressures stem from...

  • “No child should be allowed to simply disappear” – Why it’s time to reckon with off-rolling

The practice of ‘off-rolling’ students has spent some time in the spotlight, particularly over the last year. Removals of pupils from school rolls inappropriately still take place for a number of reasons, though the process of ‘off-rolling’ students can actually be the correct course of action in certain instances – such as when pupils have been transferred or moved to another appropriate education provider.

We’ve seen intense debates over how to ensure children are able to access education that’s appropriate to them and how to improve outcomes, alongside the publication of numerous reports and frameworks exploring how these goals can be achieved. Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, has announced that the regulator intends to find out more about behaviour management.

When we get down to it, however, the reality for many schools is that they have to manage their budgets whilst at the same time being judged on their number of exclusions, pupil attendance data and academic outcomes. If this is the method by which success is determined, then why wouldn’t a school want to appear as continually improving in all those areas?

The practice of off-rolling students has the potential to dramatically shape the data upon which a school will be judged. The key question to ask, therefore, is whether in some instances, the incentive to off-roll a particular student might be inappropriate.

Total cohesion

Our schools contain wonderfully diverse, changing and transient populations that require accommodating many different individual and cultural differences. However, by their very nature these cohorts can make it difficult to track individual students’ movements, ensure that they’re receiving appropriate education and that appropriate safeguarding has been put in place.

Communications between families, LAs and the various organisations responsible for children’s education and health can be highly inconsistent and bureaucratic. Rather than a system that’s unified, collaborative and responsive to children’s needs, we have one that makes it possible for children to become lost and fall through the cracks, be it by intention or by default.

The practices of every LA and governing body will vary to a degree, but no child should be allowed to simply disappear – there must be total cohesion at a local and national level. The off-rolling of students without due care directly threatens this, and can have a dramatic impact on an individual’s life.

Across many years of experience I’ve seen practices that can at best be described as questionable, and at worst, illegal and unsafe. In an age where parents have more choice as to how they’d like to see their children educated, should we not be addressing the issue of how we can support schools’ diversity more effectively, rather than simply ensuring that children’s education complies with a single, established system?

Granted, children who may need directed and specialist support can be costly, but the priority must surely be to ensure they’re able to access the education that’s appropriate for them – not what we can afford. Schools are under immense pressure with respect to funding, resource shortages and the need to meet targets.

It takes a strong headteacher and a financially savvy business manager working in partnership to ensure that additional funding streams are accessed and utilised appropriately for those students who need them, rather than looking at how much one individual has impacted on the school’s budget and deciding where the line should be drawn.

Due process

Unfortunately, one of the situations where pupils can be off-rolled inappropriately is in the context of permanent exclusions. I’ve seen for myself occasions where due process hasn’t been followed and students have been removed from roll on the first day of their permanent exclusion. The school can tell itself that it has no further responsibility, while saving money and avoiding any impact on their attendance figures and academic results in the process. Yet these processes must be correctly adhered to, with the school shouldering responsibility for exploring all possible options until a case is fully concluded.

I’ve previously heard it said that a school has ‘Spent enough on a student,’ that they can’t afford further costs for additional behaviour support and that the relevant pupil therefore needs to be excluded in order to free up resources. Is this really the best way to support our young people? Bear in mind that these are just the stories we know about – of those removed from their school’s roll without due process, we know nothing at all.

One practice seen in previous years, thankfully less common now, was the drafting by schools of letters for parents to sign, stating the parents’ intention to withdraw the pupil and educate them at home, as an alternative to a permanent exclusion. This would result in pupils being removed from school rolls immediately, and was a practice that became particularly prevalent just prior to exam periods.

Another method would involve students absent from school for unspecified reasons. Some schools, conceivably operating within local guidelines, would opt to immediately remove a pupil from their roll and, in the majority of cases, refer them to the LA as Children Missing Education (CMEs). In the minority of cases, I wonder if the communications and information sharing between some establishments and their LAs were as efficient as they could have been, given that the upshot would be for some young people to remain unaccounted for.

Community involvement

Happily, I’ve worked also with many schools who will utilise knowledge of their culturally diverse populations to ensure they’re aware of where all students are at all times. There are numerous schools that follow excellent practice when it comes to arranging home visits at different times, communicating consistently via letters and emails and regularly updating the contact information they keep on file.

These schools will liaise effectively with other schools and external agencies regarding housing, police and social care matters, and attempt to gather as much information as possible before referring pupils as a CME. This good practice and due diligence can sometimes cause problems of its own, however – schools which don’t amend their roll until they’re fully satisfied that a pupil has been located or the correct agency has been notified can’t be faulted in terms of their safeguarding, but can end up being penalised for carrying unauthorised absences.

If that applies to you, try keeping an up-to-date record of why a pupil has remained on roll, how this has affected your attendance figures and how pupils with additional needs (even if these have yet to be officially identified) have affected your results. These can’t always be reflected in your data, but you’ll at least have the story behind the figures to discuss with Ofsted and present to stakeholders.

Your school may not academically be at the top of the tables, but your safeguarding and practices with respect to inclusion, diversity, individual respect and community involvement will be second to none. I’d suggest that these are the schools that should be rated as Outstanding by their community.

We’re currently moving in the right direction in terms of how we should address pupils’ individual needs and fund resources, but until schools’ exchange of information with families and external agencies is consistent, fluid and efficient, there will still be pupils left vulnerable by inappropriate off-rolling. Schools pursuing any poor practices need to be held to account for them.

Karen McCaul is Team Leader, Education Welfare and Safeguarding at One Education, having worked in the education sector for over 30 years.

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