The thorny subject of ‘off-rolling’ which has been labelled by commentators as the most frequently referenced ethical concern of 2017-18.
Described by General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders(ASCL), Geoff Barton as ‘beyond repugnant’ (TES, 2017), off-rolling is the removal of pupils from the school roll via various, unofficial means.
Techniques such as putting parents and carers under extreme duress to home educate (also known as ‘B-coding’), to remove their child or face permanent exclusion, and the widespread use of temporary removal from school via managed moves are among the most common form of ‘ghosting’ a pupil so that they do not appear on-roll. Despite frequent reference to this practice in the media from 2016 onwards, facts and figures are, like the phenomenon itself hard to pin down. However, in her annual report launch speech of December 2017, Amanda Spielman referenced findings from education datalab as evidence that ‘a long overdue spotlight has been shed on the issue.’. Whilst acknowledging an explicit relationship between SEND pupils, unofficial exclusions and schools seeking to boost performance, Spielman branded the trend as ‘a more extreme and invidious example of where some schools have lost sight of the purpose of education, which should always be to give children the support that they deserve.’ (2017) and committed to ensuring inspectors interrogate and expose potential evidence of such gaming.
Though the frequency of this practice in Twitter feeds indicates its presence, one cannot help but wonder about the reality of patterns, direct links to pupil groups and other demographic indicators in the absence of explicit data. Is unofficial exclusion increasing with the expansion of Multi-Academy Trusts who can squirrel pupils away across their network of schools? Has the change in accountabilities, combined with ‘ramped-up’ GCSE specifications triggered off-rolling as a ‘necessary evil’ for Schools, faced with the complexity of outcomes and an increase in pupil numbers with Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) needs? Has this practice increased at all, or merely surfaced in our shared dialogue relating to social inclusion? Being the relentless, investigative sort, I sought to find out.
I initially presented surveys on Twitter to gain a sense of national coverage. Though response rates were too low to establish valid claims, they represented a mixture of maintained secondary schools and academies. HLTAs, teachers and other inclusion workers returned data indicating that 90% had experienced off-rolling, that the predominant reasons were linked to SEND and the school’s inability to provide an appropriate curriculum to meet their needs. I was delighted when three practitioners agreed to give up an hour during their Easter holidays to provide me with completely anonymous information via telephone interview. I asked for no names, locations or otherwise potentially identifying information during these dialogues, each of which were underlined by a sense of fear and strong emotion.
Case Study 1: ‘They move them round the MAT’. Female, SLT member, South East England
‘Helen’ readily disclosed that she witnesses ‘unofficial exclusion’ on a weekly basis within her school and across the wider Trust. ‘We have quite a lot of schools and they move them as soon as they become too much of an irritation in the system.’. When asked what she meant by ‘moved’, she indicated that cross-school transfers took place regularly which usually resulted in the student ending up in the school where they will do the’ least damage’ to Progress and Attainment 8. ‘By moving pupils from the roll for a time, they aren’t registered anywhere which has the added benefit of improving data.’. We talked about reasons for ‘off-rolling for some time and she identified behaviour, attainment and poor attendance as the key triggers, adding that ‘I know it isn’t right, but we have a school to lead, other pupils to manage and the constant pressure to improve. These are kids who have failed to respond to numerous interventions and whose parents have chosen not to support the school in our efforts to resolve issues.’. During the conversation, Helen expressed mixed feelings about the issue, indicating that she sometimes felt the school were ‘failing the pupils’ but that ‘other agencies can’t come up with the answers.’. To conclude, she told me that the pressure on schools to retain their Ofsted Outstanding status is driving them to make decisions they would otherwise never consider.
Case Study 2: ‘They can’t deal with them, so they go.’, Female, HLTA (SEND), North West England
‘Michelle’ has been employed at her school for twelve years and specialises in SEND and inclusion. ‘Our kids are from very mixed backgrounds and you would never see this kind of thing happening to middle class families because they fight it. It’s the poorer children with needs who are affected time and time again.’. When asked about the regularity of ‘off-rolling’ she confirmed that around six children per year mysteriously vanish from the school roll in addition to those formally and permanently excluded. ‘When parents are faced with fines and constant fixed term exclusions they tend to cave in and home educate. I’ve been sent out with work and to provide tuition in the early stages, but this always fizzles out. No-one asks any questions, which just seems unfair.’. We talked about trends and patterns and she readily confirmed that ‘It’s always the same. Pupils on the SEND register, especially those with ADHD or mental health issues will go first. We can help with dyslexia and ASD, but repeated bad behaviour only leads one way. The school PEX’d (Permanently Excluded) six pupils last term, so we can’t have any more on the books.’. Michelle spoke in detail about individual cases and claimed senior members of staff use ‘police-like tactics to manage behaviour. If I was screamed at and given only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as answers to questions, I think I’d cave in and take the wrap too. It’s aggressive and borderline abusive……The worst thing I’ve seen was a child being seated in front of the local authority website and told to fill in their own transfer form. It’s unbearable.’ Michelle concluded her interview by expressing her disappointment in education, telling me ‘I did my Masters in Special Education and intended to train to be a teacher. It’s the same everywhere and I really do think I’d be better getting out of mainstream.’
Case Study 3: ‘Quite simply, such practices are abhorrent’, Female, Headteacher, Primary School, North-East England
‘Liz’ has been headteacher of a large urban primary school for more than a decade, and I was pleasantly surprised to receive her offer of an interview. She stressed the importance of maintaining inclusion throughout a child’s education and that she felt disappointed to hear that so many of her former pupils end up going through a series of failed ‘managed moves’ before ending their education in alternative provision. ‘The shame of it is that we have fantastic transition arrangements with our secondaries and we are all happy with the passage of information and support for moving up. Our secondaries allocate time and resources to giving students the best start, which is why it is so disappointing to hear, through families that their children didn’t make it through their mainstream schooling.’ Liz illustrated frequent conversations about the pressure secondary colleagues experience which she said ‘affects their professional judgment.’ She did add that she is angry with a system that claims to measure standards while allowing schools to ‘gamble with life-chances.’ Although Liz did not share her perceptions on predominate pupil groups affected, she did mention that the complexity of secondary schooling is challenging for ‘needy families’ and that ‘covert exclusion’ adds to the strain. When I asked Liz if she had discussed any individual cases with secondary headteachers she responded ‘I’m not the person who should be holding them to account. This is a wider issue and someone needs to start challenging what we all know is bare-faced exclusion. Secondaries need support to meet needs and to contextualise the impact of individual needs on data.’ At the close of our conversation she made a point of referencing a local secondary school who ‘go to great lengths to meet the needs of their pupils. Their results take a dent, but they are relentless in providing for individual needs. I hope there is some way of recognising this, because their exclusion rates remain low despite the fact they take on unwanted pupils from their neighbours.’
Although rich in their illustrations, these snippets from practitioners cannot be used to generalise or inform any firm conclusions about the nature or prevalence of ‘off-rolling’. Practitioners appear reluctant to acknowledge off-rolling, perhaps because it does serve the purpose of increasing inclusion for students who work hard, conform and become safe bets on their progress flightpaths. It appears that some schools use the ‘vanished’ students for the purposes of behaviour demarcation and rule re-enforcement, by warning the rest of the cohort about what happens to persistent non-conformists. This leaves unresolved questions about the moral character of secondary schooling today, because some learners are confronted by a polarised fear system of attainment and exclusion. Those who do not benefit from their entitlement to an adequately enriching curriculum have no ‘soft place’ to hide from the sword of Damocles. By educating through police-style rule enforcement and a readiness to fling errants down the ‘off-rolling’ trap door, we are confirming the deepest fears of a generation of children and young people; that they are not good enough, that they don’t belong and that their needs simply do not matter.
We must remember that, as educators we bear a collective responsibility to fight relentlessly for the highest standards in educational inclusion. To bring an immediate end to off-rolling, we must make space in our schools for the difficult inter-professional conversations that must and should accompany the exit of any pupil from any school for any reason. As Geoff Barton (2018) emphasises, ‘At a time of too many stories of unethical practice, too much language linked to inappropriate conduct, this focus on ethical leadership has never mattered more – to us and to the young and often vulnerable young people for whom we are the educational guardians.’.
Barton, G. (2018). ‘Off-rolling is unethical, inappropriate and beyond repugnant – the consequences are devastating’. Times Educational Supplement
Spielman, A. (2017). Speech on the launch of Ofsted’s annual report. Gov.uk